Lives of the Artists: Two New Docs Offer Insight Into the Creative Life

In many ways, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (Music Box DVD) is a film about watching a woman sit nonreactive, silent, motionless in front of a parade of strangers for hours, for weeks, for months. But Matthew Akers' new documentary is also about the woman who is willing to attempt such a feat, and whose life of hardship and performance and rigor and will and personal growth prepared her to carry it through. In both respects, it is an engrossing experience that both combines and outstrips the usual fictional biopic and the self-serious artist doc.

Akers' cameras catch up with Abramovic, a well-preserved 63 at the time, as she prepared for her 2010 retrospective show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. A one-woman show at MoMA is not an unusual honor for a renowned contemporary artist with decades of groundbreaking work behind her, but it is unique for an artist working in Abramovic's medium: performance. Without an archive full of canvases or installation pieces to haul out, the show presented video documentation of her past performance pieces, e.g. a young, nude Abramovic running headlong into a concrete pillar over and over. The cameras follow her to her upstate estate where she puts a cadre of young artists through a mini performance boot camp so that they can re-perform some of her pieces for the show, like a pair of nude performers facing each other in a narrow doorway so that museumgoers have to squeeze between them to get to the next gallery. And she also prepares herself for the epic piece that gives the film its title.

Along the way, you get the artist's bio in a refreshingly undogmatic way. The daughter of World War II-era Serbian partisans, she grew up in an atmosphere of discipline but not much love, ideal agar to sprout an artist whose work literally embodies both self-sacrifice and vulnerability. The film traces her early career and her collaboration/romantic partnership with fellow performance artist Ulay as they starved their way around Europe living in a van and mounting duo performances that often played off male/female dynamics. When they eventually broke up, they did so in their own particular fashion: In 1988, he started walking at one end of the Great Wall of China, she started walking at the other, and when they met in the middle, more than 1,500 miles later, the piece and the relationship were over.

All of this indomitable backstory leads up to the culmination of the MoMA show, the piece The Artist Is Present, in which Abramovic sat unmoving in a chair in a gallery for more than seven hours a day, six days a week, for three months, silently making eye contact with each member of a constant procession of patrons who made their way to a chair opposite her. As interesting as Abramovic's work is, as compelling a subject as she makes, at this point the doc takes an unexpected turn. Like an unspeaking confessor, or maybe just a mirror, her presence and the parameters of the piece bring out unexpected depths among patrons. Many smile or just stare back, while many break into tears. Some grandstand in their own silent way, but the line lengthens as the piece draws to a close and builds potency. The film becomes, in part, about the effect on the people who sit down across from her as much as the grueling affect on her. The piece speaks to the power of her work, as does this film.

Gerhard Richter Painting (Kino Lorber DVD, Blu-ray, download, and streaming) is, in all respects, a more typical artist doc, but that's not to say it, or its subject, is typical. Perhaps no painter has done more to revive/redefine painting for the 21st century than the German-born Gerhard Richter, who moved from figurative painting based on photographs and playing with layers of visual representation in his early career (to great acclaim and success) on to myriad forms of abstraction, confounding and dazzling at each new unexpected iteration. Director Corinna Belz's film gets just inside the threshold of his wry, good-natured, but gnomic personality, but it does penetrate a bit further inside his thinking about art, and perhaps most important, it gets inside his studio as he works.

Richter often works not only with brushes, but also with giant bespoke squeegees. For many of his paintings, he first covers a large canvas with rough, colorful forms and then scrapes over them with what amount to giant planks. The results resemble not much a representation of what the artist can do with paint, but as a representation of what paint can do, records of the physical painting that took place more than mere surfaces to present a visual impression. Even when the canvases are largely monochrome (he made a whole series of gray paintings at one point), they present tantalizing new possibilities for one of humankind's oldest arts, an impressive feat at this stage. There are some organizational/narrative gambits here—journeying to an opening, designing a new show—but the most compelling footage involves watching Richter silently working—like Abramovic, conjuring something rich and vital out of almost nothing.