For the past eight years, Doc NYC, the largest documentary film festival in America, has been showcasing films that go against the grain of conventional storytelling. This year, many of the 300-plus films playing at the West Village’s IFC Center, Chelsea’s SVA Theater, and Bow Tie Chelsea Cinema pay homage to the festival’s bustling hometown; among them are three documentary features that offer new insights into the lives and careers of game-changing 20th-century New York City artists.
In Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground, director Chuck Smith focuses his gaze on the larger-than-life experimental filmmaker who defied sexist social conventions to make a name for herself in the 1960s downtown art scene. Rubin, who was instrumental in introducing Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground, nudged her way into an arts community populated predominantly by men, becoming a disruptive creative presence within American avant-garde cinema. One of the earliest practitioners of multi-projector filmmaking, she was just 17 when she made her daring art-porn masterpiece, Christmas on Earth, in 1963. Originally titled Cocks and Cunts, the 29-minute film featured masked, face-painted performers engaged in heterosexual and homosexual orgies. To create the final product, she divided her footage into two separate reels and then projected one reel, halved in size, within the full-sized second reel. The black and white film came with instructions for projection through colored filters.
This radical work turned Rubin into the cynosure of 1960s underground New York: “Everybody wanted to talk to her, invite her, be with her,” remembers filmmaker Jonas Mekas in the documentary. In 1963, Mekas hired Rubin, who had just left a mental hospital, to work at the non-profit Film-Makers’ Cooperative; she soon became an indispensable presence there, organizing local and international events.
With the relatively cheap Bolex cameras entering the market, filmmaking became accessible to more people, including Rubin. Archival footage in Smith’s film shows Rubin filming her subjects: moving up and down with her Bolex, like a dance routine only she knew. Her friends, family members and former colleagues recount her brilliance and try to resurrect her as the trailblazer that she was. For women making films today, Rubin is nothing short of a foremother whose art was way ahead of its time. A bold voice against censorship, she was famous for smuggling the film Flaming Creatures into Belgium’s Knokke Experimental Film Festival, unabashedly flouting the country’s censorship laws. Smith’s documentary tribute explores the formidable creativity of a beautiful, young genius who once said, “One must constantly expose oneself, taking risks and plunging. For that is life.” The film also grapples with this same woman’s decision to give it all up for a quiet life of Orthodox Jewish piety before her untimely death, of a postnatal infection, at the age of 35.
As Rubin’s cohort aged out of the bustle of New York’s artistic Lower East Side, photographers like Jay Maisel emerged as rightful inheritors of the generation’s creative energy and the fabled Village lifestyle. In 1966, Maisel bought a six-story, 72-roomed erstwhile bank building at 190 Bowery. For the next 50 years, he used it as his studio, gallery, residence, and repository of objects he’d hoarded over the years: a motley collection of bottles, screws, motor parts, motherboards, rocks, and other sundries. In 2015, when the upkeep of his gargantuan home became too much for him, Maisel was forced to sell it and face the unpleasant task of discarding hundreds of things from his eclectic collection. This painful process is documented in Jay Myself, directed by Maisel’s longtime mentee and friend, Stephen Wilkes.
As the packers arrive to dismantle Maisel’s home in 2016, Wilkes opens one of Maisel’s 4,800 drawers. “Why do you have a whole drawer of these screws?” he asks. “Aren’t they beautiful?” Maisel asks back. That single exchange reveals Maisel’s ability to find beauty in the mundane and overlooked; a beauty that surfaces in his photographs of people and places in New York City and beyond. Throughout the film, Wilkes pays tribute not only to his idol but also to an older, more whimsical New York that inspired artists like Maisel. Maisel’s sale of the building marks not just his departure from the physical space but also from a milieu that birthed legendary downtown artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Keith Haring, Malcolm and Jasper Johns, all Maisel’s former neighbors. As 35 truckloads of things leave for an industrial storage space, we witness not just an artist anxious about his uprooting, but also the anxiety of a city as it changes beyond recognition.
New York City is also home to the artist Christo, who arrived here in 1964 after years of living as a stateless refugee in Prague, Vienna and Paris. With his wife, Jeanne-Claude, Christo created large-scale environmental works of art, the most famous of which are “Running Fence” (1976), in California, and “The Gates” (2005), displayed in New York’s Central Park. In 2016, seven years after Jeanne-Claude’s death, Christo finally gave shape to The Floating Piers, an installation on Italy’s Lake Iseo. Walking on Water, a new documentary by director Andrey Paounov, chronicles the making of this larger-than-life installation, which boasted a footfall of 1.2 million people over the course of its 16-day run.
Watching the eccentric luddite Christo bringing the installation to life is like watching a magician perform a drawn-out magic trick. A joint artistic dream of Christo and Jeanne-Claude that was first conceptualized in 1970, the installation connected three land masses on the Italian lake with a floating walkway that made visitors feel like they were walking on water. “Jeanne-Claude and my art exists because we like to see it and realize it. There is no meaning to it and it is of no real use,” Christo says as he mesmerizes audiences of adults and schoolchildren alike. Somewhat of a rockstar, he speaks to cheering crowds, obliges fans who ask for selfies with him, and waves out of a helicopter as he surveys his installation.
While Rubin, Maisel, and Christo practice very different kinds of art, they share a distinctly New York sensibility, rooting their work in the geographical spaces that helped inspire it. When Rubin said, “Let all lives be free, let all art be free,” in a letter to Jonas Mekas; when Maisel said, “Art is basically trying to make others see what you see,” and when Christo said, “Art is not a profession, you don’t work from 9-5; you’re thinking of art all the time”, they were all speaking from a dedication to producing art that subverts social norms.
With their stories showcased in tandem at Doc NYC, these artists form an unlikely trio of brand ambassadors — emblematic of different decades, all telling parallel stories of creating radical art in an ever-changing metropolis.
Doc NYC runs at various locations in New York City through November 15, 2018. For more information visit www.docnyc.net.