Thursday, September 10

Painting Painters - Abstract Expressionism in America

Today’s Image
A Representation of an Abstract Expressionist Painting
Courtesy of Microsoft

I’ve blogged about programs on the Sundance Channel before. Last time it was a documentary about a Jackson Pollock painting. This time it’s about the New York School (of Painters) 1940-1970 entitled Painters Painting . Since none of the abstract expressionists paintings are in the public domain yet, or at least none I could verify, Today’s Image is a representation of one.

You may or may not have access to the Sundance Channel through your cable TV, satellite, or whatever technology. Or your part of the world may not yet have access to the Sundance Channel. If that is the unfortunate case, sorry to blog about something you can't see, but it is a most interesting film on some very famous American painters.

One reason I like the Sundance Channel is that it regularly carries programs about art and artists that you won’t find in many other venues. Their other programming is pretty good, too, but it’s the art documentaries that get my attention. Painters Painting does, and hereafter I'll just refer to it as PP.

As I’ve mentioned before in the blog, I’m not studied or degree’d in art history, so I guess that‘s why I like shows like PP. It’s educational, and, if you like art, entertaining as well.

It was made in 1973 by Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson. The opening lines speak of this American art as being of a grand magnitude and how the movie will answer the question: what is American abstract?

Its presentation is relatively simple--nothing but filmed (no digital, of course) interviews of artists in New York City, which, I’m guessing, were produced in the 1960s although some of the black-and-white segments could have been done earlier. The program covers the era of Abstract Expressionism (AE) from 1940 to 1970, although AE wasn’t really recognized as a genre until the 1950s.

The interviews are a mix of artists, curators, critics, and collectors. During the interviews, each provides insight into his or her own work. I recognized many of the artists from my reading, such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. The work of Jackson Pollack and Clyfford Still are also discussed, but they were not interviewed.

Others were interviewed with whom I was not so familiar ( my own fault) including Barnett Newman, Hans Hoffman, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, Marcel Duchamp, Jules Olitski, and Larry Poons.

Following are examples of how artists discuss the genre and/or their work. Motherwell discusses anxiety and violence, anger and beauty, and AE as an American situation. Newman said the subject of the painting is all-important, rather than technique or medium. Willem de Kooning talks about light in his studio being so important and how he uses color and tone. Rauschenberg said you had to feel sorry for yourself to be an abstract expressionist. Frank Stella talked about the “push and pull” of AE being the ability to pull you in or push you back as a viewer.

Critics, such as Clement Issenberg and Hilton Kramer (New York Times), were also interviewed to add their take on AE, as were curators including Henry Geldzahler, Leo Castelli, and John Hightower and William Rubin from the Museum of Modern Art. Equally interesting was the input of collectors Philip Johnson, the famous architect, and Robert Scull and his wife.

I also learned about several sub-movements within AE, such as Avant Garde, Action Painting, Color Field Painting, and Pop Art; as I said, it’s very educational.

Near the end of the program was a most interesting “demo” (for lack of a better term) of how Larry Poons created one of his large acrylic abstract paintings. He shows how he lays down the paint, how he edits the color, and how he then installs the huge canvas on a wall.

Painters Painting is a little long at two hours, and there are parts that get a little yawn-y, but all in all, I say watching this program is time well spent. I recorded the show in late August, 2009, but I noticed on their website that PP is not currently showing on the Sundance Channel. I hope when it’s shown again, you are one of the viewers.



  1. I loved this show. I recorded it about two weeks ago. It was excellent and very informative! I'm a painter myself and wish there was more quality shows like this on a regular basis. Nice post!

    Mancel Lindsey

  2. I agree, and thanks for your comments! I hope other painters are able to see it in the near future.

  3. I wish I had that channel and I wish I had seen this! I love abstract expressionism, it's a huge influence of mine. I was recently at the Tate Modern in London and the piece that impacted me the most was a Barnett Newman.

  4. I wish I had seen it, too. Last year there was an exhibit at The Menil in Houston with a Newman and several Jasper Johns and Cy Twombleys.

  5. Byrne, I come to you via Miranda's recommendation, and I am sure glad I did. AE is a very appealing genre for me as I remember it was upon first seeing a Pollack I felt the most overwhelming emotion and began to cry. It was beautiful.

    Thank you for your insights to the Sundance Channel. Not being a big TV watcher, I do not know too much about these special networks. I will be searching for this one, however. I will also be exploring your blog further.

    Have a Wonderful Day.


  6. Thanks, Kim! I hope you visit often. I try to find interesting things in the art world to blog about.