THE BLOG
03/15/2011 04:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Painters Painting: From Abstract Expressionism to Pop

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Imagine going back in time to an era in art history, talking to the artists themselves at work in their studios and hearing first-hand what their concerns, processes and influences are. Thanks to a recently re-released documentary by Emile de Antonio, we are able to come close. The time and place is post-war New York, the art is Abstract Expressionism to Pop and everything in between.

Thomas B. Hess of Art News sets the stage: "Paris was the center of Modern Art. Then the war intervened and Paris was sealed off which turned the New York scene into kind of a pressure cooker out of which a number of American artists found their own way." In 1972, when Painters Painting was first released, Jackson Pollock, Hans Hoffman, Willem de Kooning and others had broken from the constraints of European easel painting and established Abstract Expressionism as the first truly American art form.

Striking black and white photography intercut with color gives us intimate access to the light-filled loft of de Kooning. Nearly 70 at the time, he retains a youthful air with his iconic white tousled hair and black framed glasses. He explains why he left Europe: "I felt a certain depression over there. I felt caught. I was attracted to America by movies. America seemed to be a very light place, everything seemed to be very light and bright and happy. I always wanted to come to America even as a boy -- Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix."

We meet a playful Robert Rauschenberg perched high atop a ladder in front of the cathedral windows in his studio talking about the influence of the Abstract Expressionists:

"What [we] had in common was touch. 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, and, I think I always considered that a waste."

The specter of European painting looms large in the psyches of the New York artists. Frank Stella, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his studio, talks about how the Abstract Expressionists solved the problem for him: "I didn't have to go all the way back and worry again about where I stood in relation to Matisse and Picasso, I could worry about where I stood in relation to Hoffman and Pollock."

In a revealing interview, a very pretty Andy Warhol talks in riddles and defers most of his answers to the somewhat overbearing Brigit (presumably Brigit Berlin), who is snapping Polaroids of Warhol's face at a very close range. When asked if there are any critics he likes, Warhol responds:

"I like the kind of critics that when they write they just put people's names in and you go through the article and you count to see how many names they dropped in the article."

Heavy.

Critic Clement Greenberg weighs in on what he thinks about Pop Art:

" . . . people like Lichtenstein and Warhol, they paint nice pictures. All the same? It's easy stuff, it is, it's minor, and the best of the pop artists don't seem to be more than minor. And it's scene art, the kind of art that goes over on the scene. The best art of our time or any time since Corot, not just since Monet, makes you a little bit more uncomfortable at first, challenges you more. It doesn't come that far to meet your taste, or the established taste of the market."

Wise, cautionary words largely ignored even today.

A dapper Leo Castelli, seated at a large desk in his gallery, defends the role of the art dealer:

"Frankly, I think this accusation that's leveled against the dealers, that they are responsible for shaping the art market is a very silly one. Naturally we are there to do the job and are doing it. Now if people, ourselves and the critics and the museums go along with us, then there is a consensus there and therefore we are right and not wrong, so... what we are doing is merely doing our job."

Other artists interviewed are Helen Frankenthaler (the sole woman), Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman, Hans Hofmann, Jules Olitski, Philip Pavia, Larry Poons, Robert Motherwell and Kenneth Noland. Interwoven with the interviews is footage of the artists' work from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition New York Painting and Sculpture 1940-1970.

A riveting lesson in art history from the mouths of the players themselves, Painters Painting not only gives us unique access to a particular time and place in art, it also provides a framework for the current state of the contemporary art world -- both the good and the bad -- and invaluable insight into how we got here.

Cross-posted from Jane Chafin's Offramp Gallery Blog.