Actor, Painter, Satire

December 4, 2009  |  By
Filed under: Field Notes

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.

10 Comments

  1. Frank Lostaunau Says:

    Chuck Connelly has a toxic brain. There’s great sorrow in this world.

  2. Suzanne Says:

    I’d like to do a parallel consideration of portrayals of writers and their attendant stereotyped neuroses and derelict habits as depicted on film, for example womanizing drunks (the men) and hysterical, nymphomaniacal or frigid (yes, under those terms, the women), or in either case the suicides, either by overt means (gunshot wounds to head, sleeping pills) or the self-punishing: cigarettes, drugs, ‘booze’, loneliness (combinatory effects of the womanizing hysterical misanthropic closeted of any gender)

    The point Temporary Services makes is an interesting one (and very funny) and I like how it points away from the young aspiring artist encounters with those presentations of affect and instead turns to the non-artmaking public conception of. How does the set of stereotypes affect the way someone understands ‘the product’ as the result of such psychology, and what is the artist to do about it (that part is extremely funny: understand the psychology of your ‘market’ and learn to speak around, under, or subvert or top that) What does someone ‘get a purchase on’ when reading, looking, when there’s that white noise gloss on who’s making the thing in the background of the encounter.

    i was also interested in the ‘casting the paintings like casting a person’ bit in the interview, that seems right to me, at least to have been considered. How successful was that do you think? I remember thinking that in that little set of films (isn’t that a suite of, by several filmmakers?) the scorcese/nick nolte one was the only one watchable, but it was ages ago I would have seen it & can’t recall the others.

  3. Frank Lostaunau Says:

    last night i was stuck on what happened to chuck connelly…remembered anna mendieta…made me cry…great artists both of um…chuck is about the ruins of alcohol…i’m crying again

  4. Joseph del Pesco Says:

    Suzanne: I suppose I’m not as concerned with how the understanding of the artist affects the reading of a work as I am about how the damaged image of the artist casts doubts in the minds of would-be-supporters and funders. I’m thinking of the federal and state governments who have been and continue to be massively distrustful of the arts (a wariness that was intensified after the culture wars). Perhaps the romantic aura and outsider status projected by these films will continue to attract wayward pre-college teens, and sustain enrollment quotas in the art schools, but without a few more nuanced portraits of artists in the media landscape, a “public opinion” of suspicion will continue to dominate.

    Yes, Scorsese’s film was from the trilogy “New York Stories” (1989) with F.F. Coppola and Woody Allen. I haven’t seen the other two. I also neglected to mention that the screenplay for “Life Lessons” was written by Richard Price, one of the great writers of dialog. His book Clockers inspired the HBO series The Wire, probably the best show in the history of television. Anyway… it’s ultimately the writing that makes Life Lessons worth watching, in part because the narratives are plausible in a way that is uncomfortable to watch. But I like that the production designer pulled aspects from the studios and lives of living artists. It’s not something I’ve read much about, how fictional films construct meaning in relation to real circumstances, people, places etc… much like art does… a complex web of references.

    In re your question ‘How successful?’ … the point I meant to imply at the end was that I think the casting of Chuck Connelly was incredibly, perhaps supernaturally successful. The film is just a short slice in the life of a by-all-accounts successful artist, but it’s obvious that his relationships are deeply troubled and that his way of life, while romantic is also vampiric and, from what I can tell, an emotional train wreck.

  5. Suzanne Says:

    That’s interesting Joseph and i didn’t think about this in the immediate—in terms of ‘public opinion’ translating to government funding dollars, money to the artist (or to art programs in the schools) rather than to the artwork. But specifically, I think, you’re talking about funding for individual artists, or artist projects—especially as there are more artist projects that aren’t about producing objects, and thus there is nothing (or little) to sell, and the need for means of support other than direct-exchange becomes imperative. This actually does point back to what you’ve quoted from Temporary Services, that understanding the stereotypes the artist’s audience (under your terms Joseph, general public opinion or government funding structures) has in mind–in part because of Hollywood stereotyping—might help the artist (even if TS is saying this tongue in cheek) to know how to be properly ‘perceived’, or what is working against them in their pursuit of meeting their goals (whether the goal is ‘understanding’, ‘a buyer’ or ‘a grant’). Some off the cuff examples: viewer understands work, or gains by it, or is able to read a more ‘universal’ (and thus applicable-to-the-viewer—or participant) critique of, say a government funding structure; or public opinion no longer finds art and artmaking inapplicable to their experience because they can now identify with what’s presented as the product or function of an emotionally stable artist who is, basically, a good return on their investment.

    None of which is to say I disagree with you! I totally agree! To complexify via various kinds of portrayals a public understanding of the nature of art, art-making, artists, and what they produce and who benefits from it, regardless of their personality quirks (maybe they vote…..REPUBLICAN! and decry abortion!) is of necessity.

    my question about the success or not of the paintings was—not really knowing CC’s paintings or remembering the film well—whether or not you thought the objects (not the artist’s personality or personal life) suited the character in the film. But perhaps this is the same question as the one you answered.

    all of this provocative.

  6. Frank Lostaunau Says:

    i think that chuck is trying his best to stay alive… he no longer enjoys what alcohol does to him because the highs are long gone, he drinks to avoid withdrawal…if he stops drinking suddenly without medical supervision he will likely stroke or have a heart attack…if you see him waddling like a duck to get about, it’s because of damage to his cerebellum…after so many years of drinking alcohol has warped his personality…alcohol is his worst enemy…it’s a predictive downhill course…it’s unreasonable to expect anything more from chuck unless he receives the medical care that he desperately needs…i will always admire and love chuck connelly…

    su amigo,

    quico antonio lostaunau

  7. marcella Says:

    i’m not so sure that public distrust sprouts from a connection to the artist’s persona. we certainly have public figures that behave in very lamentable ways but yet the cult of personality in our culture won’t come to a halt.

    i think the root of this perception is a constant misunderstanding of art generated by a lack of education and will towards learning. time based media has changed a great deal through the years and the consuming public has molded itself to it many times. art remains a segregated playground for the upper classes but even them sometimes fail greatly in understanding how to experience it. although class division is a factor, i do think there is much more to it. needless to say there is a deep, ingrained resentment in american culture towards intellectualism or just plain thought. nobody wants to watch that. it is not shiny and it doesn’t come undone in front of our eyes.

    it is probably worthy of mention that a lot of times what ppl have trouble with is eccentricity. and i do think that just as we need the very business like and “mens sana in corpore sano” type of artists, the eccentric ( and i don’t mean mentally chalenged or drug addled) types have to be allowed plenty of room as well. in our corporate oriented culture, opposition is much needed.

    bark at the moon! ;)

    for laughs: curator behaving badly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6V0eww_X4g&feature=related
    and a poetically hilarious look at the fail of the art life: http://videodetective.com/TitleDetails.aspx?publishedid=00018101

  8. Lina P. Says:

    When did filmmaking get fired from the arts? If inquisitions are to be commenced, perhaps we could begin with the stereotyped portrayals of filmmakers in literature and gallery-based art. The former, at least, has much explaining to do…

    And as for Richard Price’s script being the real item of note in Life Lessons – have you no eyes for what Scorsese is doing with the camera, for crying out loud? At his best (though admittedly for me Life Lessons for me is his last major work), Scorsese’s cinematic chops wipe the floor with Price’s finest prose.

  9. Anthony Discenza Says:

    Following up (quite belatedly) on Marcella’s comment, the core issue for me is the American fear/obsession with creativity, which often rides alongside its distrust and resentment of intellectualism, but I think is separate from it–I suspect it’s perhaps more aligned with our deeply conflicted attitudes towards sexuality. American culture has a problem with creativity in any form; while we’re completely addicted to the output of creative workers of every stripe, we’re deeply threatened by the creative impulse. it’s messy, inchoate, seductive, dangerous; it forces us to think it ways we’d rather not. Thus the creative impulse (like sexuality) must be managed, delineated, constrained, controlled. I think the depiction of artists, writers, filmakers, etc. as emotionally troubled, dysfunctional people is in part a reflection of this fear. The message seesm to be that there’s always a price to pay for creative ability, sure, that guy may be a great painter, but look, he’s emotionally stunted, manipulative; he can’t be trusted, he’s impotent, he can’t hold down a real job, he takes drugs. The mythology of the dysfunctional creative type is deeply reassuring to the puritanical American mindset. And unlike the streak of anti-intellectualism that runs through US culture, I dare say that this complusion to manage and control the creative type extends deep into the art world itself…

  10. phil king Says:

    “He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew. Thereafter he never lacked for commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success atrociously. An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle three years previously, tells how “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.”[2] In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. “.
    Caravaggio (from Wikkepedia).

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