The Ultimate List of Artist Documentaries You Have To Watch
When it comes to getting inspired, one of the greatest ways to do it is to watch an art documentary – or better yet, artists documentaries.
In the history of film, fairly short but more than rich, there are many documentaries that tell the story of an artist’s life, art and inspiration, letting us get an insight of what it’s like to be someone like Banksy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ai Weiwei, Louise Bourgeois or Gerhard Richter. These films represent a visual portrait of the world’s greatest contemporary artists, which allow us to get a glimpse of their lives beyond their artworks. Most of these documentaries were made quite recently and you can find them online, on entertainment websites such as Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon.
Among them, we have street art documentaries, as well as films that follow today’s most renowned contemporary creatives of all spheres of the arts. If you’re more of a proper movie lover, be sure to see our list of art history movies here!
Scroll down to check out the very best art and artist documentaries out there.
Ai Weiwei - Never Sorry
The 2012 movie Never Sorry follows the life and career of controversial Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei between the years of 2008 and 2010. During this time, the artist was preparing his exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in September 2009 and his 100 million-ceramic porcelain piece at the Tate Modern a year later. In the film, which also precedes his 2011 arrest, we can see Chinese government officials going after Ai Weiwei in a public restaurant, or how the artist takes care of his many cats. It was directed by American filmmaker Alison Klayman.
Gerhard Richter - Painting, The Documentary
One of the top-selling painters of today, whose works reach multi-million dollar prices at auctions around the world, German painter Gerhard Richter reveals some of his creativity secrets in the 2011 documentary entitled Painting. Directed by Corinna Belz, who also directed the 2007 short Gerhard Richter’s Window, the film explores Richter’s career of over fifty years by conducting intimate conversations with his critics, collaborators and gallerists, as well as through rare archive material.
Women Art Revolution - The Feminist Art Documentary
In an incredible visual story of how the Feminism Art Movement changed the arts since the 1960s, artist and art historian Lynn Horseman Leeson offers a marvelous movie. Seeking to explore the “secret” history of feminist art, !Women Art Revolution, or !W.A.R. offers archive footage and interviews with famous female artists like the Guerrilla Girls, Judy Chicago, Yoko Ono, Barbara Kruger, Miriam Schapiro and Ingrid Sischy, among many others. The 2011 film was part of the official selection at festivals like Sundance and TIFF.
The Woodmans - The Life of The Photographer
Francesca Woodman was without a doubt a talent whose self-portraits contributed greatly to the medium of photography. She tragically ended her own life in 1981, at the age of 22, leaving behind her photographs prematurely. The 2011 film The Woodmans gathers the artist’s family members and peers, whose talk about her legacy is accompanied by a series of videos, photographs and excerpts from Francesca Woodman’s personal diary. Directed by Scott Willis, the film was the winner of an Emmy award, as well as top New York Documentary at Tribeca Film Festival 2010.
Basquiat, The Radiant Child
Director Tamra Davis met Jean-Michel Basquiat back in 1985, and she decided to casually interview him, as well as an array of people close to him and those who were acquainted with his artworks back in the day, such as Larry Gagosian, Maripol, Julian Schnabel, Kenny Scharf, Glenn O’Brien and more. The first, 20-minute version of Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child documentary was shown at the 2006 Sundance, while the feature-length movie, including the above mentioned interviews, came out in 2010. It is a great insight into the other side of the immortal artist.
Louise Bourgeois - The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine
Directed by Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach, Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine is a 2008 video dedicated to one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Two years before her death in 2010, at the age of 98, the film talks about the artist’s extraordinary oeuvre and the intriguing story of her childhood, which influenced much of her artwork. By revealing details about her life, Louise Bourgeois sheds some light on her creative process, spanning over six decades. At the age of 71, the French-American artist became the first woman honored with a major retrospective at the MoMA in 1982.
Guest of Cindy Sherman
In a curious visual representation of the world’s biggest female photographer right now, the film captures the relationship between the artist and Paul H-O, the New York art scene fixture and the host of the public access show GalleryBeat, popular in the 1990s. In the video, there is no formal interview with Cindy Sherman, but only footage of the couple flirting and falling in love, while drawing our focus to the fact that Paul H-O is having a hard time handling his girlfriend’s growing fame. It was all filmed during the course of 15 years, and it also features conversations with many art and entertainment world stars.
Waste Land - A Vik Muniz Documentary
In 2010, Brazilian photographer Vik Muniz participated in an interesting two-year project which took place at the world’s largest open-air garbage dump, in collaboration with the local trash pickers – Gramacho catadores. Known for his portraits made of unconventional materials such as peanut butter, sugar or syrup, the artist created classical photographic portrait compositions made of scavenged garbage on site. Vick Muniz donated the proceedings made from sales made during the filming of Waste Land to the people of Gramacho landfill, drawing attention to its poor state and changing many lives in the process.
Our City Dreams - Five Female Artists in NY
Filmed over the course of two years in New York, Our City Dreams is one of the most interesting artist documentaries out there. It focuses on the lives of five prominent female artists who call NY home: Swoon, Ghana Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramovic and Nancy Spero, telling the tale of the city through the artists’ many artistic creations – from Swoon’s street art and Abramovic’s performance pieces, to Amer’s naked women, Spero’s bloody phalluses and Kiki Smith’s extraordinary drawings and sculptures. Director Chiara Clemente superbly captures the talents of each woman individually, while painting a single picture of a city of art.
Banksy Does New York - Going After Him
In October 2013, the great Banksy visited New York for an artist residency called Better Out Than In. It was an exciting time to be there, with street artworks and events popping up on every corner. The 2014 documentary Banksy Does New York, director Chris Moukarbel shows 31 days of mystery, during which he did not focus on finding Banksy, but on telling about his stay in the city through the very series of pieces he painted by tracking down Instagram posts, Tweets, YouTube videos and Banksy’s own posts via his website. The HBO movie has been very successful, and if you’re a fan of Banksy’s, it is definitely a must-see.
Mapplethorpe - Look at the Pictures
Directed and executive produced by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is the latest documentary on the celebrated photographer. It explores his fascination with magic and sex twenty five years after his death, in the first and most complete film of its kind ever since. The movie features interviews with Robert Mapplethorpe’s former lovers, his older sister Nancy and youngest brother Edward, as well as a number of rediscovered interviews with the artist himself, who becomes the narrator of his own tale, talking about his life, loves and work.
Cutie and the Boxer - Noriko and Ushio Shinohara
A 2013 American documentary film, Cutie and the Boxer focuses on the chaotic 40-year marriage of the boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko, featuring their original artwork. Ushio Shinohara is a small player in the contemporary art world, known for painting with a pair of paint-soaked boxing gloves. Noriko, who is more than 20 years younger than Ushio, set aside her own career to raise their son Alex and serve as Ushio’s unpaid assistant, receptionist and chef. Today, they hold a joint art opening at a SoHo gallery.
Marina Abramovic - The Artist is Present
This feature-length documentary film follows the artist as she prepares for what may be the most important moment of her life: a major retrospective of Marina Abramović’s performance at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. From March 14 to May 31, 2010, she was the author of biggest exhibition of performance art in MoMA’s history. The film shows the highlights of the performance, among which there is her emotional encounter with former lover and collaborator Ulay. Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present is a mesmerizing and intimate portrait of a woman who draws no distinction between life and art. The “godmother of performance art,” she has been using her own body as a vehicle for over 40 years.
David Hockney - A Bigger Picture
Filmed over three years, this documentary is an unprecedented record of a major artist at work. It captures David Hockney‘s return from California to his native Yorskhire, outside, through the seasons and in all weathers. It tells the story of a homecoming and gives a revealing portrait of what inspires and motivates today’s greatest living British-born artist. The Times London described the film as ”the best anyone will ever make about Hockney’s process” and it features almost an hour of bonus materials.
Andy Warhol (A Documentary Film), 2006
As one of the greatest creative talents of the 20th century and a man who has changed the way we think about art and artists generally, there is no wonder why so many films about Andy Warhol were made. Since you’ve probably watched many of them let’s feature a relatively recent documentary which follows the Warhol’s rise in New York’s commercial art world. Although it doesn’t lack the flattery aspect and uses the word genius to describe the artist many times, the film still provides a nice insight into the artist’s path to glory through a number of interviews and sequences narrated by Laurie Anderson.
Downtown 81 (1981)
Although several biographic movies about Basquiat were released after the artist’s untimely death, it appeared that the person who can portray Jean-Michel Basquiat the best is the artist himself. Originally titled New York Beat Movie and shot at the beginning of the 1980’s, Downtown 81 was finally released in 2000. The plot follows a day in a life of a young artist and it’s nicely interwoven with the cultural context of a post-punk era in the New York city. Even though the dialogue audio has been lost, much of the original soundtrack was preserved and we get to see Basquiat as he charmingly wanders downtown New York during one of the most exciting periods of American subculture.
BONUS: Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (2015)
Another truly entertaining documentary you just have to watch if you’re into modern and contemporary art is Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. It may not be an “artist documentary” per se, but it does deal with a lot of artists of whom this wonderful woman was patron her whole life. Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the film dives into the life of a socialite, art patron, and collector Peggy Guggenheim, the woman who knew everyone who was someone in 20th-century art. The documentary does justice to the rich and eventful life of Peggy Guggenheim, a colorful character and a woman that has been there to witness and help define the world of modern art. The film features numerous interviews with artists such as Marina Abramovic for instance, as well as art critics, historians and audio interviews with Peggy herself.