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Fantasy Meets Reality: Explaining Experimental Artists

By Danielle DiGiacomo

From Mary Jordan's 'Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis.' Courtesy of Tongue Press

It is difficult to describe or categorize the art of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and Matthew Barney. Three of the more adventurous artists of the past half-century, they embody what Stefan Brecht once said about Smith: "He didn't do art. He was art."

How then, in limited space and time, does a documentarian do justice to such rich and complex lives, so intertwined with creation? Three filmmakers--Ric Burns, Mary Jordan and Alison Chernick--decided to tackle this problem. Burns spent six years making his four-hour opus Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (James Sanders, wtr.; Donald Rosenfeld, Daniel Wolf, prods.) for PBS' American Masters; Jordan hunted down rare footage to create her aesthetically rich collage, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (Kenneth Wayne Peralta, prod.); and Chernick, for Matthew Barney: No Restraint, joined the artist and his partner, the Icelandic songstress Björk, on a Japanese whaling ship to attempt to understand his creative process as he made his film Drawing Restraint 9.

Notes Chernick, "As Barney's work is layered and complex, the opposing forces in documentary filmmaking and art exposés came to a head: How do I make a vérité film but also give a context to his work? Capturing the reality of Barney's process, which is ingrained in fantasy, then became the biggest creative challenge." This unique relationship between the reality-driven documentary form and the fantasy-based visual art world had to be negotiated and worked out by each filmmaker.

Burns may seem an unlikely candidate to tackle the life of Warhol, one of the most iconic, yet paradoxically misunderstood figures in 20th century art and culture. Long a PBS fixture, Burns has produced such award-winning history docs as Coney Island (1991), The Donner Party (1992), The Way West (1995), New York: A Documentary Film (2000-02)--all for the American Experience series--and, with his brother Ken, The Civil War (1990). Burns has also profiled such legendary American artists as Eugene O'Neill and Ansel Adams, also for American Experience. But Warhol used the power of the margins to challenge the status quo and knock down the notion of the famous artist as a mythical figure. It seems likely that he might object to being placed on such a high-culture pedestal. 

Burns began work on the film six years ago, when his partners came to him with the idea. He was determined to devote himself to the documentary only if he fell for Warhol--and he did. Burns had heard of Warhol and was vaguely aware of his importance and influence, yet was unsure if he liked him. "No artist is more familiar and more misunderstood," Burns maintains. In his several years of research, filming and editing, Burns went on a "profound journey" toward a deep understanding of a "millennial artist." His goal in making the film, he says, was no less than to "change the public perception of Andy Warhol."

As is his style, Burns integrates archival footage (taken both by and of Warhol), documents and photographs, with talking-head interviews. That Warhol obsessively archived his own life was both frustrating and liberating for Burns. The film articulates how misunderstood yet impactful Warhol has been, characterizing him as a man of sensitivity and complexity, at once an engaging conversationalist, loyal friend, brilliant art historian and gentle soul. Among those interviewed include art historian Neil Printz, writer Stephen Koch and former Factory collaborator Billy Name. In the first half-hour alone, a more populist version of Warhol emerges, one whose working-class, son-of-immigrant roots informed his process as much as his interest in popular culture, celebrity and iconography informed his art. Seeing beauty in all aspects of reality, from soup cans to transvestite street walkers, Warhol aimed to present rather than mystify, using his silkscreens, films and other forms to give viewers access to, as Burn puts it, "that thing as the true thing and the beautiful thing."

Though Burns employs elements from the standard PBS historical documentary formula--talking heads, narration, expert testimony and archival footage--the movie is not aesthetically formulaic. Performance artist Laurie Anderson delivers the narration, and contemporary artist Jeff Koons provides the voice of Andy Warhol. Stylistic flourishes such as superimposition and film-reel effects add flavor, and a haunting soundtrack lends import without reducing the story to sentimentality. Of course, it is the narrative that keeps audience attentive, and Burns is a master at creating enough tension to keep us compelled through four hours. Yet to hear the filmmaker speak of it, the story was already in place, written deliberately by Warhol before he actually lived it. "Andy lived his life to purposefully film out a melodramatic arc," Burns remarks. "His persona and history were one of his greatest works of art."

Because Warhol was devoted to the "profound investigation of reality," the project of documenting this was not as oppositional to the art as it could have been. In fact, says Burns, it was priceless and life-changing. To explore the "most candid artist imaginable" was liberating in his work, teaching him to "let things happen, be more open and let the body fall where it may." Though he had a mapped-out editing structure, he was able to allow messy accidents while maintaining the design. The biggest lesson Burns learned from this project, though, was about beauty. "The surface itself is revealing," he maintains. "You don't have to go somewhere else to find the sublime; there is a complexity in plain sight."

Like Warhol, the underground filmmaker-photographer Smith was devoted to the experience of art, of seeing art in every moment and every creature, from drug-addicted transvestites to glamorous movie stars. Also like Warhol, Smith was an outcast--a young, gay outsider who survived his childhood via the fantastical celluloid dream delivered by Hollywood. Yet, whereas Warhol is a household name, only a handful of underground film aficionados have heard of Smith, much less seen his work.

It was this ignorance of and inaccessibility to Smith that attracted director Jordan to the creation of Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. While retreating at San Francisco's Kalifower commune in 2001, Jordan befriended Irving Rosenthal, an early friend and champion of the artist. In attempting to hunt down Smith's work, she found that it was largely unavailable--which made her determined to make the film.

Jordan entered film school at a mere 16 and made her first documentary, on female circumcision, while journeying across North Africa. Too young to be directly influenced by Smith's art, she nonetheless found it life-changing, and threw herself into research, ultimately filming 60 interviews with a laundry list of luminaries including Gary Indiana, Ira Cohen, Andrew Sarris, Warhol-ites Holly Woodlawn and the aforementioned Name, Ken Jacobs, John Waters, John Zorn and Taylor Mead. She also found and digitally transferred all of Smith's original work to HD format, a nearly Herculean task.

Jordan so deftly reincarnated Smith's aesthetic that at times it is hard to tell where her film ends and his begins. Jack Smith is a portrait of texture, grain and collage, worthy of its visionary subject and reflective of his output--theatrical and performative, with layers of visual flair and ornamentation. She also used music from Smith's record collection--everything from Bizet to Destroy All Monsters. In addition, she is producing a companion book about Smith to be published by Tongue Press.

With all these visual layers, it might be easy for Smith's life story and character to get lost. And yet, like Warhol, life and art were so intertwined that his story emerges organically. Smith, who grew up poor in Texas, is described by the film's synopsis as "the godfather of performance art, a groundbreaking photographer and the William Blake of film." It goes on to compare him to three artists: "Federico Fellini, Andy Warhol and Matthew Barney." Like Warhol, Smith is profoundly misunderstood, and Jordan's task was thus to reveal the reality beneath the misconceptions.

There is a reason, perhaps, that Smith was never embraced as Warhol was. Iconoclastic, stubborn and unfolding, Smith refused to conform to any mainstream values. He had a problematic relationship with his mother, and much of his creativity came from anger at being alienated and abandoned. Yet, he also showed great joy in life, a life that was largely about love, generosity and beauty--and seeing beauty in life's detritus. His obsession with B-movie star Maria Montez, for example, was mocked by many, yet it was his ability to see the exquisite where others could not that made him such a revolutionary figure. Jordan, who calls the film an "experiental documentary," hopes to bring the life and character of a brilliant artist to further attention through both her film and his films.

In numerous ways, Barney is different from either Warhol or Smith. Alive and still relatively young in the art world, Barney achieved success very early on, and has never been at a loss for fame or funding. That Matthew Barney: No Restraint is executive-produced by famed fashion designer Agnes B is an indication of Barney's success within haute culture.

Barney uses many aspects of visual art and media, all of which are interconnected and serve to promote the others. For example, his highly successful five-part film, The Cremaster Series, was funded after a series of visual installations (which later appeared in the films as set pieces and sculptures) were presented at high-profile galleries.

Chernick was attracted not to the retelling of a misunderstood life, but rather to the elucidation of artistic process. She writes, "After directing a documentary on artist Jeff Koons, I was intrigued with capturing the process of making work, from inception through execution."

As with all films about artists, Chernick's challenge was to contextualize and elucidate Barney's art and its meaning--while maintaining the fantastical enigmatic quality that makes it unique. In addition, she had to deal with the challenge of working within and exploring the cultural specificity of Japan (where Barney's latest work, Drawing Restraint 9, takes place and was filmed), with its attention to fine detail and ornate ritual.

Like the aforementioned filmmakers, Chernick manages to craft an aesthetic and mood that reflects the work of her subject. Like Barney's divisive films, No Restraint moves at a molasses pace, meditating on images in a way that many find hypnotic, and many painfully dull. Yet, she successfully adds context and insight into the film, which is largely missing from Barney's own generally elusive, decontextualized work. Through interviews with Barney, in which he is direct and candid, Chernick elicits the genesis of his ideas. In addition, talking with the rugged, Japanese workers on the whaling boat that serves as the set of Barney's film, she also explores the relationship between such fantastical art and the real, everyday world.

The film does indeed trace the trajectory of Barney's career, beginning with the overwhelming hype that greeted his early work. Yet, the inclusion of his past is largely in the service of getting to the present, and progressing toward the future. The film also focuses on Barney's major thematic obsession--the inevitable barrier that pops up between an artist and his creative output, and the way to grow through this. No Restraint answers many questions, while still maintaining the inscrutable quality that defines Barney's work.

What these three diverse documentaries prove is that there is a space for reality to intertwine with fantasy, for documentary filmmakers to demystify that most mystified of characters without reducing their art to the easily explainable, but rather, exposing its complexity. After all, the very first definition of documentary was "the creative treatment of reality." Surely the goal of exposing the real does not preclude the process of artistic invention.

Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film aired on PBS' American Masters September 21 and 22; Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis will be released  in early 2007; Matthew Barney: No Restraint will be released in December through IFC Films.


Danielle DiGiacomo is a Brooklyn-based journalist and filmmaker who is currently editing her first feature, Island to Island: Returning Home from Rikers. She works as the documentary film coordinator for