“To talk about painting is not only difficult but perhaps pointless,” the young Gerhard Richter says in a 1966 clip inserted into this film about the old Gerhard Richter. “You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing…. Painting has nothing to do with that. That includes the typical question, ‘What were you thinking?’ You can’t think of anything when you’re painting. Painting is another form of thinking.
At 80, Richter is as prodigiously active as ever and much more prodigiously successful—the world’s priciest, most popular living artist, the financial papers delight in reporting. And much more elusive. Other marquee artists’ work may be reducible to description; think of gimmick-masters like Jeff Koontz and Damien Hirst. Richter’s defiantly is not. Striving to avoid gimmicks, he has leapfrogged back and forth between styles with head-spinning speed, from photorealism (in many flavors) to stark, distorted portraits to softly toned, starkly composed small paintings of skulls and guttering candles, to abstractions that are by turns riotous with color and gesture and devoid of both. Richter overturns all the conventional advice to young artists about forging and sticking to a signature style; all that style-shifting hasn’t hurt him in the marketplace, nor it seems in his soul.
There are many movies about painters, but only rarely or in passing to they show the painting itself, kitchy TV how-to-paint shows aside. Corinna Belz’s Gerhard Richter Painting, showing today (March 23] through next Thursday at the Northwest Film Forum, does. Belz and crew peer over Richter's shoulder as he labors, muses, and, behind his perpetual half-smile, agonizes over several pairs of large abstract canvases. It’s a strangely suspenseful, heartbreaking process as Richter, who unlike so many other million-dollar artists still paints his own paintings, and sometimes even cleans his own brushes, lays out a splendid, brightly colored, exuberantly gestural composition. He then smears it nearly beyond recognition with enormous plastic squeegees, till it seems a pulsating jelly-like field of energy. Stop! you want to cry, don’t ruin it. But he proceeds ruthlessly, though not entirely remorselessly. Look back on his work of earlier decades, catalogued here (the film merely samples it) and you’ll see why he won’t leave well enough alone: He did all that before, and he’s determined not to repeat himself. He’s building a new style by literally wiping out an old one.
Michelangelo famously extolled stone sculpture as “taking away,” cutting through to a sort of essence, whereas painting is mere “building up.” In the paintings of his late years, Richter turns that contrast on its head; he paints by taking away. It’s tempting to imagine this as a sort of valedictory, preparing-for-the-end project: He’s rehearsing his own disappearance.
Belz, to her credit, does not push this question. Nor does she impose any conventional interviewing or narration. Her fly-on-the-wall approach lets the art and the artist speak for themselves, revealing the process and evoking the passion of painting better than any other film I can recall.
If you go: Gerhard Richter Painting, a film by Corinna Belz, screens March 23-29 at 7 and 9pm at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., between Pike and Pine Streets. Henry Art Museum curator Sara Krajewski will introduce the 7pm show on Friday, March 23. Marek Wieczorek, associate professor of modern art history at the University of Washington, will introduce the 7pm show on Wednesday, March 28.