American Masters' "Artists Flight" Offers an Exquisite Dialogue with Four Towering Figures

TV Reviews American Masters
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<i>American Masters</i>' "Artists Flight" Offers an Exquisite Dialogue with Four Towering Figures

What is inspiration? How does biography inform creativity?

The kid was distinctly uncomfortable, and I had the weird instinctive feeling she wasn’t tired or hungry—the art had set her off. Testing the theory, I walked out of the Eva Hesse installation at SFMoMA and stood holding my crying semi-toddler in front of a Mark Rothko canvas.

She stopped crying.

I walked back into Hesse’s landscape of tubes and strings, and my daughter started to squirm and whine again. It was the art. Hesse was freaking her out. I hadn’t thought about that day for ages, until I caught American Masters’ film on Hesse’s life and work last week. There they were, the giant sea-worms and latex-dipped twinescapes I remembered having to remove my young child from—along with a lot of stuff I had never learned about the woman who made them. It’s a fascinating documentary, as ephemeral and emotionally raw as Hesse’s own works often were, with much of the narrative coming from Hesse’s own journals. It’s brilliant and engaging and I highly recommend it, regardless of whether you’ve had to tow a distraught child out of one of her installations.

My daughter’s a teenager now and a pretty talented artist for her age. The day Hesse made her melt down happened while she was too young to have a memory of it, so I can’t ask her what she was feeling, but when we’re exposed to art—visual art, music, theater, literature—we are wired to react emotionally to it. We don’t have to be trained to appreciate it, though that can be useful. We just do.

The question of whether we must understand an artist to understand a body of work has been debated for ages, and there will probably always be valid arguments on both sides. But it has always been true that people have a fundamental yearning to understand the creative process (regardless whether we consider ourselves “creatives”), to understand the nature of inspiration—and to understand how inspiration functions in specific artists we might happen to admire or relate to or love.

American Masters’ portrait of Hesse is part of its “artists flight” of documentaries, which includes three other influential American artists—Elizabeth Murray, Andrew Wyeth, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The programs, appropriately given the diversity of their subjects, view the artists through diverse lenses (with Murray and Hesse we have a wealth of personal writings available to incorporate; with Basquiat, there’s more video footage, etc). But whatever the dominant documentary approach, each of these finely crafted films expands our understanding of an important (the overused word “iconic” is probably not out of place, in fact) artist, gives us a glimpse at what drove them, what inspired them, what they lived with, dealt with, worked with. Each of them grappled with mortality in a certain way. Each applied the dynamics of family and society to their work in a way that was his or her own. And in understanding how their experiences shaped their work, we develop a keener understanding of how their work has shaped our experience. That dialogue can be one of the most exquisite conversations in the human experience, whether you’re someone who self-identifies as an “art lover” or not. It doesn’t matter: Art loves you whether or not you consciously love it back. If you want proof of that, watch these films.

American Masters: Eva Hesse is now streaming at PBS.org. American Masters: Everybody Knows… Elizabeth Murray premieres tonight at 9 p.m., followed by American Masters: Wyeth at 10 p.m., both on PBS. American Masters—Basquiat: Rage to Riches, premieres Friday, Sept. 14, at 9 p.m., also on PBS. Check your local listings.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.