Modern Art Giants Captured on Film

Ethel Scull, pictured, and Robert Scull, two early and prolific collectors of Pop Art, made millions on their early purchases, which included a portrait of them by George Segal and a Jasper Johns "Target." Painters Painting

To someone who saw Emile de Antonio’s “Painters Painting” several years ago, long before being immersed in the East End artistic community, it was something of a shock to return to it and see so many titans of midcentury modern art walking and talking, no longer ghosts but vital, even young, sentient beings. Willem de Kooning descending the stairs in his studio.

They came alive again at the  Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill on Friday during a screening and talk with Terrie Sultan, the museum’s director, and Valerie Jaudon. Ms. Jaudon, an abstract artist most associated with the Pattern and Decoration movement that began in the mid-1970s, was not in the 1973 film, but her artwork helped keep abstract painting relevant through the Post-Minimalist period onward, during a time when painting in general fell out of favor.

The film, too, was released at a time when Conceptualism was enjoying domination of the art world. It is worth noting that Larry Poons, who is treated like a rock star in “Painters Painting,” was the poster boy for commercial failure in last year’s “The Price of Everything” (being shown Saturday at Guild Hall). 

A teacher at Hunter College, Ms. Jaudon said that the impetus for the film was Henry Geldzahler’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,” which was on view from 1969 to 1970. Barnett Newman, whose interview figures prominently in the film, died a few months after the show closed, and his loss may have illustrated the importance of completing it, she said. Her own take at the time, after seeing both the show and the film while still in her 20s, was “I had no idea [art] was this serious. I had just been making stuff.”

When she shows “Painters Painting” to her students, she said, she’s not sure what they get out of it, but she suspects it helps give them identities as artists and painters.

“There was a lot of generosity among these artists, who were fairly revelatory about some of their creative problem-solving,” Ms. Sultan noted, adding, “Clearly, they all had some idea of how they were going to present and re-present themselves to the camera.”

“There was a criticism at the time that the artists had prepared too much for this film,” Ms. Jaudon said. This included Frank Stella, who painted in Sagaponack for a few summers, Newman, and Robert Rauschenberg. Another criticism was that the film, like the exhibition, omitted key figures. She said most of the choices and the point of view stem from Clement Greenberg, the critic and champion of Abstract Expressionist artists, who wrote an essay for the exhibition catalog and features prominently in the film. Geldzahler, who had a house in Southampton, chose 43 artists and 400 artworks for the exhibition, and the omissions were, as they can be in “Painters Painting,” an easy point of censure.

Ms. Sultan said that as an art student from 1969 to 1973, those artists “were gods to us.”

  It is astonishing not only to see the giants of Abstract Expressionism talk about their work, but to hear the words of the Young Turks of Minimalism and Pop Art who reacted against them, such as Stella, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. In fact, with the film at almost two hours, it seems the director left very few stones unturned in the mainstream of mostly male art-making up to the moment he finished it.

While there are many recorded interviews with these artists, there is something unique about this compendium and the way it allows us to compare and contrast these generations and the styles and modes they adopted. The film also includes interviews with dealers, collectors, critics, and museum curators. Given how many are associated with the East End of Long Island and East Hampton in particular, it holds even greater relevance.

Willem de Kooning’s casual observation that Europe in the time he lived there was a rather bleak environment basically starts things off. Through the Hollywood movies he watched in Holland, America “seemed to be a light, bright, happy place.”

 Later, he speaks about why women became a subject of his work. “I wanted to make it easy for myself, so I put something right at the center of the canvas.” Looking at magazine ads for cigarettes, his attention went to women’s mouths. “The mouth was a very strange thing to me,” but a woman’s mouth was appealing, he said. He cut one out and placed it near the center of “Woman I,” but eventually substituted his own painting. Not sure what he had, he put it aside, eventually finishing it in 1952 after being encouraged by Meyer Schapiro.

Speaking about the role of newspaper in his paintings, he noted that he began using it to take some of the excess oil paint off his canvases, but liked how the paint looked on the newsprint when he removed it. Thinking about the next generation of artists working in Pop and Neo-Dada, he said, “It’s not social activism like Rauschenberg . . . it was just an accident.”

Interviewed in his studio in East Hampton, de Kooning spoke about biking to Louse Point to look at the water for inspiration. He showed the film crew his collection of long-handled brushes (“it gives me great comfort to paint with them”) and said they may make his paintings more painterly.

Philip Pavia speaks about the murals the government commissioned artists to paint during the Great Depression and how that brought a community of loners together. Although not stated, this community developed into the Eighth Street Artists Club and what gradually became known as the New York School. 

Although American abstraction had been around for some 50 years and Abstract Expressionism some 30 years by the time of the interviews, Barnett Newman still felt the need to explain the abstract impulse and how to look at a non-objective painting. Referencing the “object matter” of Schapiro’s writings, Newman noted that the apples depicted in Cezanne’s paintings are not necessarily the subject. “This should help people understand that because a painting didn’t have an object didn’t mean there wasn’t a subject,” he said. That need to explain helps illustrate where the public’s perceptions of modern art were at that point in time.

Rauschenberg, who is so young here, is particularly punchy. Seated at the top of a tall stepladder and placed in the peak of an arched and mullioned window, he looks like a young Bacchus and has the air of Sunday morning pastor who prefers a revolutionary new doctrine to the old. Speaking of the Abstract Expressionists, he says, “I was never interested in their pessimism or editorializing. You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself if you’re going to be a good Abstract Expressionist.” 

Ouch. Welcome to the Me Decade. Given that they were working in the aftermath of the death and destruction of a significant part of the globe before and during World War II, he might have given them a little slack. Instead, he knocks on de Kooning’s door and asks him to give him a drawing to erase, which he does after the artist gives him a drawing he knew would take a lot of effort to rub away. The process took three weeks and many erasers, Rauschenberg says in the film.

Mr. Johns and Mr. Stella are more diplomatic: “If I could tell that I was doing something that someone else was doing, then I tried not to do it,” Mr. Johns says. “It seemed to me that de Kooning did his work beautifully, and there was no reason for me to help him with it.”

According to Mr. Stella, Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, and others who came before him “established American painting for me. I didn’t have to go all the way back and see where I stood in relation to Matisse and Picasso. I could see where I stood with Hofmann and Pollock.”

The inclusion of Helen Frankenthaler is remarkable both because she is the only woman in the piece — good — and because she is the only woman in the piece — bad. This was still a time of absolute male hegemony in the art world, despite a number of emergent and emerging female artists. The film could have easily been made without her. Yet by including her, it raises the question, where are the others? 

Asked whether it is hard to be a woman and a painter, her immediate reply is “the first issue is being a painter.” She is credited in the film as an originator of the Color Field movement and for her inspiration of Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis after Greenberg took them to her studio. 

There is so much more, but for those who missed the screening, it is available on YouTube and Kanopy and well worth streaming.

Helen Frankenthaler was the only female artist in the film.Painters Painting
Robert Rauschenberg disdained Abstract Expressionists and talked up newspapers during his interview, while unfurling a yard's long work on paper.Painters Painting