In it, filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn goes behind the scenes and interviews blue-chip artists, auction house executives, gallerists, and critics to examine the tension between creativity and commerce. If you love contemporary art—and particularly, painting—it’s worth it just to watch the likes of Marilyn Minter, George Condo, and Jeff Koons’ minions at work.

The white elephant (or silver bunny?) in the room, of course, is Koons, whose gleaming stainless steel statues have commanded upwards of $25 million at auction.

Image for article titled Life can be a masterpiece if you focus on the everyday
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Meanwhile, the documentary’s termite nibbles away in a rickety barn, hand-slapping paint onto a palette behind an improvised curtain of insulation padding. He is Larry Poons, a painter once associated with contemporaries such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella (who calls Poons “Mr. Natural”). He fell off the popular radar when he evolved beyond the geometrical abstractions that made him famous in the 1960s.

As the New York Times’ A.O. Scott points out in his review of the film, it would have been easy to make Koons the villain and Poons the martyr, toiling away in relative obscurity for an artist of his caliber. But that would have been lazy and not quite accurate. After all, Poons is still striving, painting, prepping for his comeback via a solo show at a Manhattan gallery. Had he stayed in the heat of the spotlight, the artist says at one point, he doubts he would be alive today.

Endurance, after all, is one of the termite’s superpowers. (Exhibit B: MoMA’s ongoing exhibition, “The Long Run,” of contemporary work from later in artists’ careers.) With the Nigerian-born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby—in her 30s with a new baby, and paintings newly auctioning for over $1 million—Kahn shows a painter aware of how precarious a rapid rise can be. While hefty auction prices don’t necessarily fatten artists’ pockets immediately, they do ratchet up the pressure.

“There’s a temptation to get [paintings] out fast,” Crosby says, in her east LA studio. “But if I speed up the production of the work, it will take away from all that’s behind the scenes that makes the work as rich as it is.”

A Sotheby's employee adjusts the oil on canvas painting 'A La Warhol' by Njideka Akunyili Crosby in London, Friday, March 23, 2018. The painting, estimated 50,000 - 70,000GBP (70,000-98,000USD) is part of a Modern and Contemporary African Art Sale at the auction house Sotheby's. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Image: "A La Warhol" by Njideka Akunyili Crosby/AP Photo/Frank Augstein

“It’s not about making a lot of money in the next five years and buying a beautiful house in LA—although that would be good!” she laughs. “But that’s not my driving force.” She wants her work to hang in museums, she says, for future generations. Sure, her work might just sit in storage if she falls out of fashion, but then, it could re-emerge. “Someday, maybe in 50 years, maybe in 70, maybe in 150, it could come out. It doesn’t just vanish.”

The real joy in this movie is watching painters paint—and fight for the focus and inspiration necessary to maintain that privilege.

This post was adapted from the Quartzy newsletter. Subscribe to receive it in your inbox each Friday.

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