On 'American Masters,' relatives open up about the famous artists in their families

Lisane Basquiat, left, and Jeanine Basquiat -- sisters of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat -- alongside director David Shulman, after a screening of Shulman's documentary "Basquiat: Rage to Riches" at the Brooklyn Museum. (Michael Nagle / For The Times)

The families of famous painters often stay in the shadows. You don’t know as much about Lola and Concepción Picasso as you do their big brother, Pablo. Many choose to stay out of the spotlight that their siblings’ or parents’ success inevitably draws toward them.

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But family is a running theme in the newest award-winning "American Masters" series on PBS called "Artists Flight," a quartet of projects that include films about sculptor-painter Eva Hesse, painter Elizabeth Murray, painter-illustrator Andrew Wyeth and painter-illustrator Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Each person in the “Artists Flight” series was more than the descriptor placed before their names. Hesse was not only a sculptor but also an artist who escaped Nazi Germany as a child and whose life was cut short by a brain tumor at 34. Murray died of cancer in 2007, but the renowned painter was also only the fifth woman ever to be celebrated with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Wyeth had his first exhibition at age 20, and his immense popularity drew scorn and criticism from the art world of the late ’40s and ’50s. Conversely, Basquiat was almost universally loved by the art world, and though his art still fetches millions of dollars from Sotheby's crowds, his activism and often racially tinted artistry was cut down early by a heroin overdose.

Eva Hesse, circa 1986 (Courtesy of Herman Landshoff)

The artists' stories are tinged with sadness, but tragedy is far from the theme of the films, with all celebrating the lives lived through the eyes of not only art historians and museum curators but friends and family as well — some of whom had rarely ever spoken about their genius siblings on film.

The first, "American Masters: Eva Hesse," premiered on PBS Aug. 31 and is available for free streaming on pbs.com/americanmasters (all of the films will be available after they air).

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Selma Blair is the voice of Eva Hesse, and Eva’s sister, Helen, features prominently in the film. Helen and her sister escaped Nazi Germany in December 1938 aboard one of the last Kindertransport trains, reuniting with their parents months later. But it was not that early experience that shaped young Eva, according to Helen.

“Her life was her art. Art was the essence of her being. That comes out so well in the film — it was everything to her,” said Helen. “It gave her security and it gave her her persona.”

While focusing on Hesse’s persistence and drive, director Marcie Begleiter also attempted to capture the life of an artist who went from paintings and drawings to sculptures and continued to evolve.

“What I kept coming back to was that we wanted to make an image of a multifaceted object,” said Begleiter. “Something that changed. Every time you looked at it from a different direction, it would reflect a different piece,”

“My inspiration from her was her connection to creativity in the face of mortality.” And despite her sister’s fatal brain tumor, Helen says that her sister “was not a tragic figure.”

Artist Elizabeth Murray at work. (Sidney Felson / American Masters)

The theme of family continues with Elizabeth Murray in “American Masters: Everybody Knows … Elizabeth Murray,” which premieres Sept. 7 at 9 p.m. She was well-known in the art world but not so much outside of it. The artist took care of her children and was a full-time painter.

Director Kristi Zea identified with her friend and believed others would too when she decided to make the film.

“[She was] suffering through the same dilemmas that a lot of women do who want to have great lives both as a family person, as a mother, and also as an artist,” said Zea. “It was such a mission to me to want to explain to people that it is possible. It's hard, but it's possible. And also to tell the story of this amazing woman.”

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Unlike other subjects, the film was envisioned while Murray was still a vibrant artist creating colorful works that were bright and full of life. Then the production took a turn.

“Tragically, very early on in the process, we found out that Elizabeth was very ill. That changed everything,” said Zea. “When we first started doing it, no one had an inkling of how sick she was. I started filming her immediately ... We never thought it would take a turn as dire as it did.”

Murray continued to paint until she died of cancer in 2007. Zea unearthed journals that Murray had kept and, through them, found another voice.

“I thought, 'There's another character in the film.' I immediately thought of Meryl Streep. I had just finished working with her on a film with Jonathan Demme called ‘Manchurian Candidate,’ ” said Zea.

Turns out, Streep knew Murray’s story well and had met the artist. She made such an impression that, when asked, Streep said yes to narrating the film as the voice of Murray reading her journals.

“In two hours, we had done them all, and she absolutely channeled Elizabeth,” said Zea.

Andrew Wyeth (Peter Ralston)

It was access that allowed Zea to find the journals. In “American Masters: Wyeth,” which also premieres on Sept. 7, but at 10 p.m., Andrew Wyeth’s family allowed filmmakers unprecedented access to family members, including sons Jamie and Nicholas.

Jamie recounts how he learned about art and the influences that his famous, and infamous, father and grandfather had on him while growing up.

“N.C. Wyeth [was] an illustrator who was sort of the flagship of illustration back in the mid-century. I never knew my grandfather, but as a child, he excited me much more than my father's work. My God, he was painting pirates and knights and battles and so forth, so I'd go up to his empty studio — which was physically higher up on the hill than our house, and it was full of costumes and cutlasses and rifles. Very exciting things. And then all the illustrations were still there and stacked up. And then I'd wander back to our own house, which was our father's studio, and he'd be painting some dead bird. That just bored the hell out of me. There was that contrast.”

The film shows how Andrew Wyeth was shunned by critics for being too popular with the mainstream masses. His lifelike images and the detail of his drawings and paintings were hits on the commercial art scene more than with the highbrow crowd. Though the bar for art has been raised, there are still some anti-Wyeth naysayers.

“He still raises hackles on people and that's what [the film] deals with,” says Jamie. “The hate from certain groups who feel his work is too accessible. If the public likes it they think it's gotta be bad, or it's got to be pandering, and it's not. It's very strange work.”

David Schulman, director of "American Masters — Basquiat: Rage to Riches" and Jean-Michel Basquiat's sister Lisane talk about the artist and his drive to succeed.

From popular to uber popular, the last film in the “Artists Flight” series, “American Masters — Basquiat: Rage to Riches,” premiering Sept. 14, zeroes in on one of the most popular contemporary artists of the last few decades. A Jean-Michel Basquiat painting sold last year for $110.5 million — the most ever for an American painting. The artist was known as a champion of civil rights and gave voice to those concerns through his art.

But his sister Lisane wants his art to shine whenever he is remembered by fans or historians.“They’re best served seeing my brother as an inspiration instead of a martyr,” said Lisane.

She and her sister Jeanine contributed to the film despite being very private about family matters. Lisane also saw her brother as not just an artsy type, but a responsible person — something she wanted the film to also convey.

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“Just the pure grit that he had and that he exuded in making sure that he met his dreams, accomplished what he set out to accomplish and he took ownership and responsibility for his own success and the path of his own life.”

Lisane Basquiat, left, and Jeanine Basquiat — sisters of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Michael Nagle / For The Times)

This sentiment is shared by “Basquiat” director and producer David Shulman, himself an artist in the ’80s New York art scene that Basquiat inhabited.

“He was incredibly smart, incredibly determined, incredibly resourceful and creative in achieving what he wanted to achieve. It was very much driven by him. He was, to a large extent, in control of his own destiny, and he decided to play this game of the art world on his own terms given the content and the scene that he was actually into,” said Shulman.

The “Artists Flight” series aims to show “how diverse the art world is and that now, thanks to these pioneers, there's room for everyone,” according to “American Masters” executive producer Michael Kantor. As smaller, art house films, each of these projects did not command the audience that they can through multiple airings on PBS and continued streams on its site.

But will people tune in? Begleiter voices what is specific to “Eva Hesse,” but can most likely be applied to each of the films.

“You hear the words ‘arts documentary,’ and some people could be a little shy about delving into that, thinking, 'I don't know enough about art' or 'This is going to be a not-so-engaging conversation.' I can tell you that for our film, we made it for a general audience. Even if Eva Hesse's work is challenging, it's not objective — in other words, it's not a picture of something. You can watch this film and get to the end of it and think 'Oh, that's why they call it art.’ ”

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