Must Watch These Art Docs

Must Watch These Art Docs and Be Inspired

10 Art Documentaries that May Change Your Life.

If you’re looking for something art-related to inspire you, look no further than these 10 documentaries. Each film is stellar in its own way, and there’s something to appease every person who appreciates and loves art. And if, like me, your creative energy has been suppressed by the summer heat, there’s no need to worry, because I challenge you to watch any one of these films and not feel moved to create something extraordinary.

1. Marina Abramovi?: The Artist is Present (2012)

This documentary is named after Marina Abramovi?'s performance at her  2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the piece, which went on for all of three months, Abramovi? was seated in the museum's atrium, and the setup was elementary: a table, with two chairs parallel to one another. With Abramovi? in one chair, the other was freely reserved for members of the audience who wanted to sit across from her. The rules? No talking, no touching, and no physical communication. And the objective? To engage in what Abramovi? called an "energy dialogue" with the audience.

Not only was it the longest-duration solo work of Abramovi?'s career, but it was, arguably, the most emotionally and physically demanding one. Art imitates life, and life imitates art, and for Abramovi?, there is no divide, no partition. The documentary itself is cinematically stunning and as enchanting as the artist herself.


2. Bill Cunningham New York (2010)

Bill Cunningham, the fashion world's most iconic and revered photographer, known principally for his candid street photography (and for his photos for The New York Times, too), reminds us: "The wider world perceives fashion as frivolity that should be done away with. The point is that fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don't think you can do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization."

The documentary follows Cunningham at work, and it's physically impossible to watch it without smiling. With his recent passing in June, Bill Cunningham New York poignantly reminds us why he was so deeply loved and why he will never be forgotten.


3. Cutie and the Boxer (2013)

Ushio Shinohara, a Japanese Neo-Dadaist artist (he's referred to as the "boxing painter" because he paints with boxing gloves drenched in paint) and his wife, Noriko, are the subjects of this documentary, which was shot, produced, and directed by Zachary Heinzerling. While it's a film about art, it's also a film about marriage: Married for 40 years, life was never easy for the couple.

Heinzerling does a remarkable job of crafting the film and telling the story; even if you're not interested in Neo-Dadaist art, or even art in general, it's worth watching this explicitly for the captivating way it's captured and documented.


4. The Rape of Europa (2006)

You may (or may not) recall a movie from 2014 called The Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney. It focused on the Nazi's theft and concealment of art during World War II. The film was objectively horrible, garnering a mere 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the reason I lead with this is because The Rape of Europa focuses on the same subject matter of systematic theft (and, truly, much, much more), but it tells the story accurately, and with all the drama and zeal of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Narrated by Joan Allen, and beginning with the story of artist Gustav Klimt's Gold Portrait, this stunning documentary is one I urge you to add to the top of your Netflix queue, as soon as possible.


5. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010)

This documentary is the aftermath of a 1985 interview between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Tamra Davis, a filmmaker who befriended the artist. Davis used the footage from the interview, which was when they initially met, to begin the film, which is, in essence, a portrait of Basquiat's life and career in the art world. Having perpetually combatted racism in a predominantly white field, the film highlights what it was like for Basquiat to endure adversity and fleetly ascend in a world that wasn't accepting or welcoming.


6. The Cool School (2008)

Narrated by Jeff Bridges, The Cool School chronicles the life, and the emergence, of the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, founded by Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz in 1956. The gallery was a space that allowed contemporary, progressive, post-war art - from the most visionary artists of the time - to blossom. It was a platform that propelled the careers of many now renowned and esteemed artists, including Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol. The film looks at the erratic relationship between art and money, and at the Ferus Galley's consequent end, with a rightfully and discerningly optimistic eye.


7. Guest of Cindy Sherman (2008)

Filmed over 15 years, and teeming with interviews, this documentary tells the story of how Paul Hasegawa-Overacker (Paul H-O) started a romantic relationship with one of the world's most acclaimed conceptual photographers, Cindy Sherman. H-O's character was overshadowed by Sherman's through the duration of the relationship, and the film itself illustrates the New York art world of the 1990s, as well as the subjects of celebrity and fame. Personally, I found H-O's ego off-putting, but this film is well worth your time, because it offers a behind-the-scenes look into Sherman's life and artistic process, and she was always characterized as something of a recluse.


8. Gerhard Richter Painting (2011)

The title says it all: This immensely elegant film by Corinna Belz offers a look at German artist Gerhard Richter at work, creating massive abstract canvasses. Composed mostly of hypnotizing (and inspiring) footage of the artist at work, the artistic process and painting are supported by interviews with Richter's critics and collaborators.

There are moments of stillness, where Richter is just staring at the canvas he's working on, and there are moments of movement with thick brushes or colossal squeegees, where Richter applies paint and subsequently scratches it off. It's a film punctuated by the intensity of silence, and the viewer is distanced, but still fully immersed in Richter's work and process. If you're looking for an art documentary to watch - one that has a zen-like quality to it - then this is the one you'll want to watch today.


9. Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

The story of Vivian Maier is one of my all-time personal favorites. Born in New York City in 1926, Maier was a nanny for about 40 years and a pursuer (and sheer lover) of photography in her off time. She took more than 150,000 photographs in her lifetime, and none of them were ever published: Maier’s body of work was unknown to the world until the year of her death in 2009, when John Maloof, who co-directed the film and procured the biggest collection of her work (between 100,000 and 150,000 negatives, more than 3,000 prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies and audio interviews, and more) catapulted her into the spotlight via Flickr, where the small collection of Maier’s photos that he published immediately went viral. Since then, Maloof has been on a mission to archive, preserve, and promote Maier’s stunning body of work.


10. Waste Land (2010)

Jardim Gramacho, located just outside of Rio de Janeiro, is the world’s largest landfill, and it’s where artist Vik Muniz sought to create art in collaboration with catadores - people who salvage reusable and recyclable goods discarded by others for personal consumption. It received a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the best-reviewed film - and documentary - of the year, and with good reason: Waste Land is a moving film that poignantly illustrates the gravity of the human spirit.


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