The last time I was in a museum bookstore, I noticed a DVD series called Art:21. This turned out to be a suite of documentaries on practitioners active in the first decade of this century, some of them mature artists like Richard Serra and James Turrell, others in mid-career like Sally Mann, still others that are rising talents and less well-known. It’s been running on PBS stations for a while, but I flat missed it, since I rarely watch broadcast. So I took a break from the line of Perry Mason episodes I’ve been going through and added the discs to my Netflix queue.
The films are selective and to the point. Each hour-long episode deals with four artists, about ten to fifteen minutes apiece. With a few exceptions, there are no voiceovers or interviewer questions: the films (carefully edited) allow the artists to tell their stories in their own words. Title cards superimposed on images of the work provide dates and a bit of context. Each episode carries a thematic title (“place,” “spirituality,” “identity, “consumption” from the first season), but the connection of each artist’s work to the theme is sometimes tenuous. Each episode is introduced by a framing segment, of highly variable quality; Laurie Anderson does a fine job introducing the series premiere, but a collaboration between Steve Martin and William Wegman is fluff.
What I find especially encouraging about the project is its selectivity—the refusal by the producers (Executive Director Susan Sollins and her staff) to pump out material just for the sake of making product. Each season consists of only four hours of programming, and the seasons are produced every other year. So, after eight years, we have sixteen hours of film covering 60-odd artists. I’m looking forward to watching it all.