Michael Blackwood, Who Captured 20th-Century Artists on Film, Dies at 88

Michael Blackwood, a prolific documentarian who explored the work of 20th-century artists, architects, musicians, dancers and choreographers in more than 160 films and yet never became widely known, died on Feb. 24 at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.

His wife, Nancy Rosen, confirmed the death, in his sleep, but said she did not know the cause.

Mr. Blackwood filmed his subjects in the unobtrusive, no-frills cinéma vérité style, seeking to capture the creative process behind their art, often in studio visits. Sometimes they were their own narrators; sometimes there were no narrators at all. Mr. Blackwood was invisible to viewers.

He followed the jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk on tour in Europe. He tagged along as the minimalist composer Philip Glass prepared for the 1984 premieres of his opera, “Akhnaten,” in Houston and Stuttgart, Germany.

He observed the creative process of the Bulgarian-born conceptual artist Christo during his creation of epic environmental projects like “Running Fence” and “Wrapped Walkways.” And he let Isamu Noguchi explain his approach to his art as they walked among his sculptures.

A scene from “Monk,” one of Mr. Blackwood’s two documentaries about the jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.Credit…Michael Blackwood Productions

“I go from one piece to the next,” Mr. Noguchi said in the 30-minute film, “Isamu Noguchi” (1972). “It’s a continuous development. It’s not something that I have intellectually arrived at as a way of doing things. I change with the work.”

Mr. Blackwood took a similar approach to his own work, which he often undertook with his brother, Christian, a cameraman, director and producer. He moved from project to project on subjects that reflected his eclectic personal tastes, remaining largely under the film world radar and giving few interviews. Most of his films were carried on European television networks, but some were shown on public television stations in the United States and at art house theaters in Manhattan. They were also sold to libraries and museums.

“He made the films he wanted to make and hoped people would want them,” Ms. Rosen said in a phone interview. “Any money he made from distributing his films was plowed into the next film.”

Mr. Blackwood felt a particular urgency to make films about artists like Philip Guston, Larry Rivers, George Segal and Robert Motherwell.

“There are no film portraits in existence of the artists of the early century, but barely a few haphazard meters of footage on such great figures as Rodin, Renoir and Kandinsky,” he told the Canadian magazine Vie Des Arts in 1981 in one of his rare interviews. “What a pity!”

His fascination with architecture led him to make films about some of its stars, including Louis Kahn, Richard Meier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry.

In his review of “Frank Gehry: The Formative Years” (1988) in The New York Times, the architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote that Mr. Blackwood “has built up an admirable oeuvre of films about architects and architecture,” and that Mr. Blackwood has Mr. Gehry “ramble though his work in a way that is both inviting and informative.”

A scene from “Isamu Noguchi” (1972), a 30-minute film about Noguchi’s approach to sculpture.Credit…Michael Blackwood Productions

Michael Adolf Schwarzwald was born on July 15, 1934, in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) and moved to Berlin when he was 2 years old. During World War II, his parents sent him for his safety to Lubeck, on Germany’s Baltic Coast, to one of a network of children’s homes run by the Lutheran Church.

His father, Gerhard, who was Jewish, did forced labor jobs in Berlin during the war; his mother, Elinor (Feist) Schwarzwald, converted from Lutheranism to Judaism but subsequently rejoined the Lutheran Church to survive in Nazi Germany and protect her family. She worked at the Finnish consulate. After the war, his parents started a business that made sets and curtains for the German film industry and local theaters.

The family, including his brother, emigrated to New York in 1949. Michael changed his surname to Blackwood and dropped his middle name after becoming a United States citizen in 1955.

After his graduation from George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan, he found work with a special film unit of NBC. He swept the floors at first, but eventually learned to edit and direct there, which led him to make his first film, “Broadway Express” (1959), a 19-minute portrait of people riding the New York City subway, set to a jazz score.

In 1961, after leaving NBC, Mr. Blackwood moved to Munich, West Germany, where he directed documentaries for public television. He returned to New York in 1965 and soon began making his own independent documentaries. In 1968, he and his brother directed two films about Monk for West German television: “Monk,” which focused on recording sessions and performances in New York and Atlanta, and “Monk in Europe,” about a European tour.

Much of their footage was used in another documentary, Charlotte Zwerin’s “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” (1989). Jon Pareles wrote in a review in The Times that “Monk’s feet were as busy as his hands, and Mr. Blackwood’s alert camera crew zeroed in on them.”

“Although Monk’s recorded piano sound is percussive,” Mr. Pareles went on, “the film shows him using the sustain pedal within single notes, using extraordinary finesse.”

In a 1993 film, “The Sensual Nature of Sound,” Mr. Blackwood examined four distinctive performers and composers — Laurie Anderson, Tania León, Meredith Monk and Pauline Oliveros — devoting significant time to their discussions of their own work.

“The thread that ties together so much of Blackwood’s work,” Sasha Frere-Jones wrote last year on the website for Pioneer Works, a Brooklyn culture center that was streaming some of Mr. Blackwood’s films, “is a sense of patience and respect, so that even when the documentary form includes narration, it usually comes from the painters and musicians themselves.”

Mr. Blackwood also made films about subjects who were not artists, like the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe and the diplomat George F. Kennan, and several about Germany and German Americans.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by their son, Benjamin; his daughter, Katherine Blackwood a son, Daniel, from his marriage to Ela Hockaday Kyle, which ended in divorce; and six grandchildren. His brother died in 1992.

Mr. Blackwood’s last three films were all completed in 2014: one about the expansion of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.; another about the painter Carroll Dunham; and the third a portrait of Greg Lynn, a leader in computer-aided architectural design.

One film remains — one that Benjamin Blackwood said he may complete — about the Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s “Greene Street Mural,” an installation created in 1983 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in Manhattan. It measured 18 feet tall and 96½ feet wide and was destroyed, at Mr. Lichtenstein’s direction, after six weeks.

“His priority wasn’t making an art piece,” Benjamin Blackwood said by phone, referring to his father’s cinematic ambitions, “but to make a film about the art his camera was capturing.”

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