It would be hard to come up with two artists whose processes and personalities are more different than Agnes Martin and Kiki Smith. The Museum of Fine Arts, following the lead of New York's Film Forum, screens a charming and thoughtful double feature -- the spare and grounded "Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World," and the lush, flitting "Kiki Smith: Squatting the Palace."
Martin, one of the great abstract painters of the 20th century and best known for canvases running with hushed bands of color, died at 92 in 2004. Mary Lance's documentary is quiet, orderly, and contemplative, like the artist herself. Martin never married; didn't want to: Her aim was to be alone, and translate that experience to paint. "I paint with my back to the world," she says. "All the rest of them were painting the world. That's enough. I don't have to."
The film is full of little nuggets of wisdom ("I was looking for the truth. The best way was to look around and be in the mood for the truth"), so Martin comes off with a Yoda-like aura -- benign, wise, and sometimes wincingly elusive. I wanted to know more about the tensions that birthed her art. Although she's seen brushing a thin wash of red on canvas, she doesn't once talk about her palette.
"Squatting the Palace" directors Vivien Bittencourt and Vincent Katz (son of painter Alex Katz, who shows up sketching Smith) put their focus on Smith's chaotic and serendipitous style of making art. She does it in her home in the East Village. The artist, in her 50s, juggles a variety of mediums to create narratives that are often about innocence -- a topic Martin addresses, as well.
The film follows Smith through the creation and installation of her exhibition "Homespun Tales: Stories of Domestic Occupation," at a house museum in Venice, concurrent with the Venice Biennale in 2005. Smith delightedly crafted her art to enter into a seemingly haunted conversation with the house and all its belongings.
Showing assistants dashing here and there and a flighty but confident Smith at the helm of the exhibit, the film at times seems like a comic opera. It's no surprise that it all comes together in the end. "In a neutral cube space, it's coming from you out," she says of her art. "I want to be given a little."
Smith's no Martin, but then again, Martin's no Smith. They make a tart contrast, which makes the two films together better than either would be on its own.