Peggy Guggenheim and Paul Taylor

Artistic icons are the subjects of two new documentaries

By: Ethan Gilsdorf

Director Kate Geis chattman pho tography 2010IMG 2025 Edit 1
Director Kate Geis edits Paul Taylor: Creative Domain. Photo: Chattman Photography © 2010.

How do we choose to view our artistic heroes and heroines? Up close and personal while they’re living, or from the safe remove of the afterlife? Do we delve into their deepest secrets and analyze dirt best left undisturbed, or do we simply watch them at work and reserve judgment? Two new films about artistic icons—Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (2015) and Paul Taylor: Creative Domain (2014)—each take one of these divergent approaches.

In the case of Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, director Lisa Immordino Vreeland pulls out all the documentary stops in her portrait of the eccentric art collector and heiress. Beginning with her early bohemian adventures in London and Paris in the 1920s, Guggenheim gave many of the 20th century’s greatest artists their first breaks, first at her London gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, then at the Art of This Century Gallery in New York. When based in Paris, she collected the work by Dadaists, Surrealists, and Cubists, and had these shipped to New York City just before the Nazis invaded Paris. “The who’s who” list of careers she touched includes Arp, Brâncuși, Dalí, Picasso, Magritte, Kandinsky, Giacometti, Miró, Mondrian, and later, Motherwell, Cornell, Rothko, Moore, Pollock and Calder. She married Max Ernst, possibly saving him from the gas chamber. The famously salacious Guggenheim also embarked on affairs with dozens of men (and a couple of women), ranging from Samuel Beckett to longtime advisor Marcel Duchamp. Her collection was later enshrined in her Venetian palazzo, today a museum called the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Guggenheim, who died in 1979, was obviously not alive to be interviewed, so Immordino Vreeland (whose documentary feature debut was 2011’s Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel) anchors her piece with dozens of interviews with artists, curators, writers, Guggenheim family members and cultural commentators, ranging from Edmund White to Marina Abramović. There’s even an appearance by Robert De Niro, whose artist parents received Peggy’s patronage.

The occasion for the documentary is the discovery of a taped interview with Guggenheim, which Jacqueline Bograd Weld lost during the writing of her biography Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim. This voice from the past injects an eerie freshness into the documentary. Unfortunately, the recording is frequently inaudible, and Guggenheim’s clipped manner of speaking, plus the fact that her responses are often being led by her interviewer, nearly doom the interview’s usefulness.

Still, the portrait that emerges in Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is a fascinating one. We see a troubled, enigmatic woman who endured early tragedies (the death of her father at a young age, and the suicide of her daughter) and made herself the black sheep of the Guggenheim dynasty. The chorus of experts describes her as lonely, narcissistic, promiscuous, disturbed, stingy (the food at her parties was notoriously “terrible”), but above all, liberated. She had seven abortions, endured botched plastic surgery, and organized what was the first-ever all-female art show, 31 Women. She lived her life on her own terms, and brought others along with her. “Art became her way of finding herself emotionally,” one commentator remarks. She immersed herself in that world. “I became an addict and couldn’t help it anymore,” Guggenheim says, referring to her art habit. One wonders if, today, she might have allowed that statement to mean more.

Far from a talking heads pastiche, Paul Taylor: Creative Domain chooses a more singular path. Viewers are given zero backstory of Taylor’s career. Aside from offering brief archival footage of a much younger Taylor from 1966, an ongoing conversation with Taylor at his home, and a handful of interviews with a few members of his company, Paul Taylor: Creative Domain provides scant explanations (and thankfully, no voiceover). That Taylor is one of history’s seminal and pioneering choreographers is a given.

The film focuses exclusively on the creation of one dance, his 133rd. Taylor permits cameras into his studio to document the creation of Three Dubious Memories, a tripartite narrative about the subjectivity of memory. The choreography conjures the spirit of Rashomon, the Kurosawa film about different characters remembering the same event differently. In Taylor’s take, the story is a love triangle among two men and a woman, each told, via dance, in three conflicting ways.

Amy Young and Paul Taylor in Paul Taylor: Creative Domain, film still.

The director of Paul Taylor: Creative Domain is Kate Geis, an Emmy award-winning documentary producer and director from Northampton, MA, whose other films include Riversense and Eric Carle: Picture Writer, The Art of the Picture Book. Curiously, Geis’s new film was shot by Tom Hurwitz, the same cinematographer behind the camera of Matthew Diamond’s 1998 Paul Taylor documentary, Dancemaker. Diamond’s film is more of a biopic, Geis said in a statement, which freed up her documentary “to have a more singular focus on the creative process.”
Indeed, her film does. Yet despite spending most of its 82 minutes in a cramped studio, Creative Domain never feels claustrophobic. The legendary choreographer, 80 years old when the film was made, may be skinny, hunched over, and wearing a frumpy blue shirt and khakis, but his mind still flickers with ideas. He still molds the positions and bodies of his young troupe members to fit the vision in his head. Taylor even stops to demonstrate how to move, arching and contorting his own bent body, or getting down on one knee. “I talk as little as possible in the rehearsals,” Taylor says. “Words just get in the way.” A single utterance—“Oh!”—might signal surprise or displeasure. As one dancer remarks, “Paul leaves a lot of questions unanswered.”

That said, Geis does give us a captivating peek inside Taylor’s process, including his notebooks, which are filled with time counts and diagrams of Xs and Os that look like a football coach’s halftime playbook. Poignantly, Taylor is still attached to his ancient reel-to-reel tape recorder (and his cigarettes). The film’s most touching moment comes when the music’s composer, Peter Elyakim Taussig, finally watches a late-stage rehearsal. The sight of Taussig’s face reacting as his music is brought to life and illustrated by moving bodies is mesmerizing.

Curiously, but perhaps not surprisingly, Taylor is never satisfied with his results. After the premiere performance of Three Dubious Memories, which Paul Taylor: Creative Domain shows almost in its entirety, Taylor mutters, “Oh, well, time for a new one.” Like many great artists, his engagement is all in the making—not in the finished product, but the process. He’s already onto his next choreography.

Ethan Gilsdorf, frequent contributor to Art New England, writes for the New York Times, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Salon, Wired and is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

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