9 Good Documentaries on Art and Design (Available Streaming from Netflix)

I’ve been knitting a lot recently and when I knit, especially when it’s not a complex pattern, I tend to consume a lot of media. So I thought I would share a few of the documentaries on art and design that I’ve enjoyed recently on Netflix’s instant streaming, because some of you will be able to take advantage of it.

Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Schulman (2008)
Julius Schulman was a photographer known for photographing modernist architecture, including many of the Case Study Houses featured in Arts & Architecture magazine in the 1950s and 1960s. This documentary features many segments of Schulman, in his late 90s, visiting many of the houses he’s photographed over the years, chatting with the owners and talking about how he made the photographs. A great introduction to California mid-century modern architecture as well as Schulman’s work, and hell, I want his view on life if I ever get to live to his age (he died in 2009, the year the documentary was released, at the age of 98). I actually bought this on DVD, it was that good.
Between the Folds (2008)
My talent with origami pretty much ends at the paper crane. The people featured in this documentary explore it as fine art, as a technical challenge, and as a possibility for drug therapies. There are whole schools for realism and abstraction and minimalism. Really fascinating stuff, and beautiful. I might buy this one too.
In the Realms of the Unreal (2004)
Henry Darger (1892 – 1973) was institutionalized at eight in a home for “feeble minded” children, ran away to Chicago in 1909 at the age of 17, and spent the rest of his life working menial jobs. When in 1972 he was forced due to ill health to move out of the room he’d rented for 40 years, his landlords discovered his fantastical 15,000 page work In the Realms of the Unreal, along with piles of cutouts and paintings, drawings and collages around the same story: that of the seven Vivian girl princesses and their part in the daring child slave rebellion against the Glandelinians. The documentary tells part of the story through animations created from Darger’s artwork.
Art 21: Art in the 21st Century (Seasons 1-5, 2001 to 2009)
There are 20 episodes spanning five seasons in this series from PBS. Each episode is based around a single theme, and interviews four artists on their work and process around that theme. I like art but don’t know much about it, and usually my exposure to it is limited to what I see at SF MOMA or other large museums, so I’ve really enjoyed the range of works, styles and media this series has introduced to me, and the insights provided by artists into their creative processes. The Art:21 site also includes biographies and additional information about the artists.
Helvetica (2007)
A history of the ubiquitous Helvetica font featuring interviews with the often very outspoken type and graphic designers who love and hate it. Being a bit of a typography geek, I love this film. (Gary Huswit’s new film, Objectified, is also available on disc from Netflix and is also a great one for interaction designers.)
Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured Landscapes (2006)
Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky makes stunning large-format photographs of man-made landscapes (quarries, dams, mines, garbage). This film documents a trip to China in which he photographs the largest dam in the world, huge factories, and huge piles of toxic crap pulled from discarded electronics. Disturbing and beautiful at the same time.
Rivers and Tides (2001)
Andy Goldsworthy’s work feels like the exact opposite of Burtynsky: he makes sculptures out of materials that occur in nature, often in the same environment where the materials started. It’s interesting to watch him create temporary sculptures from icicles or sticks knowing that when the temperature warms up or the tide comes in that piece is going to be destroyed, but considering that to be part of the piece. Lovely cinematography accompanied by contemplations of our relationships with places and the flow of water and life. The full documentary is also available streaming from Google Video.
Herb and Dorothy (2008)
This one starts out slow, but becomes quite endearing. It’s the story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel who managed to amass one of the most important collections of Minimalist and Conceptual art – in a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan, on their incomes as a postal service worker and a librarian. When they donated a large portion of their 4000 piece collection to the National Gallery of Art, it took five moving vans to move all the works to Washington to be indexed! Really charming.
The Cool School (2007)
The Cool School is the story of the Ferus Gallery, a contemporary gallery in Los Angeles from 1957 to 1966. Its initial focus on west coast post-war artists, who weren’t receiving any love from the New York-centric art critics, united the L.A. art scene and launched a number of artists including John Altoon, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, and Edward Keinholz, who was also a founding member of the gallery. Good if you’re interested in the L.A. art scene, abstract expressionism, and pop art.

August 31, 2010 · Tags:


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