ART21 is a PBS show that highlights American artists or those who practice in the United States. It has issued a new season every two years since 2001, with the eighth season coming out in late 2016. Each season is four one-hour episodes, each highlighting three different artists.
Given the sheer number of profiles, some are inevitably better than others. Overall the selection is strong, providing some stunning portraits of artists doing breathtaking work. How can you not be awed by an artist who ignites gunpowder as a way to draw?
Its strength is its ability to capture contemporary artists at work, often as they are putting together and then commenting on a show. I imagine the crew spends an extended period with each artist. As a result, the artists appear at ease in these profiles and usually provide a back story that adds context. But if the work is not all that profound or the artist lacks skills at explaining, that commentary does drag.
On a bittersweet note, hearing some now deceased world famous artists, such as Louise Bourgeois or Nancy Spero, was a good way to better understand their work, which I have not always found easy to approach. As I frequently find their work in in museums, I now have more to draw on to understand their visual language.
Another discovery for me was to see how many African-American artists address the legacy of slavery in hard-hitting ways. The profile of Kara Walker certainly ranks as one of most powerful She highlights the brutality of slavery by creating shadow puppets, a seemingly benign art form from the period of slavery, but what she depicts is incredibly brutal. Her work can be disturbing, yet I found her the most friendly and approachable of all the artists profiled.
One of the limitations of the series is when the subjects are world famous active artists - Marina Abramovic, Ai Wei Wei - the profiles feel incomplete and reverential. The 20 minute allocation cannot compare with the full length documentaries produced about them and their work. In fairness, given Ai Wei Wei was put under house arrest at the time his profile was being created certainly limited the story they could tell.
Another shortcoming is that while successfully showing a selection of artists from around the globe, the series focuses on American or American-based artists. The series becomes even more downsized. largely to artists based in New York City. Hard to argue with focusing on the world’s art capital, but it does feel limiting that so many work in that environment.
A final shortcoming is the attempt to find a theme for each episode, such as time, ecology, history, etc. These themes do not really impact the content, but most do not seem to be relevant to the artists profiled. Which is fine, it is enjoyable to take an hour to watch three talented artists talk about their work.
The series has stood the test of time. I look forward to each episode, hoping that I will see something that leaves me amazed. I am usually rewarded, but it’s getting harder to find impressive artists as the years go by.