Martha’s Vineyard Film Society screens “Gerhard Richter – Painting”

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“Gerhard Richter – Painting” is an unprecedented and fascinating look at a world-class artist at work in his studio. The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society will screen this unusual documentary on Saturday, April 7, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

As was Pablo Picasso, Gerhard Richter is a prolific and protean painter. Never satisfied with one way of looking at the world, the Dresden-born artist has re-invented himself repeatedly over the many years of his career.

Director Corinne Belz does not presume to capture the entirety of Mr. Richter’s work and life in one 90-minute film. She concentrates on the style in which the artist is working at the time of the filming: large abstract canvases in massive fields of mostly primary colors.

Creating these vibrant works, Mr. Richter sometimes uses what look like house paintbrushes and, most often, a giant, plexi-glass squeegee to layer colors and textures on the canvas and then remove parts of them. A shy man, he agrees only reluctantly to have a camera capture him at work, describing the process of being filmed as worse than a hospital stay.

It may seem to the inexperienced that anyone can take giant squeegee and smear paint around on a canvas. Mr. Richter demonstrates otherwise, and a careful observer will come to appreciate the level of his genius over the course of the film.

The 79-year-old artist explains at one point that his paintings, “do what they want. I planned something entirely different.” Even when the viewer, the artist’s assistants, or the filmmaker herself think a work is finished, the artist may feel otherwise, continuing to change and rearrange the surface until he decides it’s completed. He often pairs two massive canvases, painting on them almost simultaneously, as if one allows him to understand the other.

At times Mr. Richter seems to reach a dead end. He may say, “I don’t know what to do next” or decide to leave a painting alone for a while. Even on occasion when the apparently completed painting has already been hung, the artist decides it needs more work.

That Mr. Richter loves the act of painting becomes evident practically from the start. His world is that of canvas and paint. The part he likes less is interacting with the public at openings or other “frightening” public events, although he makes clear that he appreciates these as an important part of the process.

As a director, Ms. Belz remains as non-invasive as possible, occasionally asking questions or adding black-and-white film clips from earlier periods in Mr. Richter’s life or including sequences from her short color film, “Gerhard Richter’s Window,” made 15 years ago.

From these cinematic inserts, the viewer learns that Mr. Richter left East Germany’s Dresden in the 1960s as a political refugee and never saw his parents again. At one point he talks a little about the series of images by others that he keeps in his studio. One is a photo showing a group of soldiers disposing of corpses in wartime Germany that deeply affected him.

The camerawork and soundtrack provide an elegant framework for the movie’s examination of the artist’s work. Frequent pans or stills of Mr. Richter’s paintings and photographs offer the viewer the chance to comprehend his vision. A combination of quiet, ambient sound and classical music provides an appropriate backdrop to the visuals.

“Gerhard Richter – Painting” is by no means a biopic or a fictional recreation of a celebrated artist’s life like the recent Jackson Pollock film starring Ed Harris. It simply gives the viewer the gift of watching the artist work with minimal interventions.

Employing a medium like film, which is based on motion, to illuminate the nature of painting, which is inherently static, comes as no easy feat. “Gerhard Richter – Painting” provides a remarkably successful example of how it can be accomplished.

“Gerhard Richter – Painting,” Saturday, April 7, 7:30 p.m., Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for MVFS members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, see mvfilmsociety.com.