While always respected and collected, German visual artist Gerhard Richter only achieved superstar status midway through the previous decade. Perhaps Corinna Belz’s observant doc Gerhard Richter Painting wouldn’t exist without that stature bump, but in many ways it tries to act like that never happened—as though he wasn’t the planet’s current highest-paid artist. That’s not hard: Richter is no vacuous Thomas Kinkade populist. When Belz catches up with him, in the lead-up to an exhibition at the Tate Modern last year, he’s doting on massive canvases of splattered colors. “Painting is another form of thinking,” he can be heard proclaiming in a film taken from his younger days. “I don’t like the ones I understand.”
The Richter we get in Painting, now 80, is far cagier, less quotable, but more approachable and self-effacing. When asked how fame has affected his methods, he says, with a chuckle, that it’s left less time for work. Much of Belz’s film takes him away from fawning journos, historians and collectors, capturing him as he hides away in his studio, alone—save the director and her pesky camera operators. The best parts of Painting observe him doing just that: He’s more manual laborer than moneyed bon vivant as he drags a pole-length brush-of-sorts across a towering canvas, one color smearing into another, the work dramatically changing with each tortoise-slow, exhausting stroke.
More interesting still is when the documentary subject becomes self-aware. Richter seems tolerant, but vaguely perturbed by the crew. About halfway through, Richter turns to the camera and, as gently as possible, announces that he no longer feels comfortable being filmed while he works. (Although they can still follow him doing other, less mesmerizing activities.) It’s a moment that, come to think of it, should be in more documentaries. Being constantly filmed is grossly invasive, forcing everyday people into a form of self-conscious performance. Spending quality time with the world’s richest artist is all well and good, but Gerard Richter Painting is more valuable for being a documentary where the subject, however mildly, politely rebels.