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Framing a gleeful picture of creativity

A PBS series about art avoids the usual traps of sanctimoniousness and forced moral uplift. Celmins and Puryear are among the profiles.

September 09, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

At the start of "Art: 21 -- Art in the Twenty-First Century," an Emmy-nominated series beginning its second, four-episode season tonight at 9 on PBS outlet KCET, filmmaker John Waters gleefully declares, "I love collecting art, because it makes other people insane."

Waters is blessedly indifferent to the typical demands for moral uplift, spiritual transformation or sanctimonious edification that tend to characterize the prospect of art on TV. Instead, Baltimore's gift to world cinema puckishly implies that perversity and fun are reason enough to pay attention to contemporary art; so what brings you here?

Normally television -- even public television -- should be kept as far away from art as a convicted child molester should from a neighborhood playground. Mass culture thrives on piety, genuine or faked, and piety suffocates art.

Nor can TV usually resist trying to parse the audience first, making all kinds of assumptions about what it does or does not know, like or care about. "Art: 21" works quite well because, near as I can tell from seeing two of the four hourlong shows, it ignores that propensity. The show is mostly concerned with what the artists who are its subject care about.

Producers Susan Sollins and Catherine Tatge and director Charles Atlas let the artists do the talking on their own behalf, both in the studio and at various exhibition venues. Painter Vija Celmins is at her easel using a tiny brush to articulate unreachable stars in the Milky Way. Sculptor Martin Puryear revisits an elaborate folly built from stone in a collector's sprawling yard. Korean-born expatriate Do-Ho Suh is shown fabricating thousands of tiny male and female figures with their arms upraised, to collectively hold up the transparent glass floor on which visitors will nervously walk.

Here, and in segments with Kara Walker, Kiki Smith, Paul Pfeiffer and eight others, a useful, unromantic sentiment recurs. Inspiration is overrated, they suggest. Art is a job, and for artists there is no substitute for just getting down to work.

The show's selection of artists is arbitrary. Unhelpfully, they've been put into groups, four artists per show. Waters introduces the first segment, headlined "Stories," actress Jane Alexander a show about "Loss and Desire," choreographer Merce Cunningham one about "Time" and, comedian Margaret Cho introduces one on "Humor." These themes are reductive. Yes, Celmins' art raises questions about time -- and about the virtue of putting in studio time -- but her work would do just as well in any of the other segments. No worthwhile art is one-dimensional.

Fortunately, the theme is announced almost casually at the start of each episode. By the time the first 15 minutes is over, it's pretty much forgotten. Then you can enjoy watching the artists work and think out loud.


'Art: 21 -- Art in the Twenty-First Century'

Where: KCET-TV

When: Today, Parts 1 and 2, 9-11 p.m.; Wednesday, Parts 3 and 4, 9-11 p.m.

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