By Hilton Kramer
Updated January 15, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Video documentaries about famous contemporary artists are mostly subspecies of propaganda film. It?s not their primary function to assess or even explain the art?s complexities. Their real goal is to persuade viewers that the artists featured are colossal geniuses. And since it is assumed to be the privilege of genius to remain evasive and inarticulate about its purposes, clarity of statement is not to be expected. What we usually get instead from both the artists and their apologists is a kind of art-world argot that only adds more layers of mystery and mystification to an already perplexing succession of images.

Three new videos devoted to well-known modern American painters — Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Jasper Johns — mostly conform to this genre. They tell us a good deal about the controversy and success that marked the artists? careers yet explain little about the quality of their work. They are essentially celebrations of art-world stardom that leave most of the questions raised by the art itself completely unexamined.

The best of these is Jackson Pollock (1992), a 51-minute documentary on the preeminent abstractionist Pollock, who produced some of that period?s most influential paintings. Alcoholic and unruly, Pollock died in an auto crash in 1956 at age 44. It is easier to be candid about the dead than about the living, so we hear much about Pollock?s wretched personal behavior. But the video?s real value lies in the scenes devoted to his painting. Thanks to Hans Namuth film of Pollock at work a few years before his death, we catch vivid glimpses of his ”drip” method of compositions, which revolutionized the art of painting. While the Namuth clips have a permanent artistic interest, almost everything else here is highly perishable gossip.

Made while Motherwell was alive, Robert Motherwell and the New York School: Storming the Citadel (1992) discloses little about his life and is as much about his fellow artists in the Abstract Expressionism movement as about him. Unfortunately, Motherwell became awfully pompous in his later years and the scenes showing him at work in his studio are not very persuasive. From watching this video, we would mistakenly have to dismiss his work as utterly vacuous. Motherwell and the New York School came too late for Motherwell to bring to it the artistic and intellectual energy of his earlier work.

Jasper Johns: Ideas in Paint (1992) is a celebration more of art-world success than of the creation of art. Johns? paintings of targets, flags, and maps are among the highest-priced of any living artist’s work. Yet what we see here is not his art but testimonials from the painter?s artist friends. There are only two brief moments of dissenting opinion — both of them mine, taken from an interview I did for public television several years ago. Johns himself has nothing to add, only a mixture of silences and banalities. The film as a whole is that same kind of propaganda.

Except for the Namuth clips in the Pollock video, there is no way the viwer can really see the art on the TV screen. The color is generally okay, but texture and form remain very obscure. When paintings are put on television, it is television we experience. Jackson Pollock: B+ Robert Motherwell and the New York School: Storming the Citadel: B- Jasper Johns: Ideas on the Paint: B