The sensibility would be a mismatch, but modern art really needs one of those comprehensive, 10-hour Ken Burns documentaries. A lot of fiction and non-fiction filmmakers have taken a swing at the topic, but usually through the filter of a single artist, with a scope too narrow to encompass a century of aesthetic revolution. Even Peter Rosen's documentary Who Gets To Call It Art?, which comes closer than most to seeing the whole picture, sticks close to a single personality—former New York Metropolitan Museum Of Art curator Henry Geldzahler—and wraps up its presentation in 80 minutes. Something's inevitably going unsaid.
Still, Rosen covers a lot of ground in 80 minutes, and he's picked the right subject to focus on. Geldzahler was hired on at the Met in 1960, at age 25, at a time when modern art was dominated by structurally rigid, emotionally tortured abstract expressionists. There were rumblings from the industrial lofts of downtown New York, where Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were spoofing the overbearing seriousness of the modern-art world by applying abstract expressionist techniques to common, iconic images. Andy Warhol soon picked up on the trend, and Roy Lichtenstein, and soon "pop art" was in full flower, aided and abetted by Geldzahler, who shared these artists' vision and lifestyle.
Rosen talks with the survivors of that era, and he cuts the interviews and archival footage into a rapid-fire collage-view of New York City bohemia in the '50s and '60s, at a time when being an "artist" was hard work, but it wasn't really a bill-paying job. That all changed in the '70s, on the heels of Geldzahler's polarizing Met exhibition "New York Painting: 1940-1970," which put modern art into a colorful, comprehensible context. The art dealers quickly swooped in, swiping Geldzahler's ideas and selling them to the nouveau riche. Who Gets To Call It Art? climaxes with footage from the notorious "Scull Auction," in which an early patron of pop art sold his collection for millions, while his impoverished former friends looked on in horror.
Of course, a lot of those same outraged artists soon got rich themselves, but the flurry of money affected the unspoiled impulse that made them paint and sculpt in the first place, in ways that Rosen's documentary doesn't explore enough. What Who Gets To Call It Art? does capture—and very well—is the spirit of invention and discovery that made the '60s so exciting. For all Warhol's marketing savvy and Rauschenberg's puckishness, the pop artists were really just doing what their predecessors had done: painting the accumulated junk inside their heads.