The many strange cinematic portraits of the art life.
The pitch for Laurie Simmons’ debut feature, My Art, was that it would finally get it right. Not get the art movie right, as in all movies are art, as in everything is art if you talk about it long enough. But get the art movie right, as in that particularly ekphrastic genre of cinema about people who make art, the kind most of us are used to seeing behind the painted and oft-guarded lines of museum display. Simmons is most known, by the masses at least, as the mother of Lena Dunham, a woman who has achieved renown for Girls, that six-year autofictive project on the milieu of white millennial women living in New York. Simmons is also a well-exhibited photographer, of that scene that includes Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. The opportunity of My Art was twofold: to, like Girls, represent the particularities of a generation of artists that popular cinema had abandoned and, in doing so, finally present a view of the creative life divorced from the fantasia of the canvas, to give us a front seat at watching something that connected to actual art marketplace.
The subject is a persistent one in certain caverns of the cinematic imagination, albeit one that many are convinced is constantly done incorrectly. “So many films which have gotten it wrong come to mind,” prefaces David Frankel in his review of My Art in Artforum. Simmons, herself, has said that much of her motivation behind taking to the narrative imagination came from a frustration with the likeminded figures that populate it. To note: last month, Danièle Thompson’s Cézanne and I just finished its brief, if undistinguished, theatrical run to make room for Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, a study of the life of Nova Scotian folk painter Maud Lewis. Somehow, only one of these movies stars Ethan Hawke.
While generally about the dramaturgy of their subject’s lives—Cézanne and I is almost equally about novelist Émile Zola as it is Paul Cézanne—both movies insist on their connection to the aesthetics their subjects achieved renown for. A look at the movie posters testifies to this: Cézanne’s brushstroke-heavy mountaintops and Lewis’ primary color folksiness. What is promised and what must disappoint the likes of Frankel and Simmons is that movies such as these are unable to live up to that promise, that finding out about the depths of Cézanne’s feelings about some novel does not give us much of an entryway into understanding how the something like The Bather comes to emerge out of a milieu of impressionist noise.
This is partially an issue of the medium; movies cannot occupy the space of well-liked canvases any more than they can be squeezed out of tubes and minutely scraped into the correct and perfect corners of the canvas by Timothy Spall in his turn as the titular Mr. Turner. But the narrative of the artist, that thing of James Joyce’s imagination, that fictive ideal of free-spirited creativity, carries a cinematic appeal that guides the genre. Cue Julian Stallabrass: “If despite the small chance of success, the profession of artist is so popular, it is because it offers the prospect of labor that is apparently free of narrow specialization, allowing artists, like heroes in the movies, to endow work and life with its own meanings.”
The artist movie, then, validates the fantasy; to watch Ed Harris’ Jackson Pollock, in Pollock, turn blank canvases into recognizable images from magazines is enlivening entertainment, even if it fails to provide any insight into the work. We hear Marcia Gay Harden’s longsuffering Lee Krasner tells us that they are works of the utmost genius, ditto Amy Madigan’s Peggy Guggenheim and ourselves. The visual thrill of watching white space filled is catnip for the projection screen of our imagination. Robert Rauschenberg, for this reason, has yet to get the biopic treatment.
The retreat into the certainties of the painterly past (this current century has, so far bequeathed us titles such as Mr. Turner, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Goya’s Ghosts, Nightwatching and an upcoming animated film called Loving Vincent) underlines the popular insecurity with the contemporary art’s world’s move into conceptual space. Even the thieves in a heist movie like Danny Boyle’s Trance feel compelled to steal a Goya and not, say, a pricey Zeng Fanzhi. The lives of artists offer scripts a chance to celebrate the materially successful creative life, but most people are wary of what artists seem to have been doing for the past half-century or so. For all the ubiquity of Andy Warhol, there has yet to be a full biopic on the man who helped disassemble the individual creative enterprise of man-in-front-of-the-canvas. Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol comes closest, but it is not, at any rate, an admiring portrait. (And I’m also excluding the work of Jim Sharman, of Rocky Horror Picture Show-fame, who filmed a musical called Andy X: A 40 Minute Screen Séance with Andy Warhol a few years back that he explicitly called “a poetic exploration of Warhol…not a biopic.” Jared Leto is also supposed to play Warhol at some point but has, as of writing, not.) Other artists of the last century who have gotten the biopic treatment are figurative oil and acrylic acolytes like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Georgia O’Keefe.
Films about fictional painters are another thing entirely, a genre that, per Wikipedia, is its own thing with no less than 74 volumes. Most of them, one notes, take up the storied subgenre that is the suffering comic book artist who wants to get laid (Chasing Amy) or end up in murder mysteries (Slam Dance). Movies about actual painters working in that nefarious art world are rarer; we get Gene Kelly’s loutish amateur in An American in Paris and another community of failed Parisian painters in Albert Lewin’s wartime curio, The Moon and Sixpence. But pickings become barer the closer to the contemporary scene we run toward. The art gallery is set-piece of many a New York adventure, but it’s often a place of absurdist caricature. In the lens of comedies like Louie and Broad City, we view them as outsiders, perpetrators of some strange shit.
A few interesting curious of the contemporary artist movie come to mind. No less than Martin Scorsese took on the gendered dynamics of the New York art scene in his chapter of New York Stories, an anthology film that also featured shorts by Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola. Titled “Life Lessons” and taking its romantic dynamics from a Dostoevsky short story, Scorsese pitted a well-established and bearded Nick Nolte as a latter-day abstract expressionist with dismissive opinions on Pollock opposite a struggling ex-girlfriend played by Rosanna Arquette, who has left him for a performance artist played by Steve Buscemi. While still thoroughly in the terrain of the painter filling canvases, Scorsese can capture the futility that occupies the artist unable to make meaning out off squeezed paint tubes. The creative process of Nolte’s late abstract expressionist is neither reverent nor farcical; he blasts Procol Harum and Cream at high volumes. Whether his work is legitimate genius or not is irrelevant, when Arquette, spots him at work, her gaze is locked in totally insular Scorsese-esque armor.
Another movie that featured Steve Buscemi as a minor figure of the New York art scene was James Ivory’s Slaves of New York, an adaptation of Tama Janowitz’s collection of short stories of the same, poorly aged, name. Ivory (he, of Jane Austen in Manhattan and Academy Award-winning adaptation of A Room with a View) is captivated by the allure of gallery openings and the arbitrary whimsy of what sells on the creative marketplace. The movie’s heroine, played by Bernadette Peters, is a designer of hats. They are not very great hats; they fall apart and have names like “Santa Clause Goes to Russia.” But not all art is great, after all, or can claim the noble aspirations that comes assumed with Pollock or Cézanne. Roger Ebert, in his half-star pan of the movie, chides: “They want to use art as a way of obtaining success, which is more important to them than art will ever be.”
Art, as a real thing and an actual measure of obtaining success, is an omnipresent theme in Lena Dunham’s work. Her debut feature, which stars Laurie Simmons as an artist who makes the movie’s titular Tiny Furniture, takes for its subject artists attempting to turn their creative projects into something that can lead to something else. A wacky YouTube star, played by Alex Karpovsky, enters the movie because he is looking to sell his brand to a TV network and Dunham’s character, too, spends much of the movie waiting to place a video she has made in an art gallery. Girls, too, would be interested in the mechanics of the culture industry: art galleries prominently featured in the show’s first few seasons and its patrons are not mocked so much as observed with a scalpel knife.
My Art takes a similar interest in these machinations; Simmons begins her film at the Whitney and ends it in an art gallery, two self-conscious poles of the art marketplace. In between these destinations, Simmons staggers the creation of the movie’s art product. The product takes the form of some carefully studied reinterpretations of classic movie scenes; visual shorts that enact, say, the droogs of Clockwork Orange or the bad boy theatrics of Badlands. The relative smallness of this accomplishment feels interesting in itself, the ostensibly valuable product of the movie’s celebration of creative enterprise threaten to underwhelm. But maximalism is merely a style and not an ultimate good. Like Scorsese, Simmons is interested in the process as an exercise that comments on itself.
So, what does My Art say about, well, its art? It is unafraid to reveal itself as created amid emporiums of everyday trash; it is unafraid to show the art world as build of the same. There is nothing particularly sacred about its material nor its makers, Simmons’ assistants appear as merely neighbors, played by Robert Clohessy, John Rothman, and Josh Safdie. Parker Posey briefly appears. The narrative fixtures are the stuff of an old Ingmar Bergman movie, the Shakespearean comic adventure to a place outside ornamentation.
But the narrowness of their aim does not deter from the profundity of their vision, like Dunham’s use of the small-stakes comedy, what Simmons creates ultimately feels real and lived in. It feels like something you would see in New York somewhere and what could be more real than that.