Emile de Antonio (1919-1989)
Painters Painting (1972)
Painters Painting: The New York Art Scene 1940-1970 is a 1972 documentary directed by Emile de Antonio. It covers American art movements from abstract expressionism to pop art through conversations with artists in their studios. Artists appearing in the film include Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, Hans Hofmann, Jules Olitski, Philip Pavia, Larry Poons, Robert Motherwell, and Kenneth Noland.

"I was probably the only filmmaker in the world who could [have made Painters Painting] because I knew all those people, from the time that they were poor, and unsuccessful and had no money. I knew Warhol and Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and Stella before they ever sold a painting, and so it was interesting to [do the film about them]. They appeared in the film along with de Kooning, whom I knew very well, and Barnett Newman, who is now dead. They talked to me in a way that they would never have talked to anybody else because they knew I knew the subject." - Emile de Antonio

Sandwiched between two of the most biting and critically astute left-wing documentaries of their time (Millhouse: A White Comedy and Underground), radical filmmaker and friend-to-everybody Emile de Antonio brought his "theater of fact" - a rejection of verite/direct cinema practices, with a emphasis on a compilation method he referred to as "radical scavenging" - to the American art world. Focusing specifically on the period between 1946-70, de Antonio gathered the most famous artists of the day, many of which he was introduced to years earlier though his association with composer John Cage, and got them to speak candidly about their work, and the world that revolves around it.

What marks this as an interesting work is its lack of politics; the way it skirts around contemporary art practices without a hint of the critique it was praised for. Although friendships made it easier to record in-depth, intelligent interviews, it would have been more convincing to his overall cinematic mission to examine younger artists working in conceptual, minimalist, performance and video art. The filmmaker is not oblivious to this problem, though:

"...if you're totally abstract, you're not saying anything about the nature of society. I mean, even if you strain in the most labored way, you cannot say that a de Koonig abstraction or a Frankenthaler doodle or a Stella line [has to do with the] world. It has only to do with themselves..."

Minimalism began to coalesce as a vision in 1964 and 1965 when the first group shows bringing together the artists now regarded as the Minimalists took place. Historically, 1965 is also the year regular American combat troops entered Vietnam; the year the US started massive bombings of North Vietnam; the year Watts exploded in riots; and the year Malcolm X was assassinated. There is no way de Antonio was unaware of these new ideas forming in art, but more that this project was just not as important to him as his others. One gets the sense that he did this as a favor, nothing more than a historical document for his friends, as he stopped production in the middle to work on a more personal film, his Nixon satire Millhouse.

What's amazing is that although the film lacks de Antonio's strengths, it still is far superior to other documentaries on art, which tend to be boring, PBS style homages to the period and myths of the time period, In Painter's Painting, de Antonio is more concerned with the ideas embedded inside the work, and using his camera to probe deeply into said work, examining the abstract details that become obscured to a virgin spectator. The film falls short of critical examination, but works as a historical document of a period of American art that is rarely shown with this much honesty and love.