For anyone who has been to a museum or gallery to take in the splendor of the art hanging on the walls, you have undoubtedly looked up upon a painting whose last brush strokes were not committed to the canvas by the original artist. Behind the scenes, skilled technicians have likely cleaned, touched up, restored and preserved the work as it has aged, reversing the damage that time has taken on the work. This kind of meticulous undertaking is typically what springs to mind when we think of art preservation. However, the new documentary, John Wilcox: The Relinquishment of Time, which just won the Best Documentary Feature Award at the 2021 Lonestar Film Festival, forces us to look at the preservation of art, and of an artist’s legacy, in a new light.
The Relinquishment of Time tells the story of John Wilcox (1954–2012), a prominent artist who, upon passing away, left a trove of artwork behind, forcing his brother to decide how best to catalog, compile, and continue sharing it with the world. John Wilcox was not a one-medium artist; he painted on canvas, played with mixed media, and generated numerous drawing and other works on paper. His style has been described as a “minimalist, abstract body of work that included large pointillist canvases, methodically layered monochromes, and works on paper” and his work is often cited for its spiritual and ethereal qualities. Wilcox himself described his art as capturing, “everything and nothing all at once.”
During the 1980s, Wilcox’s work was heavily influenced by the AIDS crisis, which affected him directly as many of his close friends passed away from complications from HIV. The epidemic, and his experiences from it, sparked him to create the pieces that would be featured in his final one-man show at the Barry Whistler Gallery in Dallas, TX in 2010.
It was after his death that the journey depicted in John Wilcox: The Relinquishment of Time begins. The documentary illustrates the challenges of determining what to do when someone’s estate falls to others and poses philosophical questions about what should be done to protect the legacy of artists once they die. Who is responsible for explaining the meaning of the art? Who is ultimately responsible for the artwork itself and keeping it in the public’s view (or not)?
At the conclusion of the screening, a Q&A session featuring the filmmakers Sarah Reyes and Daniel Driensky + David Wilcox, John’s brother, was held for attendees. They were asked what their biggest challenge was while making the movie, and surprisingly, their answer wasn’t related to the common technical challenges with filmmaking. They all agreed, “The biggest challenge of this film was fitting all the details into one film, such as the details surrounding John’s artistic technique.”
One audience member made a particularly moving statement. She admitted to David,
“I love art, but I have never appreciated modern art. I’ve always looked at it with a kind of arrogant attitude. And now, I’m humbled because I realize I’ve never taken the time to learn and really study it and appreciate it. It was just my first response. So not only do I appreciate your film, but I’m going to really revisit modern art and try not to fall in with my preconceptions. [These artists] are still human beings expressing their thoughts and feelings. That’s what we all want. In terms of [John] your brother, he just had a style that I have never appreciated until now. So thank you so much.”
Speaking to David Wilcox after the Festival ended, I asked what he took away from the experience. “Well, considering that when I first met the filmmakers, I just gave them some photographs and some video footage, and asked them if they could make something for me, and they came back with a full documentary…that’s pretty amazing. I just want to do my part to keep my brother’s memory alive.”
Getting a project into a film festival is always a big deal, but being selected as the winning entry in a category is a whole other thing. I wondered what he thought about the initial success and positive reception to the film, and he told me, “Just knowing that anyone is interested in John and his work is the greatest feeling in the world.”