As a film fan, as someone who looks more at what a movie is trying to say than anything else, I tend to see wisdom in movies that others simply find boring. For instance, I could go on for hours over how wonderful I thought The American was, despite the fact that nearly everyone else who saw it hated it, because I saw something more in its seemingly simple façade. I’m sure there are people out there who can do the same for Gerhard Richter’s paintings, which are highlighted in this week’s succinctly titled Gerhard Richter Painting, but I found little to nothing special about what he was doing. At least as presented in this film, his process is purposeless and unfocused, to the point where it feels like anybody given the same tools could do the same thing.
The famous German painter is known for dabbling in all different kinds of art, from abstract to photorealistic, though the former is focused on in this movie. His approach begins with a blank white canvas. He then takes a paintbrush and begins colorizing it, with no intention on creating anything distinct. After that, he takes what seem to be giant, canvas-sized glass panes with any combination of colors on it and drags it over his work, mixing the colors in an unordinary visual style. After doing this a few times, he just stops, not because he’s reached any goal in mind, but because he simply doesn’t feel like there’s anything left to do.
The paintings in Gerhard Richter Painting make up no discernible image. They’re literally the result of random splotches of paint mixed together, a fact Richter alludes to at one point in the movie, saying that he doesn’t necessarily think while painting. He just starts somewhere and ends somewhere else. He admits that he doesn’t like paintings he can understand, but he fails to realize one thing. Not everything you can’t understand is misunderstood. Some things you can’t understand because there’s nothing to be understood.
Throughout the film, you wait for some statement or analysis of his paintings to be made, but it never comes. The filmmakers are not interested in dissecting the importance (or unimportance) of his work and instead regard everything he says and does as brilliant, which is an uninteresting and one sided approach for a documentary. When they ask Richter himself what his paintings mean, he says he can’t really explain it. When he tries to, he never says anything convincing, spouting out pseudo-intellectual psychobabble and hitting keywords like there are checkboxes next to them. My favorite moment like this comes when Richter has a visitor to his studio. As she looks at one of his paintings, she remarks how it has no gimmicks. It “just has the things that happen to be there.” Well, every physical thing in existence “has the things that happen to be there.” That statement barely qualifies as an observation of his work, much less an interpretation.
Nevertheless, Richter is an interesting man when you can separate him from his paintings. He’s mostly soft spoken and seems to talk only when he really has something to say. What he says is generally pretty interesting, perhaps even a bit profound. It’s just a shame the same can't be said for his work. Art can be thought provoking, courageous and controversial and it can tell a story in one picture as grand as an entire film, but Richter’s indiscriminate methods of procuring meaning are lost in a sea of random colors, like a kid given a giant sheet of paper. Many abstract art enthusiasts find something in nothing. I imagine they’ll do the same here, but Gerhard Richter Painting does provide at least one much appreciated service. For those suffering from a serious bout of insomnia, here’s your cure.
Gerhard Richter Painting receives 1/5