On Location: Inside Art Documentary Production

Karen Schmeer, the Maysles Brothers, & Art Doc Screenings in NYC

Before I do anything, I want to mention the very sad passing of an important member of the independent documentary community, Karen Schmeer. Karen was killed in a hit and run accident in New York’s Upper West side almost two weeks ago.  Karen was an exceptionally talented editor with credits including Sergio (2009), Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005), and filmmaker Errol Morris’s Fog of War (2003), and Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control (1997.)  But more importantly, she was a friend to me and many others both in and out the production world. She will be greatly, greatly missed.

Karen Schmeer. Photo: Garret Savage.

Lots to cover but let me start with another Art21 Uncut first. The in-house Art21 production team, led by our newest member, Production Coordinator Ian Forster, recently got the chance to shoot at the big beautiful exhibit of Gabriel Orozco’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So Ian and I spent a couple of quiet morning hours shooting Mobile Matrix – spectacularly suspended in the MoMA atrium – La DS, and a whole lot of other well-known and not quite so well-known Orozco works. For me, the installation of Working Tables, in the back area of the top floor gallery, was a highlight: the sheer density and variety of objects, many extremely disparate, yet all somehow connected. Below is a little uncut taste of some of the footage we shot.

Art21 Uncut: Gabriel Orozco at MoMA from Art21 on Vimeo.

Next up is something I’ve been hoping to do since I inaugurated this column and, given the current embarrassment of riches, have no choice but to mention. And that’s talking about the wealth of art documentary viewing opportunities in New York.

First up is the documentary presenting organization, Stranger Than Fiction. Screening at the IFC Center in New York for the past five years, Stranger than Fiction, in the words of its website, “presents an eclectic mix of documentaries – sneak previews and lost classics – followed by discussions with the filmmakers and post-show receptions.” Though not exclusively devoted to screening arts documentaries, it has shown a number of gems from the genre over the years. In mid-January, I caught a showing of the Maysles Brothers’ – and I’m sorry but the epithet truly works here – cinema vérité classic, Running Fence (1978), covering the epic struggle to install Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence public artwork in Sonoma and Marin Counties, California in 1976.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "Running Fence," Sonoma and Marin Counties, California 1972-76. Photo: Jeanne-Claude. ©1976 Christo.

Now I don’t really want to turn this into a movie review column, but I would like to take the opportunity to write at least a little about the film. As a lot of folks are probably aware, Running Fence is actually part of a long-running series of films the Maysles Brothers have been producing on Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s partnership and work, starting with Valley Curtain in 1973 and stretching to the most recent installment, The Gates in 2007. As a body of documentary work about artistic collaborators, it’s unparalleled. And that sense of comprehensiveness and attention is mirrored in the individual documentaries themselves. In Running Fence, there’s lovingly extended shots of the raised, almost taut curtains, shown with all the atmospheric variations of Monet’s haystacks. And I see the Maysles’s Running Fence and their other Christo and Jeanne-Claude films as aesthetic and ethical touchstones for our Art:21 broadcast series. Their unapologetic willingness to slow down and focus exclusively on the art, to luxuriate in it, and of course their openness to let their subjects speak for themselves, all are core elements of Art:21. It’s a documentary style that waxes and wanes – across the genre, we’re in a particularly strong waning period at the moment – but one that’s always compelling. And I have to say, as a child of the 1970’s watching the film in 2010, there’s a extraordinary nostalgia: from the beautifully unsaturated film stock to the sweet spirit of hippie community among the volunteer installation crew to the plaid jacket wearing, smoking during meetings, local government officials…ok, got that off my chest.

One more important note about the Maysles. After the Running Fence screening, I got to hear Albert Maysles talk about the film and filmmaking in general. Besides the remarkable and continuing output of films, Albert has also established the Maysles Cinema and Institute in Harlem. They do a lot different stuff – classes, youth outreach – but most importantly, they’re committed to screening documentaries, socially-conscious narrative films, and in general, the unfairly unknown in non-fiction film.

Fortunately, there’s future opportunities to catch other Stranger Than Fiction art-related documentaries. Next up is next week – a February 16 showing of filmmaker Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal, about the current struggle over the future of Barnes Collection in Philadelphia. I found this particularly incisive review.

Still from Don Argott's film "The Art of the Steal," 2009. Courtesy STFdocs.com.

And now that I’ve started I think I just might bullet-point a few more New York-centric art doc viewing opportunities:

  • Living Architectures. Running through February 27, the Storefront for Art and Architecture will be screening a series of films by filmmakers Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine, depicting the often conflicted relationship between some very celebrated works of contemporary architecture and their inhabitants/owners. Architects include Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas and Richard Meier. I can’t personally vouch for the films but if this New York Times review is any indication, they sound really intriguing.

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