The collected documentaries of Michael and Christian Blackwood offer an extended studio visit with some of the 20th century’s leading artists. Here are artists at work and in conversation, with a minimum of frills: painters painting, sculptors sculpting and the jazz genius Thelonious Monk blazing away at the piano (and later telling a band member to drop in “any note you want”). If you’ve seen one too many art and music documentaries that resemble Wikipedia entries, then these back-to-basics films will be a genuine tonic, grounded in the nitty-gritty of art-making.
Born in Berlin before World War II and later safely settled in the United States, the Blackwood brothers started making their films in the 1960s at the height of a revolution in nonfiction storytelling. Over the years, their mid-length films didn’t garner the high profile of direct cinema pioneers like Robert Drew (“Primary”) or D.A. Pennebaker (“Don’t Look Back”). But the Blackwoods’ art-friendly version of you-are-there filmmaking has a rarely rivaled scope of subjects, and a free sampling is now streaming online through Pioneer Works, the Brooklyn cultural center.
“Monk”/”Monk in Europe” (1968) surely has one of the greatest opening shots in documentary: the jazz titan dancing in place in his inimitable style, spinning in the dark. From there the Blackwoods’ chronicle is off and running, leaning in to show Monk’s hands gliding across the piano in several lengthy performance excerpts, or hanging out backstage with him and a supporter (Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the Rothschild heir). The Blackwoods — Christian shooting, Michael directing and producing — skillfully set their documentary to Monk time, rather than cutting up his flow into bite-size pieces. He plays — he’s hustled to another gig across Europe — he chills — he waves away a producer’s request to record “something free-form,” preferring to play something easier “so people can dig it.”
The revealing offhand exchange is a signature moment of spontaneity for this style of documentary, and the Blackwoods are also strong when letting an artist hold forth at length. “Robert Motherwell: Summer of 1971” (1972) belongs to a subset of films about the New York School, and it’s a fascinating time capsule that’s part self-administered close reading, part art history lesson. The stately Robert Motherwell dabs another brush stroke on his latest elegy to the Spanish Republic, then reflects on how this recurring theme is like a lifelong relationship with a lover. We tag along for a visit to a genteel gallery opening in St. Gallen, Switzerland, but what sticks in the mind is Motherwell’s self-aware observations about the simultaneity of art movements. Picasso, Arp, Matisse and Degas were all alive and (mostly) kicking in the 1910s — the kind of insight that lights up other intersections all across history.
“Christo: Wrapped Coast” (1969) might feel like a throwback with its voice-of-God narration: “Once Christo had decided to wrap part of a continental coastline …” But this 30-minute film of Christo’s project in Little Bay, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, yields shifting perspectives on the billowing fabric as workers drape it across crags on the shore. The white wrapping looks delicate, treacherous, glorious, and foolhardy; when gales cut it all to ribbons, art turns instantly into ruins. Christo has no shortage of chroniclers, but the film aptly shows off the Blackwoods’ mission of documentation. One of their favorite camera moves — in “Philip Guston: A Life Lived” (1981), for example — is an eager pan around a studio or gallery, as if to take it all in for posterity.
Michael and Christian Blackwood began to work independently in the 1980s, but neither stinted on curiosity. “The Sensual Nature of Sound (1993),” covering the composers Laurie Anderson, Tania León, Meredith Monk and Pauline Oliveros, intersperses sit-down interviews with performances and rehearsals in a relatively routine way, but the bright vitality of the musicians is anything but. Their work rewires the brain, from Monk’s operatic, spoken-sung production of “Atlas” to the majestic Oliveros’s ethos of deep listening.
A couple of times while watching these documentaries, the recent “Get Back” film on the Beatles’ recording sessions came to mind, because of its exhaustive attention to process. But that project’s thrill lies in seeing the very first fragments of pop songs that have played millions of times. The Blackwoods just as often take us deep into the abstract and the unknown. Listening to artists articulate their intentions and hazard guesses about reality opens up fresh conversations and musings for a viewer.
The French artist Jean Dubuffet might have the best last word here. In “The Artist’s Studio: Jean Dubuffet” (2010), he responds to Michael Blackwood’s prompt by explaining that “culture is creation done” (that is, something already completed) and “art is creation in process.” It’s an intriguing and arguable distinction, but the sweeping terms neatly apply to the Blackwoods’ watchful art documentaries: they’re about art and culture, and delight in both.