20 Must-Watch Artist Documentaries, From Basquiat to Bas Jan Ader

Film still from "Basquiat, The Radiant Child"
(Courtesy of ITVS / Lee Jaffe)

With Sundance just passed, Oscars on the horizon, and a cold New York winter keeping us indoors, ARTINFO HQ has been abuzz with movie talk lately. As is to be expected, there have been more than a few conversations about our favorite art films and documentaries. From our many debates about the best, we've distilled this list of indispensible docs for art lovers. 

Crumb (1994)

 

Director Terry Zwigoff spent six years following around his friend, legendary underground comic-book artist Robert Crumb, crafting the footage into a multifaceted mosaic of the artist's troubled past and how it illuminates his often troubling work. The film ushered in a second-wave of fans unfamiliar with Crumb's drawings, which have now transitioned from alternative weeklies and damp comic-book shops to galleries and museums.

In the Realms of the Unreal (2004)

Self-taught artist Henry Darger has become legendary for his secretive and prolific life's work; a massive collection of fantastical drawings, paintings, and writings that feature the now-iconic characters "the Vivian Girls," which were not discovered until after his death. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu takes viewers on a journey into the very private world of the outsider artist, through hauntingly animated versions of his paintings and accounts of what little is known of his life.

Ballets Russes (2005)

The current vogue for art and popular culture synergy was primed more than half century ago by Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev. This dazzling documentary gives a glimpse inside his world-renowned Russian dance troupe, the Ballets Russes. Founded by the artistic director in 1909, the company took the Paris stage by storm with Diaghilev's avant-garde works and collaborations with some of the finest artists of the era in the areas of visual arts, music, and costume. For his groundbreaking ballet "Le Train Bleu" during the 1924 season Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel created the costumes for the dancers from her own “sport” collection, while Pablo Picasso himself designed the staggering stage curtain (almost dwarfing his mural "Guernica"), based on his 1922 painting "Deux Femme Courant Sur La Plage." More than just a visual feast for dance lovers, the film shows how Diaghilev's influence stretched beyond ballet.

Manufactured Landscapes (2006)

Following Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky from the epicenter of Chinese industry to the oil fields of Bangladesh, “Manufactured Landscapes” is a shocking — and as it so happens, very topical — look at environmental devastation through the lens of Burtynsky’s strangely beautiful images. The works are elegant statements on the state of the world and depressingly awe-inspiring, and show the power of art to open eyes, in every sense of the phrase.

Here is Always Somewhere Else (2007)

In one of the more notable examples of performance art gone horribly awry, in 1975, 33-year-old Dutch-Californian artist Bas Jan Ader set out to cross the Atlantic in a 13-foot cruiser for a piece titled “In Search of the Miraculous.” He never returned. In a film that’s part unsolved-mystery, part artist-survey, director Rene Daalder chronicles his friend’s disappearance while also presenting Ader’s conceptual work in performance art, film, and photography, which, considering his brief life, was amazingly prolific.

Black White + Gray (2007)

A profile of Sam Wagstaff, an obsessive photography collector and Robert Mapplethorpe’s long-term partner, Black White + Gray” follows him from his aristocratic upbringing, to his visionary curating and collecting among the gay S&M world of 1970s New York, to his final years as a collector of American silver.

Guest of Cindy Sherman (2008)

Guest of Cindy Sherman” captures the unlikely love affair between art world gadfly Paul H-O, the unpretentious host of the public access television show “Gallery Beat” in the 1990s, and legendary conceptual photographer Cindy Sherman. The film's title references the name H-O found on his place card at a fancy dinner the two attended just as their four-year relationship was unraveling. That Sherman isn't formally interviewed makes the film even more intimate — all we see is archival footage of the two flirting and falling in love while H-O struggles to come to terms with her growing fame. (Bonus: ARTINFO junkies can enjoy a cameo by our own Judd Tully.)

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine (2008)

Two years before her death at age 98, this documentary offered a glimpse inside the French-American sculptress’s Chelsea home-studio, revealing an irrepressibly inquisitive mind and a hoarder-sized trove of unseen works. Filmmakers Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach compliment their candid and contemporary portrait with contextualizing biographical information, filling out the life of an exceptional artist who always remained beyond the conventions of the avant-garde of her day.

Picasso and Braque Go to The Movies (2008)

With interviews of Martin Scorsese and Julian Schnabel, “Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies” makes a case for the close relationship, and intertwined evolution of Cubism and film. The work of Picasso and Braque is placed against the background of the era, presenting an intriguing new context for the development of the ur-movement of 20th-century modernism.

Herb and Dorothy (2008)

No list of art documentaries would be complete without “Herb and Dorothy,” the story of the famed middle-class art collecting couple who amassed thousands of works by 20th-century artists in their one-bedroom apartment. The film offers an indelible how a love of art and love intertwine.

Basquiat, The Radiant Child (2010)

Footage of a baby-faced (and slightly shy) Jean-Michel Basquiat being casually interviewed by his friend Tamra Davis evinces the tragedy of Basquait’s life as an artist — but more powerfully, it evinces the tragedy of his life as a brilliant young man.

The Woodmans (2010)

Interviews with artist Francesca Woodman’s family and peers are woven together with her videos, photographs, and excerpts from her diary to tell the story of her life, work, and tragic death. The film, like Woodman’s artwork and like Woodman herself, asks serious and even troubling questions about art, fame, and self-image, but leaves it to the audience to work through the answers.

Waste Land (2010)

A Brazilian slum native who rose to art world stardom in the mid-'90s for his signature images  of artists' portraits re-created, and re-imaged, using materials like sugar, peanut butter or syrup, Vik Muniz more recently embarked on a two-year project working with Gramacho catadores —  trash-pickers — to capture their images via compositions made of scavenged garbage. It’s a strange hybrid of a film, a compelling look into the oft-overlooked trash scavenging industry, and an inspiring demonstration of how Muniz is using his status within the elite art world to provide acknowledgment (and auction sales) to a subgroup otherwise dismissed by the elite.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

Werner Herzog
’s exclusive access to the Chauvet cave — the site of 30,000-year old Paleolithic paintings  — documents some of the oldest artworks known to man. The 3-D film is narrated in Herzog’s lilting German accent and combines footage shot in the cave with high-tech digital renderings, and becomes a fascinating essay on the nature of human creativity.

Eames: The Architect & The Painter (2011)

Charles
(the architect) and Ray (the painter) Eames re-defined design in the 20th century, from the furniture in people’s homes to commercials and corporate identities. This film is both a documentary about the exceptionalism of their L.A.-studio, and a love story based on Charles’s magnetism, Ray’s often-overlooked, but indelible creative influence on Charles, and her dedication and love for him.

!Women Art Revolution (2011)

Artist and art historian Lynn Hershman Leeson has been filming the Feminist Art Movement since the 1960s. Her interviews with everyone from artists Nancy SperoJudy Chicago, and Martha Rosler to New Museum founder Marcia Tucker offer an in-depth look at how feminism helped to reshape the visual arts — which is a story that needs to be told again and again.

Gerhard Richter Painting (2011)

Director Corinna Belz takes viewers into Gerhard Richter’s studio for a rare glimpse at the 80-year-old painter’s laborious, highly physical process. Talking is largely eschewed in favor of long shots of Richter squeegeeing his monumental abstract canvases, making for a rare film about an artist that is more about process than personality.

Ai Weiwei Never Sorry (2012)

Perhaps most unforgettable moment of behind-the-scenes look at the life and work of dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has the officials from the Chinese government stalking Ai as he eats dinner in a public restaurant. The film is notable for the way it portrays the determination, humor, and exceptional creativity of a truely inspirational individual in the face of repression, and through this, the power of art to matter.

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (2012)

Each of the Brooklyn-based conceptual photographer’s dramatic small-town tableaux is the outcome of a production process with roughly the complexity of a feature film shoot. This behind-the-scenes machinery is chronicled in this fascinating film, whose most candid moments are nevertheless Crewdson’s at-the-wheel musings while he cruises around location scouting in his preferred Western Massachusetts rust belt towns.

Beauty is Embarrassing (2012)

Director Neil Berkeley follows artist, comedian, experimental puppeteer, and all-around renaissance man Wayne White on his aesthetic peregrinations, recounting his early years as the creator of some of the most beloved characters on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” his relocation from New York to Los Angeles, and his improbable crossover from outsider artist status to bonafide success story with his paintings of giant letters spelling hilarious messages — e.g. “Donald Judd Was a Son of a Bitch Wrecked His Train in a Whorehouse Ditch,” “I’ll Smash This Painting Over Your Fucking Head,” and so on — on tacky thrift store landscape paintings.

To see stills from all of our must-see art documentaries, click on the slideshow.