Ahead of the release of “Friends & Strangers,” Art21’s chief curator highlights some of the series’s most fascinating installments

“We are the only species to transform what we have imagined in our heads to something tangible,” says artist and organizer Linda Goode Bryant in the teaser for “Friends & Strangers,” the season finale of Art in the Twenty-First Century. The series is the only one of its kind—the sole US program to focus entirely on contemporary visual art—and it aims to make a private, often elite world accessible by telling the stories of individual artists. The program began in 2001, with the intent to capture artists at work, through the triumphs and challenges of bringing their visions to life. Its eighth season marked a thematic shift, grouping artists so audiences could engage with their projects in conversation. “Friends & Strangers” marks the third and final episode of Season 11, and it’s all about community—how four contemporary artists (Cannupa Hanska Luger, Christine Sun Kim, Miranda July, and Linda Goode Bryant) foster togetherness in unexpected ways. It’s an eclectic, heart-wrenching installment in this Peabody-award-winning series.

Art historian Tina Kukielski has made a career out of convening and preserving: She co-curated the 2013 Carnegie International, which brought together 35 artists, all at different points in their careers, from 19 different countries. Before becoming the Susan Sollins Executive Director and Chief Curator at Art21, Kukielski ushered in several digital projects and film series at the Hillman Photography Institute at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and co-produced a documentary with artist Cory Arcangel on the digital conservation of Andy Warhol’s early works on an Amiga computer. At Art21, she shifts the lens from the art to the artist, making spaces where both creator and viewer wrestle with similar feelings.

Ahead of the airing of “Friends & Strangers” tonight, Kukielski offers Document a list of Art in the Twenty-First Century’s most compelling, varied documentaries.

Friends & Strangers (2023)
“The juxtaposition of artwork and voice is something I have come to love about making films with artists. Sometimes, difference takes precedence over commonality. Watch celebrated filmmaker, writer, and artist Miranda July take risks in an LA gas station, Indigenous artist Cannupa Hanska Luger engage hundreds in his art-making, or let Christine Sun Kim open your mind to the experiences of Deaf artists. Artist and organizer Linda Goode Bryant is the focus of the finale, as she leads us through the history of the Just Above Midtown Gallery, a famed site of experimentation for Black artists and artists of color in NYC in the 1970s and ’80s.”

“Sometimes, difference takes precedence over commonality.”

Liu Xiaodong in “Beijing” (2020)
“Having spent the last eight years making art documentaries, I know one thing: Everybody loves watching painters paint. A master figurative painter, Liu Xiaodong creates large-scale works that bring to life the quotidian happenings of everyday people. Best-known for his live, en plein air process, Liu travels to a small city on the United States-Mexico border to paint a county sheriff, his friends, and colleagues amid a Texas backyard barbeque.”

Amy Sherald in Everyday Icons (2023)
“A question we frequently ask any artist is, ‘How did you become an artist?’ Renowned for her commission to paint a portrait of Michelle Obama, Amy Sherald shares her life lessons and sources of inspiration as we travel to her childhood home in Columbus, Georgia. While we watch her paint in the studio, Sherald—an artist who watched Art21 films herself—delivers one of my favorite pieces of artistic advice on this subject: ‘Don’t listen to criticism and don’t listen to praise. Just do what you do.’”

Tauba Auerbach in Bodies of Knowledge (2023)
“For a time after this film first aired, my Instagram feed was inundated with videos of artists marbling paper. The way the wet color jumps onto the paper substrate is mesmerizing. In their Brooklyn studio, artist Tauba Auerbach does something similar using craft traditions as research methods to deepen their understanding of mathematical and scientific theories to a surprising and visually-stunning effect. If you like optical illusions and puzzles, this one’s for you!”

Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business (2020)
“Directed by Art21 trustee and director of Art21’s ‘San Francisco’ hour, Christine Turner has a way of bringing subjects to life on the screen. She is a perfect match for legendary artist Betye Saar, who shares her endearing approach to building assemblages from found materials—sometimes overtly racist materials—in this intimate film portrait. Inside her LA studio, Saar talks about collecting objects, African American heritage, and using art as a weapon. My favorite moment in this film is [when she speaks] about wandering around the African and Pacific Islander collections with artist David Hammons in the basement of the Field Museum in Chicago. The experience brought about the use of mystical and African objects in Saar’s work. Saar’s free-spiritedness allowed her to develop a style of critical critique tied to figuration that has created the building blocks for many young artists working today.”

Aki Sasamoto: An Artist Walks into a Bar (2019)
“I have always loved aspects of chance, risk, and discovery associated with the artists of the Dada movement. Delving into the magic and tuning into the wordplay of performance artist Aki Sasamoto is like witnessing a Dada artist reincarnate from a bygone era. This film is a fluid hybrid of fiction and documentary—at once a magical realist world of spinning objects, and a psychological exploration of fundamental questions about creativity and its constraints, mirroring Sasamoto’s playful and absurdist sensibility. Look out for the schedule of Sasamoto performances happening at the Queens Museum later this year.”

“I’ve always been interested in the object that seems badly behaved.”

Jack Whitten: An Artist’s Life (2018)
“‘I’m not a narrative painter,’ says Jack Whitten to Art21’s senior producer Ian Forster, in his last filmed interview before his untimely passing. Renowned as an abstract painter, Whitten discusses his personal philosophies—derived in part from experiences growing up in the South during the height of segregation, as well as his participation in the civil rights movement. Watching an artist build and scrap up the canvas is captivating, and there is something deeply moving about watching an artist like Whitten at work.”

Phyllida Barlow in “London” (2020)
“From the late-1960s until her untimely death earlier this year, the British-born artist Phyllida Barlow put forth colossal sculptures that occupy, challenge, and interrupt physical spaces. Barlow’s work is sometimes gigantic, therefore difficult to tame and even more challenging to document on camera. Towards the end of her life, opportunities [remained] for her work in major museums and sculpture parks; [she was] always finding ways to do something surprising in the most stately of palaces. Recognition, however, did not come immediately to young Barlow. Shown here at her home studio or working with her studio assistants talking about getting paid, being a mother, and not quite fitting in, Barlow is instantly relatable and her work takes the form of commentary on what is expected. As she puts it, ‘I’ve always been interested in the object that seems badly behaved.’”

Westermann: Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea (2023)
“I can count the number of 3D documentaries on one hand—perhaps the best-known was Wim Wenders 2011 film Pina, capturing the life of modern dance pioneer, Pina Bausch. Like Pina, the category-defying artistry of H.C. Westermann lends itself to the expanded medium of 3D. Westermann’s personalized handcrafted sculptural assemblages come to life on screen. With a voiceover by Ed Harris, the film reveals how the tragedies of war find something close to resolution in the polished surfaces of Westermann’s surrealist and anthropomorphized totems. Westermann himself was a two-time war veteran.”