The 1973 Documentary that Delved into the NYC Painting Scene

See a rare 16mm print of Emile de Antonio’s Painters Painting, which captures the period in American art when post-war abstraction was giving way to Pop.

A scene from <em>Painters Painting</em> (Emile de Antonio, 1973) (screenshot by the author)
A scene from Painters Painting (Emile de Antonio, 1973) (screenshot by the author)

“The problem of American painting had been a problem of subject matter,” goes the opening voice-over in Emile de Antonio’s seminal 1973 documentary Painters Painting. “Painting kept getting entangled in the contradictions of America itself. We made portraits of ourselves when we had no idea who were; we tried to find garden landscapes that we were destroying as fast as we could paint them; we painted Indians as fast as we could kill them; and during the greatest technological jump in history, we painted ourselves as a bunch of fiddling rustics.” His film goes on to depict a New York art scene that has found its voice in abstraction.

The film, a rare 16mm print of which screens on Thursday at the New York Public Library’s Seward Park branch, offers a very thorough survey of the city’s contemporary art scene in the 1970s, with Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler (the lone female artist profiled), Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Larry Poons, and Kenneth Noland discussing their processes and sharing their thoughts on the state of painting in their studios.

A scene from Painters Painting (Emile de Antonio, 1973) (screenshot by the author)
Larry Poons in his studio in a scene from Painters Painting (Emile de Antonio, 1973) (screenshot by the author)

But de Antonio — who was not only a keen observer of the art world but an active participant connecting artist friends with gallerists — also offers a view of the power players and gatekeepers championing the contemporary art of the time through interviews with collectors, curators, critics, dealers, and, of course, Clement Greenberg. The interviews and studio scenes offer an improbably intimate portrait of American art in a key moment of aesthetic, social, and economic transformation. (And for those who can’t make it to Thursday’s screening, you didn’t hear it from us, but the whole thing is on YouTube.)

When: Thursday, April 12 at 6:30pm
Where: New York Public Library Seward Park Library branch (192 East Broadway, Lower East Side, Manhattan)

More info at the New York Public Library.

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