There's a near absolute adherence to truth in advertising embedded in the title of Corrina Belz' new documentary, Gerhard Richter Painting. It's a film almost entirely based in the observation of craft. Belz' camera watches quietly and without emotion as the German master works his way through multiple applications and reapplications of color and texture, smeared and scraped across several massive canvases. Those who work and live around the artist: his wife, gallerist and the odd friend or two from the past, appear briefly, temporarily interrupting his efforts, but the focus here is on Richter's communion with the works in progress as he dramatically morphs them over and over again, searching for an image that is neither preconceived nor, as he puts it, entirely unplanned.
At first, the filmmaking feels dispassionate, distant and without clear focus, soliciting a nervous discomfort when engaging with it. But after a short while, it becomes clear that the approach mirrors Richter's own process, gaining clarity as it progresses. As an interviewer, Belz pushes the painter to express that which he guards closely, moving into exchanges that feel psychoanalytical at times. And the film excels in those moments when Richter loses his composure, like when he expresses doubt in the choices he's made on a particular canvas or while visiting the past through the display of old family photos. Also quite revealing is the sight of the painter standing amongst his fans at the opening of a gallery retrospective of his portraiture; he bears the look of an animal searching for an escape from danger.
Richter's most at home in his studio, battling it out with the abstractions that he produces. It's a tense thing to watch as Belz focuses the audience's attention on the painter's process of discovery. Often times, we glimpse the appearance of forward momentum in a piece, only to watch helplessly as Richter smears another layer over the image with one of his large squeegees. Yet, one has to allow Richter to be Richter in the end; after all, it's his struggle that is being fought here, not ours.
Gerhard Richter Painting plays at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the Portland Art Museum) on Fri., April 6th at 7pm and Sat., April 7th at 4:30pm and 7pm.
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