Last summer my friend Tony and I began watching feature-length films that portray artists. Growing up in the US, these films were our first models for what it meant to live and behave like an artist. Watching them again has been an exercise in nostalgia but also a critical investigation into the national image of the artist. A few weeks into our research a friend pointed us to an excellent survey of artists-in-film by Temporary Services called Framing the Artists. It includes Bucket of Blood (1959) and Color Me Blood Red (1965), two B movies we had already watched that cast artists as serial killers. These are just two of dozens of films we found that not only stereotype artists but cast them as sociopaths, idiots, misanthropes etc. This from Temporary Services: It is our contention that by continually watching, cataloging, and analyzing these portrayals, artists can also gain a better understanding of their own responsibilities to their viewers and how the stereotypes hurt their ability to effectively communicate their ideas.
During a dinner conversation with Kristina Lee Podesva last week at the Banff Centre, she brought up “Painter,” a performance-for-video by Paul McCarthy (see above). The video complicates the stereotyping of artists and satirizes expressionist painters. It’s a memorable piece, and it reminded me of one of the films Tony and I watched a few months ago called “Life Lessons” by Martin Scorsese (1989). In it Nick Nolte plays Lionel Dobie, an emotionally manipulative painter who exploits the career ambitions of a young female painter (Rosanna Arquette). He’s a deeply insecure and despicable character but not uncomplicated. I think of it as a rare and meaningful critique of the heroic/dramatic AbEx painters of the late 1980s.
Following is an excerpt of an interview with film production designer Kristi Zea, from the book By Design (pages 246, 247). It outlines the research process for the Scorsese film w/r/t the selection of the artist… and outlines echoes of the artworld evident in the film.
How did you choose the paintings painted by the Nick Nolte character in “Life Lessons,” the Martin Scorsese segment of New York Stories?
Marty had originally not intended to show the paintings at all. The first time he and I talked, he said, “I don’t want to see the paintings. I want us to film this entire thing without ever seeing what his work looks like.” So we started to find the locations and get everything else organized. Three weeks away from shooting, Marty said, “Kristi, I’ve made a big mistake; we’ve got to see what this guy is painting, otherwise I’m going to have trouble with the camera moves.” So I said, “Alright, what kind of painter do we want?” It couldn’t be just anybody; he had to be a recognized accomplished painter. This story talks about an established painter who has a real following. However, every established painter we sent the script to said, “This is not about me; this is not exactly a flattering portrait of a painter. I’m not interested.”
Did you talk primarily to Expressionist painters?
It ran the full gamut. At one point, we talked to Robert Motherwell and David Salle. At one point, Malcolm Morley was a very heavy contender. Malcolm was very interested; then after he read the script, he wasn’t so interested. So a lot of these painters felt they would be associated with the story if their work was too recognizable. The other thing to realize was because of Nick Nolte’s persona, size, and stature, he couldn’t be painting weensie little paintings or ones that were too precise or too analytical-that’s just not the kind of guy he is. So we had to cast the paintings like casting a person. On our staff we had a very talented research person who spent a lot of time in the art world. I told her to go out and do extensive research on bold-stroked painters who had a following–ideally, who worked and lived in New York, had a lot of their work available and not locked in museums somewhere, and who would be interested in the project.
Were you also asking the painter to paint on camera?
That evolved. We realized the painter we picked was going to be needed for hand shots. It was sort of like The Hustler.
What painter was selected after this search?
Chuck Connelly. I brought Marty down to his studio, and Marty looked at his work and liked it. Nick Nolte liked it. Nick felt it was the kind of work the character would do. Connelly’s paintings were bought by the Metropolitan Museum and the Saatchi collection in London. Articles had been written about him being on the cutting edge of the New Expressionistic landscape artists. He was in town, and all of his paintings were in town. Chuck was completely amenable to helping us, and he was willing to be “the hands.”
He taught Nick how to paint. Nick actually painted a Chuck Connelly-style painting and bought a Chuck Connelly painting when it was over. He was perfect, and I pride myself on insisting on him. I was thrilled about his use of color and the thickness of his paint. There was something almost mesmerizing about how Marty used the close-ups of the painting. “Life Lessons” was about painting; it wasn’t just about a relationship that didn’t work. It was about what makes an artist function. A lot of the scenic artists on the crew started painting again after they finished working on this film. They were so inspired being around Chuck and his work. Two guys came over to me afterwards and said, ‘I just want to thank you for being allowed to work on this project. I’ve started painting again.”
There is a principal painting that Nolte creates during the episode. What elements were prepared so that the painting looked as if it were being created in front of our eyes?
Chuck had a finished painting we all liked. We had to do the big painting Nick was working on in stages. Chuck did the different layers, so we were very accurate about the painting process. We had to think in terms of the continuity. We had to map it out, so that each time we saw him in his studio painting… the painting would be at a different stage, to make sure we had stage A, stage B, stage C, so that each time we filmed, there would be a different level of completion.
What was the inspiration for the design of the painters loft?
We went around and saw a lot of artists’ lofts. We looked at photos of de Kooning’s studio, which had a lot of the things we liked. He had modular easels on wheels that were like free-floating walls, which was great because you could hide lights behind them. They changed the space; you could make more intimate spaces with them. I saw the basketball hoop in Robert Longo’s loft, which I loved. I told Marty about a lot of what I’d seen. I showed him pictures of the de Kooning and Motherwell lofts so he could key off some of the pholographs. Francis Bacon had a great bedroom. I incorporated those things visually into the set.
The day after we watched the film, Tony sent me this link to a documentary film (2008) about Chuck Connelly. Apparently Connelly had “ended up alienating every collector and gallery owner he worked with,” in an uncanny parallel to Nolte’s character.