Gerhard Richter Painting


Gerhard Richter Painting documentary film. Written and directed by Corinna Belz; edited by Stephan Krumbiegel. The main film lasts 97 minutes. It was shot while Richter was preparing for an exhibition (shown late in 2009 and early 2010) at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.  Title also includes as extras (1) a 23 minute interview with art historian Benjamin HD Buchloh, (2) 10 minutes of "fragments of a conversation" with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and (3) a 9 minute clip showing Richter getting ready for an exhibition in Munich. Released 2012, there is a soundtrack presented in 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D+

HDVD allows plastic artists and art museums to publicize their goods more effectively than was ever possible before. But in the first 5 years of the existence of Blu-ray discs, only 3 titles about paintings have been released. When I learned there would be an HDVD about Gerhard Richter, I was intrigued; alas, what we have in Gerhard Richter Painting is a sad disappointment.

At this writing Richer is widely considered to be the most successful living painter. He was born in Germany and was 13 at the end of WW II. He started his career in Communist East Germany. Although Richter was never actively political, he was always interested in experimental ways of creating new images and has treated political subjects. This wasn't a good long-range fit with Communism, so he defected to the West in 1961 (at age 29) just before the Berlin Wall was built.

Richter quietly thrived in the West. Unlike a lot of artists, he appears to be an excellent craftsman and businessman. You sense this from his astonishing official website which has an exhaustive catalogue of every artwork he has ever made and did not destroy. Warning: there are something like 7300 thumbnail pictures on the website of Richer works (and his "Atlas" of subjects used for the basis of some of the works). If you start looking at all this, you may find it hard to stop.

Richer's works tend to fall into two categories: altered photographs and pieces created partly or largely through the application of mathematical or physical chance. Examples of "chance" works would be his huge stain glass window in the Cologne Cathedral made of squares of color samples or his large abstract canvases made mostly by smearing paint on the canvas with giant squeegees (they resemble windshield wipers) and then scraping away to see comes through. (His works include many other different but somewhat similar techniques for making images.)

Richter's output is therefore substantially derivative and often features variations on a theme in a manner that reminds me of Andy Warhol. But Richter is on the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from the celebrity hound Warhol. Mild-mannered and self-effacing, Richter is an counter-celebrity, anti-hero type who shuns ostentatiousness. 

But his work ethic is fierce. He is a one-man Volkswagen factory for turning out artworks for sale (with the help of a few assistants). Richer scheduled a show for 2009-2010 in New York at the Marian Goodman Gallery. You might think when show time comes he would rummage around in his attic and come up with some things to send on to N.Y. Well, it's not that way at all. He had in his workshops a scale model of all the huge rooms in the Gallery he had to fill. Each work he was to consign was created, photographed, reduced to 2% of real size, and carefully placed on the model in the exact spot where it would be installed in the flesh. In this manner Richter put himself in charge of every detail of the show with the hundreds of works small and large that would be released for sale. (Marian was in charge of sending out invitations and pouring the wine.) So when subject documentary was shot, Richter was under huge pressure to come up with product to put on the walls in New York.

According to Wikipedia, Richter has been in recent times capable of selling $100,000,000 of artworks in a year to museums and high-roller art speculators. So if Richter felt there should be a film about his works for the general public, he easily would have the practical and financial resources to make any such film a spectacular success. But Richter apparently never felt that a film aimed at the public would be advantageous.

Richter did, however, grant Corinna Belz the rights to make a low-cost documentary about his techniques for making paintings and other art works. The idea, I think, was for Belz to hang around the workshops and shoot at random what she saw and to also film how Richter creates one of his typical large oil-on-canvas abstract expressionist paintings. (This is similar to the "direct cinema" style of making documentaries. Direct cinema was used, for example, by Frederick Wiseman in making La Danse - Le Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris, which is reviewed on this website.)

Belz went to work. But the project stalled when Richter hit a mental snag (like writer's block) in the middle of cranking out two big abstracts. He complained that the filming by the camera crew was interfering with his work process. This was serious because the paintings Richter was working on had to be finished (I think) for the N.Y. show with Marian Goodman. After this confrontation, the documentary all but completely falls apart. You can't tell if the paintings Richter started on are in fact the among the paintings that get hung at the Goodman Gallery. I get the impression that Richter wanted to abandon the documentary but was unable or unwilling to buy Belz completely out.

In addition to the uncertainty about what the heck you are seeing, the documentary suffers from the typical woes of all direct cinema: poor picture and sound quality from light-weight recording gear used on the fly, poor visual resolution, and weak framing of shots that have to be set up in a hurry. Betz also several times commits the terrible error of panning across long rows of artwork hung on walls, which results in obvious blur and motion artefacts. (Many of the images on the walls have blur built into them by Richter already as part of his style, so the viewer gets blurred images of blurred images). The voices you hear on the film tend to be poorly recorded. But some nice music added later helps the film considerably.

Well, at this point you might think this title is headed for a "F" grade---a complete disaster. But as bad as it is, Gerhard Richter Painting does have its charms and you can learn something from it about Richter and his work. So let's see what we can salvage.


One of Richter's main techniques is to take photos he makes himself or gets from others and turn them into hand-painted oils, usually with alterations ranging from subtle to savage. I've now seen hundreds of these paintings from subject film and the official website. I would say there is exactly one of these images I find memorable, but it is a real zinger---a picture, Caravaggio style, of the Richter's own daughter, Betty, when she was about 10 years old:

H'mm---what's going on here? This began as one of 3 utterly nondescript snapshots of Betty which you can see in the Atlas of resources on Richter's website. The only unusual things about this snapshot would be the horizontal position and the fact that Betty is not smiling. Then I saw this in the documentary, I couldn't decide if it was an image of a woman in some strange situation, or, worse, a child in some stranger situation. If you rotate the image 90 degrees, it's easier to see that Betty is a child:

When you compare the snapshot to the oil painting, you can see what Richter did to the image: he darkened the shadow so that the lone eye seems to be looking at you Cyclops-wise, painted the hair black to match the black undershirt, painted the outer shirt a more sensual red than you see in the photo, accentuated the lips with heavier color than Betty was wearing, and gave her skin a luminescence that's not in the photo. The result is a disturbing photo-realistic painting of a child with features appropriate only for a woman. As Richter says in the film, he tries to paint something neither he nor the consumer can understand. If he can understand the image, he considers it a failure.

Zaun (Fence)

New we will consider a painting of something more typical of Richter, a fence. Here's a photo of the fence:

Few people would consider this fence worthy of being the subject of a painting. But here's a drawing and an oil painting Richter made from a photo of the fence and a gate:

Art critic Buchloh is seen in the documentary making quite a fuss over this fence painting, and it was hung in the Marian Goodman show as Item 907-1. I would hate to pay a lot of money for this. But I admit that Richter infuses the fence with a strange luminescence or fencenicity that I don't understand. It would therefore meet Richter's definition of a good painting. And I agree that it's the best painting of a fence I've ever seen.

Abstract Oils

But now it's time to move on to Richter's most famous painting style: the abstract oil too large to hang, or even carry into, a typical house. All over the world fabulous museum buildings are being constructed. And super-wealthy folks are building striking modern show houses. All these buildings have to be decorated somehow, and this is Richter's main market. So how does Richter make the big paintings to fill up those huge walls? Well, let's see.

Richter starts with cans of artists' oil paint and brushes that look much like what you buy at an a hardware store. He paints the first undercoat more or less the same way you would paint a bedroom (after overdosing on LSD):

Next Richter uses special tools such as squeegees he invents to smear paint on in various directions. At this point, chance determines the outcome of each swipe and the picture takes on a life of its own. The artist will also use found tools like brushes and scrapers to make changes:

Below you can see how each smear can radically change the look of the painting. The process is repeated many times as Richter seeks a desirable effect. After each step, Richter debates whether anything else can be done to improve the work. When he can't see any improvement to make, he declares the painting finished. But even a finished painting can be heavily revised before it's actually committed to a show or sold:

Below are two abstracts from subject title. Are these the same two paintings we saw Richter start on above? There is no way to tell. If you go to the Marian Goodman Gallery website and check out the 2009/2010 Richter show, you will see Items 910-1 and 910-2 hung for sale which are about this size and consist of yellow, red, and black features. But neither of the paintings shown below were hung at the Goodman show in the form you see below. Subject title leaves us completely in the dark as to how the paintings Richter started with Belz turned out.

The abstract paintings shown above were rather small. Here's a shot of Richter working on a larger canvas:

Gerhard Richter Painting is a very weak title compared to what could have been done. Still, I know there are thousands of folks out there trying to paint abstracts. If you are one of them and you pick up any secrets from this review or subject title that pay off, voluntary commissions would be appreciated. If you're a lay person who is curious about Richter, I suggest this review tells you just about all you can glean from this title. Grade: "D+" 

Update on 2015-09-23 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

Back in 2012, I didn't expect this title or my review to receive much attention. But the website statistics show that this has been a popular item and is probably by far the most visited title on the websate that I graded "D+"! But I have never heard from anybody reading this. Leave a message about what you think!