The Ultimate List of Artist Documentaries You Have To Watch

March 24, 2020

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.

Be sure to check out works by Ai Weiwei on our marketplace!

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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.

Discover more works by Gerhard Richter on our marketplace!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Browse through Jean-Michel Basquait artworks on our marketplace!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Be sure to check out an interesting selection of works by Andy Warhol!

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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.

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Beyond the Visible - Hilma af Klint

Directed by Halina Dryschka, this dazzling, course correcting documentary takes the viewers into a world of Hilma af Klimt, a visionary, trailblazing figure who was inspired by spiritualism, modern science, and the riches of the natural world around her. Titled Beyond the Visible - Hilma af Klint, the film not only tells the story of the life and craft of this talented artist, but also the process of her mischaracterization and erasure by both a patriarchal narrative of artistic progress and capitalistic determination of artistic value. It perfectly conveys the essence of af Klint’s artistry and the magnitude of its unsung influence. 

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.

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Marcel Duchamp: Art of the Possible

Directed by Matthew Taylor, Marcel Duchamp: Art of the Possible explores the life, philosophy and impact of one of the most influential early 20th century modernists, Marcel Duchamp. Breaking down Duchamp’s innovative ideas, it shows how they changed the public consciousness, and our understanding of aesthetics, art, and culture. It also explores his influence on significant artists such as Andy Warhol, John Cage, Yoko Ono, and Jasper Johns, among others, as well as on the mid-20th century Fluxus art movement, and even on contemporary graphic artists and musicians. Notable artists and theorists included in the documentary are Ed Ruscha, Thierry de Duve, Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Jeff Koons amongst others.

Faces Places

A 2017 French documentary film directed by Agnès Varda and JRFaces Places is a unique cross-generational portrait of life in rural France. Equal parts breezily charming and poignantly powerful, the film follows Varda and JR traveling around rural France, creating portraits of the people they come across. The two met in 2015 and decided to shoot a film in France during a trip in JR's photographic truck. With a combination of chance encounters and prepared projects, they reached out to people, listening and photographing them. At the same time, the film tell a story of their friendship, which grew stronger over the shoot.


Pat Steir: Artist

Directed by Veronica Gonzalez Peña, Pat Steir: Artist is a deeply intimate portrait of Pat Steir shot over the course of two and a half years. During this period, the director compiled over 30 hours of deep and personal conversations with the artist who has been at the forefront of American painting for decades. Through these conversations, Steir touchingly evokes her childhood in New Jersey, her young adulthood in NY, her involvement in feminist groups and artistic movements, as well as her deep friendships and alliances with the most influential artists and poets of her generation, including Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, John Cage, Anne Waldman, and Sylvère Lotringer.


Kusama: Infinity

A 2018 biographical documentary film directed by Heather LenzKusama: Infinity explores the artist's journey from a conservative upbringing in Japan to her fame in America during the 1960s, concluding with the international fame she finally achieved. "I come up with new ideas," Yayoi Kusama says in the documentary, "and my canvas cannot keep up with me." The films explores her fierce determination to bring her radical artistic vision to the world. A richly deserved spotlight on her brilliant work, the film also opens a window into her personal life. As a study of an artist who was nearly always ahead of the curve, the director's approach adds a sense of clarity to the subject.



Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art (2020)

Released in 2020, Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art is not an artist documentary, but it follows a sordid drama surrounding one of the biggest forgery scandals in the art world. It traces the controversy that erupted when an unassuming couple flooded the art market with a collection of fake art sold for millions to the prestigious Knoedler Gallery. The oldest commercial art gallery in the United States which has been in operation for 165 years, the Knoedler Gallery turned out to be involved in no less than selling forged paintings of celebrated Abstract Expressionists such as Mark RothkoJackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. These works found their way into the greatest museums in the world. The documentary was written and directed by Barry Avrich and executive produced with Jay Hennick. 


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