Sunday, December 16, 2012

Richter Scale

by Drew Martin
A couple months ago Gerhard Richter's Abstraktes Bild set an auction record price for a painting by a living artist: $34,000,000. Yesterday I watched a film about this 80-year-old image maker, Gerhard Richter Painting, which documents him working on a series of paintings through the spring and summer of 2009. It shows Richter as a considerate but simple man with a few tricks, often standing in front of a work in progress, trying to decide what to do next.

Of all the media, painting is the hardest for me to engage in because I often feel like I am just pushing paint around on a flat surface. Richter's method is all about pushing globs of paint around with long strips of polyurethane until multiple layers of colors yield a rich, prismatic palimpsest.

There is some irony in this because, as we learn in the film, Richter had an early but short-lived apprenticeship in a printing shop. He does not express fond memories of the job - "it was noisy and it stank" and he scoffs at the men working the machines. The method in which we see him work, however, with a squeegee-like application of paint seems to have its origins in commercial printing; inking plates and screens.

Although his approach is more methodical and laboring than Jackson Pollock's action-painting, there is something in the process and result that I found similar. Perhaps it is the totality of a series of happy accidents and something beyond the control of the artist, which is bigger than the artist.

Corinna Belz, who directed the film, stands off camera and pokes questions at the artist. There are nice, long shots of Richter in his gorgeous studio, working on his oversized paintings. In one moment he makes an addition to a painting he that is not happy with and tells Belz that he cannot paint under observation...that it is worse than being in the hospital and he feels exposed. He says painting is a secret business for the type of person who would not speak up in public and adds a comment by Theodor Adorno, that paintings are mortal enemies.

What I liked most about this film was simply watching an artist in his space. In one scene, Richter has a long surface on which he lays out childhood photos. He is trying to find some sort of order to them after having kept them in boxes his whole life. He remarks to Belz that he is thinking about throwing them away. It is an interesting scene because in archival footage from the beginning of his career, which is shown earlier in this documentary, Richter explains that his gray paintings started from his fondness of the gray in photographs. So while this man is looking at his past and the content within the frames, the viewer can look at them abstractly, as compositions of gray.

Click here to see the trailer for Gerhard Richter Painting.