Driven to Abstraction (Price, 2019)

As movie theaters begin to reopen in most parts of America, the coming week gives us a final push from the direct-to-video market. Grasshopper Films has given a final push to allow home bound viewers to check out Driven to Abstraction, Daria Price’s documentary about a forgery scandal that brought down one of the oldest and most venerated art galleries in America: the Knoedler.

The proximate cause of the gallery’s demise was a lawsuit that helped bring to light that approximately forty paintings sold for over sixty million dollars were not previously undocumented masterpieces from the private collection of a Swiss collector bur rather the work of a single Chinese forger working out of his garage in New York.

I’ll start with a small knock against the film. It spends a bit too much time on the question of whether or not Ann Freedman, the gallery director, was herself conned by Glafira Rosales and her conspirators or whether she deliberately misled buyers and obfuscated the answers about the paintings’ provenances. For me as a viewer, the answer was obvious. Some of Freedman’s responses to buyer questions about provenance were so conspicuously worded so as to not literally say what they were trying to imply that this seemed like consciousness of guilt. Add to that the fact that one of Pollocks had the artist’s signature misspelled and that the anonymous collector ostensibly had not one but forty never before documented works and Freedman’s protestations of innocence don’t pass the giggle test. Then again, the giggle test isn’t a legal standard, so once Freedman didn’t have to testify and sent her lawyer to speak on her behalf in the film, it became apparent that there would be no dramatic footage of those centrally involved in the case.

Instead we get a dizzying array of art reporters both summarizing and commenting on the story. All of them are good, but none of them are quite as clear and lucid as Michael Kimmelman is in My Kid Could Paint That. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say Price isn’t quite as adept at challenging and framing the narratives as Amir Bar-Lev when he made the other great documentary about the modern art world’s susceptibility to fraud and forgery.

The film is able to overcome those limitations, however, because Freedman is a symbol rather than a villain. Why is the contemporary art scene susceptible to such flimsy, easily exposed frauds? And why did it take so long for such obvious lies to be challenged?

These questions lead to a tributary of smaller, sometimes unresolved, but always interesting questions: Why was abstract expressionism (wrongly) considered impossible to forge? Why do so many sellers want to remain anonymous? With modern advances in chemical and microscopic analysis, why does an expert’s eye still carry more weight in authenticating a painting?

Driven to Abstraction never quite makes it to the level of My Kid Could Paint That because it never gets around to the central question that elevates the previous film. Why does it matter to the art lover who painted something? The answer to that question is tautological when it comes to the art investor. The primary difference is one of material valuation. But if an expert can’t tell the difference between an authentic Pollock and a skilled imitation, why is the original worth more?

Despite those limitations, Price’s film is entertaining. The reporters frame the story clearly for those with limited exposure to the art world. Consequently, we get a glimpse into a subculture that few of us might ever experience first hand. This is what good documentary’s do — they inform as well as entertain. They expand your understanding of an event or subject without necessarily providing all the answers.

For a list of theaters supported by the virtual screening of the film, click here.

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