Culture

Richter’s destructive creation

BEIRUT: In the early minutes of her documentary “Gerhard Richter Painting,” Corinna Belz is preoccupied with filming her subject as he tries to mount a video camera on a tripod.

After watching the artist’s bemused fumbling for a spell, the perspective shifts to Richter’s camera as he focuses it on a canvas – one of a pair of his “Grey Paintings,” which he revisits over the course of the film as Belz looks on.

Stepping into the frame, the artist pulls a Plexiglas squeegee across his work’s surface. The horizontal streaks of color that trail across the canvas in its wake transform its monochrome face into something allusive – as though the layers of grey concealed a figure beneath.

Belz later asks one of Richter’s assistants whether these two paintings will remain as they are.

“Presumably,” the assistant smirks knowingly. “They look finished.”

In the next scene Richter walks into the atelier and fiddles invisibly with one of the grey surfaces with a small paintbrush. The filmmaker remarks that these canvasses have undergone a lot of changes.

“Yes, it’s true,” he replies, somber. “They do what they want. I’d intended to do something completely different, something very colorful.”

Unlike some other professionals – hedge fund managers, say, or politicians – money-making isn’t essential to an artist’s CV. The market fetishizes some artists over others anyway and Gerhard Richter, 84, is among the world’s highest-earning living artists.

At a February 2015, Sotheby’s sale, his 1986 oil “Abstraktes Bild” (Abstract illustration) sold for over $46 million. The commercial worth of Richter’s work is surpassed only by that of Jeff Koons, whose “Balloon Dog [Orange],” 1994-2000, sold for $58.4 million in 2013.

When “Abstraktes Bild” accrued its $46 million price tag, it foregrounded the artist’s commercial worth over his artistry. Released in 2011 – a couple of years before Sotheby’s sealed his commodity status – Belz’s film is focused on Richter’s practice. As such, it frames the impenetrable process of creation within an all-too-human figure.

Privileging art is what the Beirut Art Film Festival is all about. BAFF, which projected “Gerhard Richter Painting” Tuesday evening, is less a platform for new film than an aggregator of docs about the visual and performing arts.

Now in its second season, BAFF intends to follow its screenings at Metropolis cinema with a series of projections elsewhere in Beirut and at venues around the country.

Over his career Richter has been a stylistically mutable artist – migrating from Socialist Realism to “Capitalist Realism,” as he termed it, from photo-realism to photography to abstraction.

“Gerhard Richter Painting” documents the artist’s work with abstraction in 2008-9 and the exhibitions staged during these years. She chats with the artist about his practice and his feelings about his past work, listens in on conversations that suggest his thoughts on “ethics” and “aesthetics,” “truth” and skepticism and quizzes his assistants and the gallerists who have supported his work.

Belz also mines the documentary archive for portraits of Richter from the ’60s and ’70s, seeking hints about the creative continuities unifying his stylistic diversity.

Prominent among those continuities is the obsessive-compulsive. Belz hints at Richter’s need to be in charge by having him frame the film’s opening footage, but it pervades the film. It’s evident in the scale models of galleries (complete with minute reproductions of the works he’ll hang) that he has his assistants make while preparing for a show and his arguments with gallerists about lighting.

It’s also what drives his composition in the atelier.

Richter quickly brushes brightly colored paint on one canvas, then randomly steps away to start work on a second. Brush in hand, he walks back and forth, applying his handful of primary colors to one, then the other. Later he’ll apply a squeegee.

“It’s like this,” he tells the filmmaker. “They look so good, and it’s so much fun, and they hold up for maybe two hours, maybe a day.”

Betz has filmed the camera-shy Richter twice – once for a 2007 short and again for this feature-length doc. Richter’s need for privacy comes up as the camera observes him apply several layers of yellow to his two new abstract canvasses.

“It’s not working,” he tells her abruptly. “Painting under observation is, right now, impossible. It’s the worst thing, worse than being in the hospital ... Painting is a secretive business anyway.”

Later, it seems, he relents and the camera looks on as he squeegees on more layers of paint, then takes a knife to the canvas to peel back a layer or two.

Summarizing his practice, Richter notes that he returns to a specific work until he feels he’s exhausted his compositional options. It’s a process of creation and destruction that, he acknowledges, can be taken too far.

Richter says he’s fond of a remark Theodor Adorno made about art.

“‘Paintings are mortal enemies,’” he smiles. “That’s correct. Each [work] is an expression that will not tolerate the other.”

“You shouldn’t comment,” a frowning assistant notes. “When someone likes [a work] too much, it gives him reason to destroy it.”

Near the end of the film Richter returns to the pair of Grey Paintings first framed at the start of the doc. Pushing his cart of paints to the second canvas, he takes up a wide Plexiglas squeegee and whites it out, leaving only a suggestion of the topography beneath.

As he tentatively assesses his handiwork, his wife – artist and graphic designer Sabine Moritz – enters the studio. Glancing up at the reworked canvas, her smile reforms into something like horror.

“The danger now,” Richter later tells her, “is that I’ll do the same to the other one.”

“All the more reason to put it away, then.”

“Yes.”

BAFF continues at Metropolis through Nov. 13. The festival’s “extramural” program runs at various locations in Lebanon from Nov. 16-20. For details, see http://www.bafflebanon.org/baff/

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 10, 2016, on page 16.

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