"I still think the social function of art is that kind of negative aesthetic. Otherwise there’s no social function for it."
From "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 1 (2001)
"Too often those who are quickest to assert their identity or loudest in proclaiming it have fastened on a single, supposedly fixed aspect of their nature or background to the detriment of the rest," writes Robert Storr in an essay for the Art in the Twenty-First Century Companion Book. "Whatever the reasons for them, the work of the artists discussed here demonstrate the error and the futility of such ostensibly self-protective but in actuality self-restrictive measures."
The show opens with a whimsical collaboration between noted photographer and artist William Wegman and actor, playwright, and comedian Steve Martin. In this opening segment, Martin (or is it just a mannequin that looks like him?) questions the fundamental nature of identity amidst playful diversions which include card tricks, the sound of a lawnmower in the distance, ringing doorbells, and Wegman's agile Weimaraner dogs. The zany opening was created by Wegman on a sound stage and plays with varying degrees of reality and theatrical illusion. At one point, Steve Martin is rendered motionless when it's revealed that throughout the segment his hands have belonged to someone else—a puppeteer.
Bruce Nauman transforms everyday activities, speech, and objects into works that are both familiar and alien. "I needed a different way to approach the idea of being an artist," says Nauman. "I always thought that you can make something that appears to be functional, but when you try to and use it, you can't figure out what its function might be. And that's in the end what the function is, for you to figure out what to do with it." Filmed at Nauman's ranch and studio outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the segment features several of Nauman's recent explorations into video, text, and self-portraiture—materials and themes the artist has engaged for over thirty years.
From paintings and videos to his comic strip featuring African sculptures, Kerry James Marshall's work unites influences from Renaissance painting and African-American traditions to question the authority of history and "reclaim the image of blackness." "Either I'm working with a set of conventions that have already been established," he says, "or I'm working against a set of conventions that have already been established." This segment is filmed in Chicago, where the artist lives, teaches and works. We gain glimpses into the domestic interiors of Marshall's immediate family—interiors which find their way into the artist's paintings, prints, and most recent sculptural and video installations.
Maya Lin, who at twenty-one became one of America's most recognized artists with her winning design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is filmed transforming an urban park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A work that is part art and part architecture, the park features a skating rink which Lin has outfitted with sophisticated fiber optic technology to produce an image of the starry night sky onto the surface of the ice. "Everything I've done in life is about polarities, about two sides balancing out," says the artist. Carving layers of circles out of the pages of an atlas in order to create topographic islands and canyons, both Lin's studio and outdoor projects mark an identification with the land.
The final segment in this hour focuses on Louise Bourgeois. Active since the early 1940s, Bourgeois has consistently plumbed the her own biography for subject matter and inspiration. Working with delicate stone sculptures in public spaces and plaster casts of hands, Bourgeois explores memory, emotion, and strength through works that reach viewers on a visceral level. "A work of art doesn't have to be explained," she says. "If you do not have any feeling about this, I cannot explain it to you. If this doesn't touch you, I have failed." Bourgeois' work challenges viewers to make connections between their own lives and the lives staged in the artist's installations, drawings, and public sculptures.