PIFF 2012: Gerhard Richter (Germany)

Gerhard Richter
dir. Corinna Belz
(97 mins)

The fascinating documentary about German artist Gerhard Richter is another PIFF film I did not see coming. I had no notion that I would find Richter and his work compelling. His abstract paintings and overpainted photographs are not up my alley at all. Figuration in some aspect is usually present in works that touch me, though more strict realism not so much, photorealism not at all. For all the influence Surrealism brings to bear on my work as a poet, the standard-bearers among Surrealist artists—for example, Dalí, Duchamp, Ernst, Man Ray—generally leave me cold; Miró is a notable exception. Abstraction may be intellectually interesting but is seldom moving, with rare exceptions such as certain paintings by Jackson Pollack that convey an undeniable intensity. Chagall, Monet, Picasso, Braque, Roualt, Courbet, and Rodin are among the artists to whom I return time and again.

My previous acquaintance with Richter was sketchy. I recollect viewing a few paintings on display, perhaps a small show, in a museum somewhere, most likely Portland Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, or Vancouver Art Gallery. If memory serves I found the works on exhibit of some interest but was not particularly struck by them. The film was just another listing in the festival program until I happened on a Facebook note posted by Melissa Sillitoe (Show and Tell Gallery) expressing enthusiasm for Richter’s abstract paintings (also showing that Facebook occasionally serves a function beyond idle blather). The documentary played on a Saturday afternoon at a time when nothing else cried for my attention. Why not, I thought.

Gerhard Richter was born in East Germany and studied art at the Academy in Dresden. The Academy’s rigorous, five-year program provided a thorough training in traditional technique with daily activities in life drawings, still lifes, and figurative painting in oils, accompanied by art history up to the onset of Impressionism, when bourgeois decadence set in, and classes in Russian, politics, and economics that held no appeal for the young Richter.

After graduation Richter set out on what could have become a comfortable career as an artist supported by the state, teaching evening classes for the public in exchange for a studio and modest income. He enjoyed some success as a painter of murals and public art, with “solidly modeled figures of healthy men, women and children engaged in life-enhancing activities” conveying themes of health and happiness in a Socialist paradise.

As is evident from Richter’s mature work, Socialist Realism did not provide an aesthetic adequate to his needs as an artist. There was nothing for him in East Germany. He saw no future for himself as a public artist, and there were no role models for being an independent artist. Something of a cranky iconoclast, Richter was not attracted to the underground scene, of which he says,

[T]there were freelance, self-employed artists. But there were no good painters among them. The independent artists, some of them, were overproud of their independence; they made a cult out of their status. I always had a bad feeling about that, their pride, their self-importance. (Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: The Day Is Long, Art in America, 1/1/2002)

A breakthrough came when he saw the show documenta II (for a description of the exhibit, see also documenta 2) in Kassel, West Germany, in 1959, which featured works by Jackson Pollock, Jean Fautrier, and Lucio Fontana, among many others. Richter found in these paintings the “expression of a totally different and entirely new content.”

He split for the West, defecting in 1961, and enrolled in the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf. Asked what it was like to be a young artist in Germany 1962 or 1963, Richter replied,

We swam in a pool of hope. We thought, “We’ll just do it.” It was not a problem that the others, first the French and then American artists, were selling so well and at such high prices. It was not a topic. We were young, and the older German artists like Nay and Georg Meistermann were not very famous and not much liked. Their works were less expensive, and we felt that was only right because they were stupid.

I never had the feeling that I was a modern artist…. [T]he good modern artists, like Carl Andre, Bob Ryman, I like very much. But modern art has always only shown itself to me in trends and blowhards, so I couldn’t be a modern artist. (Storr interview)

A fair portion of the documentary is devoted to footage of the artist painting, applying paint with brush or squeegee, stepping back to consider the canvas, putting it aside altogether for a time, declaring it good but only for two hours, after which it will not be good anymore. I was struck by the risks taken by a painter working in abstraction as Richter does where accident is so much part of the process. There is no going back if a move does not work out. With a portrait or landscape, say, one might be able to paint over something that does not pan out and get back to what was there before. Even when there is something, a play of light, say, that cannot be precisely gotten back, the artist at least has a shot. With Richter’s abstract paintings, there is nowhere to go but forward. There were two instances in the film where I thought he went too far and lost paintings I was quite taken with. There he seemed content with the end result. Clearly the paintings as I liked them were not what he wanted.

In the Storr interview, Richter admits to what he calls a trick: “In the abstract paintings, there’s sometimes this trick. I have to be careful not to do it, but I sometimes cover the painting with white and then everything is beautiful and new and fresh, like snow. All the misery is over, the terror.”

Richter has some reputation for being difficult. The film conveys the impression of a man likely to dig in his heels if pressed to do something he is not inclined to do. Nonetheless, he also comes across as engaging, thoughtful and reflective but never pedantic or too full of himself. His observations about his himself and his art can be both playful and serious. He delighted in recollecting his first show in America (circa 1972), an exhibit of blurred photographs and gray paintings, when two young American artists told him, “Great show, but the gray ones, bullshit.”

In a more serious vein he injects a moral element into the determination of whether a work of art is good or bad, in something of an echo of Keats’ equation of beauty and truth.

The most important thing, in life and for humanity, is to decide what is good and what is bad. And it’s the most difficult. I remember a time when it was out of fashion to judge a painting good. But all my real constructive experiences with people were about good or not good, with Polke, Palermo, Fischer or the sculptor Isa Genzken, who is very strict. “That’s ugly, terrible,” she’d say. It’s very important.
. . .

It always means good and bad. I don’t know if it is the same in English, but in German if you say it’s a good painting, you already mean it’s beautiful; if you say it’s a bad painting, you imply also that it’s ugly. It almost has moral connotations of good and evil. If we say something is beautiful, then we mean it’s good. (Storr interview)

Although I do not think quite in these terms myself, I find the theme resonant. The moral component of a work of art may lie not in anything explicit in it, subject matter, overt theme, style, but rather in its being as art, that is, if it is legitimately art, impossible as that is to pin down. Here I would invoke the spirit of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s assertion that while hard-core pornography might be hard to define, he knew it when he saw it. Beauty and truth will always elude the straitjacket of definition. That does not mean that we cannot talk about these things in an intelligent and fruitful way, only that there will always remain something beyond everything that can be said, Emerson’s “under every deep a lower deep opens.”

Gregory Corso once remarked that if he finds the poet interesting, he will find the poem interesting. While I would not accept this as a hard-and-fast rule, there is something to it. Yes, a work of art must stand or fall on its own. The greatness of Shakespeare’s plays is not contingent on knowledge about his life. At the same time, context—biographical, historical, social—is not irrelevant. My perception of Gerhard Richter’s art is now colored by what I saw of him in the documentary and what I learned about his life and thinking from the biographical note on the website Gerhard Richter and from Robert Storr’s interview. The paintings are more intriguing and my experience of them richer for that.

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