Art:21 — Art on TV? Could it Be?

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Laurie Simmons/Lari Pittman/Judy Pfaff/Pierre Huyghe — Photos: Courtesy PBS

Before I left for Athens I previewed the upcoming episode of Art in the Twenty-First Century, the PBS series that starts its fourth season Sunday. If you saw the first three, you know it’s the best thing on TV about contemporary art. Then again, it’s pretty much the only thing.

Now there’s a depressing fact. Except for Charlie Rose, who doesn’t think it’s strange to devote shows to Frank Gehry or Richard Serra, television mostly ignores art and architecture. (Ok, let’s be fair to television. It’s asleep at every wheel. Notwithstanding that it has all the time in the world to fill, it also largely ignores contemporary fiction. There was a time when Gore Vidal could appear on Dick Cavett and Truman Capote would turn up on The Tonight Show. Don’t look for Michael Chabon or Toni Morrison anytime soon on Jay Leno. Once again, Charlie Rose — you the man.) And remember Bravo? I like Top Chef, too. Then one day I realized that foie gras and fashion makeovers are all that channel cares about anymore.

Art:21 not only visits the artists you want to know more about — in upcoming weeks they get to Jenny Holzer, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Robert Ryman and the all important photographer Robert Adams — the show actually gives you some sense of what they do and draws them out in interesting ways. Don’t assume that’s easy.

This week’s program is called “Romance”, a fairly loose category that lets it rope together Laurie Simmons, Lari Pittman, Judy Pfaff and Pierre Huyghe. Simmons is at a bit of a disadvantage. She’s not talking about the postmodern photographs of dolls that first made her name. The focus of her segment is on her feature film, The Music of Regret, also made with dolls and puppets. It’s hard enough to convey on TV what a painting or sculpture is about. The capsule version of an artist’s film is like a very enigmatic trailer, though it helps that Meryl Streep turns up at one point to explain that Simmons’ work is about “all the things that make us conspire to believe in these romantic ideas.”

Pittman, Pfaff, even Huyghe — a trickier case — don’t have the same problem. Though with all of them you wish you saw a little more of their earlier work as a way to establish the road they’ve travelled. (Pittman’s new paintings flow out of what he did 20 years ago, but it would be good to see more of those.) But you still get a sense of these people as vital artists. And you see what they do. So that when Judy Pfaff turns to the camera and blurts out: “I love stuff and I love tools!” — you know just what she means.

Hey wait a second, wasn’t I gonna talk about Athens this week? Ok, right, we’ll get to that.