Paul Gardner and Chris Maybach's "Art City" documentaries are essentially nature films, minus the cloying voice-over reassuring you that the gazelle being disemboweled by the hyena is all part of the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth, or some such drooling nonsense. A cycle of three one-hour documentaries made on a shoestring about the contemporary visual-arts world, "Art City" is a raw and delightfully direct view of artists in their habitat, broadly defined as the studio, office, gallery, cocktail party and, for the successful ones, vacation home. They behave mostly without pretense, they seem comfortable with the camera, and whether by accident or careful editing, what they say generally rises above the cliches that infest so much filmmaking about high culture.
The first "Art City" film, "Making It in Manhattan,"premiered at the National Gallery in 1996; this afternoon two new installments, "Simplicity" and "A Ruling Passion," will receive their premieres, at the gallery's East Building auditorium. The films are a collaboration between Gardner, a freelance cultural writer from New York, and Maybach, an independent filmmaker from Los Angeles. Gardner, who has written a biography of Louise Bourgeois, brings art world expertise to the choice of subjects, Maybach an outsider's appreciation for anthropological detail.
The combination works. "Art City" is intelligent, knowing and mostly canonical in its choices, but it's not entirely an inside job; there is a fresh and absorbing enthusiasm to the filmmaking as well. It stands outside the polished emptiness of most of what passes for cultural documentary on PBS, which has not broadcast the series nationally. (It has, however, had some exposure on European television.)
"Art City" also works as a primer on the dizzying art world of the last 20 years. With a couple of exceptions -- lions like Bourgeois and John Baldessari, for example -- it focuses on artists who have made their reputations since the 1980s. Because of the difficulty of capturing video and installation art on film, the series concentrates on painting and sculpture. The first film focused on Manhattan, but Parts 2 and 3 roam more widely, from a studio visit with Ed Ruscha in California to a night helicopter flight looking for material with David Deutsch in Upstate New York.
The films are behind-the-scenes without being voyeuristic. Truth is chanced upon. The venerable and cheerfully didactic Bourgeois sits at a table in a desperately cluttered town house drawing circles within circles, which, she says, represent her fears. One of her fears is that a promised can of Coke won't materialize. As she draws, her long, unfashionably ornamental shirt cuffs connect her to the world of her youth, a time when the Freudian world view she spouts so effortlessly was in the ascendant.
In Baldessari's Santa Monica, Calif., studio there is a brief glimpse of his Rolodex, a massive bulging thing filled with economic possibilities; he seems unaware that the camera has panned to it. In Deutsch's sprawling estate, the food looks top-drawer, the studio straight out of Architectural Digest; his voice echoes through the cavernously luxurious space with the ring of wealth and incipient pomposity.
On the other side of the spectrum is the thirtyish portraitist Elizabeth Peyton, painfully childlike at her cluttered desk, filled with pinups of the androgynously beautiful young men she likes to paint.
As with a good nature documentary, the filmmakers crouch in the bushes and observe, without unsettling their subjects.
"So you ask a loaded question and watch the artist squirm -- what's the fun in that?" asks the laconic Maybach, 38, who produced the series with Gardner, and did all the filming and editing in between work he did for other filmmakers. "We picked the most boring subject there is -- people talking about art -- and tried to make it as interesting as a Robert Altman movie. We tried to avoid the predictable."
They succeeded. There's hardly a mention of the hot-button issues that preoccupy so much professional writing about the art world. The National Endowment for the Arts is a nonissue, there is nothing that might be considered even remotely obscene, and for the most part the artists don't complain about money. Instead they talk about looking at, and making images of, the world.
Richard Tuttle, whose Zen austerities were savaged by critic Hilton Kramer in the 1970s, stands outside his house in Abiqui, N.M., remembering a moment of visual perfection: waiting, as a child, for his brother to come home, seeing the world anew as a surpassingly beautiful visual object. He compares the perfect line to the music of Mozart; the comparison doesn't feel forced.
Other artists are shown surrounded by favorite objects. Peyton's walls are filled with tabloid clippings; Ruscha shows off city maps that inspire him. Baldessari flips through movie stills cropped with a pen to show where his visual interest lies. Michael Ray Charles, who is deeply interested in race, collects historic Sambo dolls and breathtakingly racist cultural imagery. If Bourgeois is painting her fear, he's painting his anger; both seem cleansed in the process.
What little editorializing there is comes from juxtaposition. In what passes for an "in their free time" segment, we see Tuttle going up the stairs of New York's Metropolitan Museum; Robert Williams, who creates frantically detailed cartoon images laden with joyfully twisted sexuality, heads off to the local auto shop to pick up a favorite hot rod.
Critics and collectors are included. Super-collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel are lovingly received and honored, and one senses it's not just because they buy art; they are everyone's favorite grandparents, enthusiastic, keen and intelligent.
Critics fare less well. Mat Gleason, a maverick L.A. art critic, is insufferably cynical, always "on" with a glib comment. When he bumps into the earnest young artist Amy Adler -- who photographs her own intensely vivid drawings and then (in one of the most riveting scenes of the series) destroys the originals -- the encounter is telling. Gleason blusters, Adler sniffs a bore and hurries off.
There are no grand conclusions, which is understandable given the vastly differing agendas that make up the art world. As soon as one artist sets up a definition of art, a quick shift of the camera captures someone else with an entirely different view. Williams, who is working on a raucous 'toon send-up of a playboy Egyptian king, says every painting has to compete with television, video, music: "The painting's first responsibility is to create energy." And then Agnes Martin, pushing 90, sits like a happy Buddha in Taos, N.M., describing the bliss she gets from making evanescent blue and white lines hover with geometrical blankness on her large canvases.
There could have been a numbing back-and-forth to this technique, but the filmmakers steer a careful course. They don't juxtapose contrary ideas to imply there's no truth in the art world; they merely offer a heterogeneous array of possibilities, and leave the truth to the viewer.
Art City: Simplicity and A Ruling Passionwill be shown at 5 p.m. today at the National Gallery. For more information seewww.nga.gov