Gerhard Richter has had a career as both an abstract painter and a creator of realistic portraits, in between going all nihilist with his series of flat grey paintings and then sensationalist with his grubby, ill renderings of photos of the Baader-Meinhoff gang.
He’s been called great, and he’s been called rude words. In Corinna Belz’s inquisitive documentary, “Gerhard Richter Painting,” she circles around the question of the man behind the name as he prepares for several retrospectives and new openings — and, yes, also as he paints.
The man knows how to use a plexiglass squeegee. After getting down some basic brush work on large canvases — the ones we see are a mash of primary colors — Mr. Richter gets out long squeegees the same length of the painting, coats them with more paint, and drags them across the canvas. There’s an element of chance to all this: the colors bleed together, the uneven pressure creates holes in the layer. Richter proceeds until the technique disappears into the layers.
The question for most abstract painters is this: how do you know when you’re done?
“Each step forward is more difficult and I feel less and less free,” Mr. Richter says. “Until I conclude there’s nothing left to do. When, according to my standard, nothing is wrong anymore, then I stop.”
In his late 70s during the filming, Mr. Richter is a shy figure. Unlike Picasso, who was self-assured when Henri-Georges Clouzot filmed him working in 1956, Mr. Richter doesn’t like the camera “watching him.” It is as bad as being in the hospital, vulnerable and exposed, he says.
At first, it feels like Ms. Belz’s film will be restricted to Mr. Richter’s huge studio where he and his assistants work. But instead, the film detours — how much squeegee work can one take in, really? — over to various museums as we see Mr. Richter prepping for his show. In Museum Ludwig in K?ln, he insists the grid diffusion be taken off the fluorescent lighting in the ceiling. He wants a cold atmosphere for the show, he says, “so that people are happy to get out.”
That might make Mr. Richter sound like an old misery guts, but he’s not. He’s very serious about his art and expects others to be. But he also strikes a handsome figure and often smiles and laughs through the film. (Perhaps it’s nervous discomfort.)
Ms. Belz’s film hides things from us, probably due to time. We only learn much later that he has a wife, and a toddler who waddles around in a yellow jumpsuit the same color as Mr. Richter’s painting. Although we follow Mr. Richter to the National Portrait Gallery for a retrospective of his photorealist work, we learn very little of this completely different technique. The two styles really have little in common, all the way down to the color schemes and brush work. Yet, they are so odd we want to learn more.
And how does his focus on faces tie into his collection of photos we see him worrying over? These snapshots from his youth tell some kind of story, but Mr. Richter is rarely forthcoming. It’s only when he talks about how he left his parents in East Germany in the ’60s, never to see them again, do we get some sense of a major trauma. But Mr. Richter quickly closes that door. He remains a mystery.
‘Gerhard Richter Painting’
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Length: 97 minutes
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pollock Theater, UCSB
Information: 893-3535, www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu