on 16 May 2012
Arshile Gorky's wife reported, when he was still working in his New York studio, that she would see a canvas in one state, and, by the time that she awoke, it had been worked upon so much that it was largely unrecognizable. There are elements of this in what Gerhard Richter seeks to achieve in spite of the presence of those filming him at work, but that is the territory of this kind of work, and, really, it ought not to be too surprising (to which I shall return later).
Rather than wondering, rather pointlessly, whether Gorky would have allowed director Corinna Belz in when he was working, I can only profess admiration for Richter that, despite the fact that it was putting him off, he did not close down the access. That said, whether he would have welcomed - or, if given the choice, approved of - the temporal juxtaposition of how what he was working on looked at different moments, I do not know.
What I do know is that he loads the squeegee with paint, and then has to say that what he was about to do cannot be done then, because it will not succeed. Whatever Richter may 'really' be like, he gave the impression on camera of being a sensitive man, and he seemed unnerved that he had started preparing for something that was not possible, and which, one would like to think, he might not have done, if he had felt at ease. He did not, not when trying to work on his canvases.
Indeed, following on from that, if we invest an artist and his or her work with worth, then we have to leave him or her free to decide when a work is finished, and what is effective and what is not. And yet I am imagining that the moment when he white-washes over a grey composition may have left some who watched the film wishing that he had left it untouched: I can understand that, but I take the different view - that he created it, and he must be satisfied with it, if it is to bear his name.
His assistants, his wife, recognize the knife-edge on which the creative process is balanced at this stage, and say that, if they were to comment that they think that something is right as it stands, what they have said would be more likely to cause Richter to re-work it. Not out of perversity, I fully believe, but because, as the camera and crew do, the remark would interrupt and subvert the process.
Unlike artists who have their studios, and would, throughout history, delegate tasks to assistants, Richter's was shown getting the paint ready, but the artist himself was even cleaning off his materials at the end of the session. He was, as he several times expressed in response to questioning (some of which was better and more artistically minded than other parts of it), clearly finding his way with the works, and we were told about how their current state had to stand up (as if to scrutiny, scrutiny of a most honest kind - and Richter believes in truth in painting) for several days: white-washing over was not something over which those in his entourage could regularly afford to be regretful.
As I say, the creation is the artist's, and he or she is the one to find a way ahead. In the case, for example, of Joan Miró, he had the luxury of being able to re-work canvases decades later that were still in his possession, whereas the Tate refused, I think, Francis Bacon, access to some of his, because it did not want them - as it owned them - any different from how they were, and knew that that would be the result otherwise.
One observation, amongst many intelligent things that Richter said about his work (and it was also fascinating to see him about the business not only of planning out exhibition spaces in 1:50 scale, but to hear him pleading with photographers at the opening of a show who required just one more pose that they had so many shots already), was that a painting makes an assertion that does not bear much company: in the context of having to hang several pieces on each wall, and plan it all out, that seemed just as much a challenge as in the studio, with canvases making differing assertions in different ways about how they should work.
So the supremacy of each work's voice, its statement, and, I would say, for the painter to decide what it is to say and when it is saying it. Then, for Richter, what he said that he valued was people adopting the attitude of those attending a gallery in New York, who would more freely, more honestly, say that they liked this group of paintings, but that the grey compositions were terrible. The point that he was making is he does not feel the polite comment that something is 'interesting', to which he is usually exposed, is that kind of genuine response.
As for me, I looked forward to spending time at the new exhibition at Tate Modern - and maybe watching this film there again.