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Lisanne Skyler’s Five Favorite Art Documentaries

“Brillo Box (3¢ Off),” Lisanne Skyler’s Oscar-shortlisted documentary film, which debuted on HBO in August 2017, is available for viewing again on all HBO platforms.

Skyler is an award-winning writer/director of scripted, documentary and short films that have screened at Sundance, South x Southwest and the Venice Film Festival, and aired on PBS, Sundance Channel, and HBO. And she is also a University of Arizona School of Theatre, Film & Television professor.

“Brillo Box (3¢ Off),” an official selection of the 54th New York Film Festival, follows an Andy Warhol sculpture from Skyler’s New York family’s living room to a record-breaking Christie’s auction. The sculpture was purchased by Skyler’s father for $1,000 and sold years later at auction for $3 million. The film describes a personal and Pop Art journey and explores the ephemeral nature of art and value.

>> HBO Documentaries | Stream the film here

On the occasion of the re-release of her film, we decided to ask Skyler for her favorite art documentaries and why. What makes a documentary or any film special? Skyler says finding that human element that makes the film relatable is key. So here we go … in no particular order.

Lisanne’s Five Favorite Art Docs

A Brief History of John Baldessari
2012

This six-minute short documentary about conceptual artist John Baldessari was the first film for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art + Film Gala series. Filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman show audiences a quick-cutting, fun documentary narrated by musician Tom Waits.

“My favorite short doc about an artist has got to be “A Brief History of John Baldessari;” it’s just this incredibly meta, self-referential, really playful film, that turns the whole art documentary on its head. They pack his whole career and his contributions to conceptual art into six minutes!

“I saw this film after I’d made “Brillo Box,” because I was invited by Erin Wright, LACMA’s Director of Artist Initiatives, to make a film about Light and Space artist Robert Irwin for the LACMA Art + Film series. And I just loved how the Baldessari film was effective as an educational piece, while still being so infectiously fun and entertaining – it’s reverential and irreverent at the same time, and was definitely an inspiration while making my film, “A Few Things about Robert Irwin.””

Pollock
2000

“Pollock” is a biographical film about American painter Jackson Pollock, his rise in the art world, and his relationship with fellow artist and wife, Lee Krasner; directed and starring Ed Harris. Marcia Gay Harden earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the film.

“My favorite art biopic is “Pollock” because it’s such a beautiful film: they capture the period and really give you a sense of how artists lived in that era. And it delves deeply into Pollock’s relationship with Lee Krasner. The film allows him to be human and flawed, as well as a great artist. And that was kind of a shift for art biopics – that they could both celebrate an artist’s accomplishments, while getting into the darker drama of the character.

“Early in the movie, Pollock views Krasner’s paintings and says this great line, where he compliments her by declaring, ‘You’re a damn good woman painter.’ And she just gives him this look that says everything – and got her the Academy Award, you know?”

“And it’s a beautifully filmed movie. (Cinematographer) Lisa Rinzler shot it. She’s someone I’ve always really admired and I ended up working with her on “Brillo Box.” The way she films the relationship between Pollock and Krasner is like a dance. You can look at their scenes and see how they are choreographed. Just really beautiful.”

The Art of the Steal
2009

This documentary depicts the controversy about the handling of the greatest private art collection of modern and post-impressionist art in the world, estimated at $25 billion. Collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes states in his will that he doesn’t want his collection to move from his house. When he dies, there is a struggle for control of where the art should reside.

“”The Art of the Steal” should truly be required viewing for anyone that’s going to go into museum work — or really any cultural agency — because it really looks into the dynamics around city politics and raises complex questions about the value of art in our lives. The Barnes Collection, outside of Philadelphia, was a private collection for educators and students, who could make an appointment and view the art.

“When Barnes died, the city wanted the collection to be moved into town near other museums, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to support tourism. The film follows the conflict about what to do with this collection, asking the question, do you protect someone’s wishes, if the wishes aren’t perceived as being for the good of all mankind?

“I was very fascinated by this movie because it’s a really dramatic and suspenseful plot that animates how passionate people get about art and what it means to a community both emotionally and economically, while bringing up deep ethical questions.”

Art and Craft
2014

This Emmy-nominated documentary tells the fascinating story of Mark Landis, one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history, who donated forged artworks to museums for decades: 46 museums in 20 states with more than 100 works of art.

“The art doc that is probably the most character-driven is “Art and Craft.” It was about this man who went about forging artworks and donating them to the museums, claiming authenticity. It’s very much a psychological portrait that explores why he does this. But the fun of the movie is that meanwhile, the people that are working at museums are starting to go, ‘Wait a second,’ and start to figure out how he fakes the work.

“There’s just something very poignant about Mark Landis. I think his story taps into why and how we are drawn to create things. And then what’s really touching is that people start get interested in him as an artist in his own right, and then he has his own exhibition and acknowledgement.

“Often with movies, there’s that one memorable line or scene that sticks with you, years later. In this film, a museum registrar starts to realize that this man is delivering fake works and he becomes determined to catch him in his game, declaring, ‘He’s messed with the wrong registrar.’ Game on!”

Levitated Mass
2013

“Levitated Mass” is the name of an art installation and art documentary. The film chronicles the journey of a 340-ton boulder from a California desert 100 miles to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the logistical challenges and public reaction to the event.

“This film was directed by Doug Pray, and Doug is a fantastic chronicler of American culture. He always looks at how we interact with cultural events in this really personal yet analytical way. I watched that film with my kids and we are all just enthralled by the journey of this giant rock.

“In the film, LACMA and land artist Michael Heizer plan to move this giant mass, this boulder, from the middle of the desert into the heart of Los Angeles. There are parts of the movie that are so touching, when this incredible mass travels through these little towns and off-roads, because they can’t take it on main highways. People come together to watch it like it’s a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. You see how art, and the wonder of art, can affect people and bring people together.”

Lisanne Skyler is currently directing “Museums of the Night with producer Erin Wright, about the rise and fall of the 1980s New York club scene, and the artists who were part of it.

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