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The Storytellers’ Stories: The Best Documentaries About Artists

artist documentary

By Tori Campbell

Introduction: Artist Documentaries

As Gerhard Richter once proclaimed, “To talk about painting is not only difficult but perhaps pointless, too. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that.”

But the relatively new medium of film might have something to do with it. The following artist documentaries are beautiful examples of how film can capture and craft engaging narratives around the life, work, and intentions of artists. Join us from the comfort of your own home and dive into the minds of some of the most idiosyncratic, influential, eccentric and captivating artists of the last few decades.


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Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

The 2012 film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry explores the intersection of art and activism in the life and work of Ai Weiwei. The internationally acclaimed artist has gained more and more attention in recent years for his bold social activism and subsequent 2011 arrest by the Chinese government. The documentary is a timely reflection of the growing global interest in the man, his life, and his work. The dynamic film was documented by Beijing-based filmmaker and journalist Alison Klayman from 2008 to 2010, providing a never-before-seen glimpse at not only Weiwei’s art, but also his courageous and controversial acts of politicised protest. This exploration allows a surprising secondary character to enter the frame — contemporary China. With artistic and activist activities inextricable from the Chinese context Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry ultimately ends up casting meaningful light on the complex culture and politics of the country. View the documentary winner of the 2012 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, here.

Gerhard Richter Painting

Directed by Corinna Belz, the woman behind the 2007 short film Gerhard Richter’s Window, Belz returned four years later with a directorial thirst for more. The 2011 feature-length documentary Gerhard Richter Painting is a deeply immersive exploration of the creative process of one of the world’s most renowned and influential painters living today. Featuring rare archival material of the artist at work, as well as glimpses into his studio and its decades-long closely guarded privacy,, the documentary is an all-access-pass to Richter’s work and process. Complemented by a series of interviews with the artist, his contemporaries, and his critics; Belz’s full-length film exploration of Richter’s process grants the audience a unique fly-on-the-wall perspective of his working methods. The masterful direction of this documentary makes the film itself into a work of art. See for yourself, here. 

Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present

Notoriously controversial and courageous, Marina Abramović’s conceptual and performance art has been pushing her audiences well beyond their point of comfort for over four decades. The 2012 film The Artist is Present closely follows Abramović as she prepares for and executes a massive retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Seeking again to entice the ever recurring question “but why is this art?” out of her viewers, she decides to sit seven hours a day, six days a week with her audience. Across a small table, one by one, viewers are invited to sit with the artist and experience her while she blankly confronts them, face to face. The documentary offers intimate access to Abramović, and the power of her work is expressed and compounded by not only the testimonies of fellow artists and art critics but especially of the museum-goers who tearfully and wordlessly react to her and her art. View the moving documentary, here.


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The Radiant Child

The 2010 film The Radiant Child follows the art and life of Jean-Michel Basquiat as directed by the late artist’s close friend Tamra Davis. By incorporating interviews with friends and the fellow artists of the 1980s downtown New York art scene with archival footage of Basquiat himself, the man behind the artwork is able to shine through. In this intimate documentary his neo-expressionist art is complemented by his iconoclastic nature as a successful black artist during a time when minimalist, conceptual art was the prevailing fad. The film leaves the audience wanting more, wishing that Basquiat himself could sit down with the film crew in 2010 to discuss his work, and the life of the magical man behind it. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival in 2010, you can stream the whole film, here.

Saving Banksy

Arguably the most famous graffiti artist in history, Banksy, has become a celebrity while staying anonymous. Active since the 1990s, his work has gained more and more attention throughout the years, fuelled by the mystique of the man and the large sums his works garner at public auction. The documentary Saving Banksy follows the story from its start in 2010, when Banksy visited San Francisco and left his mark throughout the city. Once his work steadily began to disappear, a man who’s building was graced with Banksy’s work decided to have it taken down for preservation. This act marks the beginning of a larger debate that the documentary explores and captures between artists and the public about artistic ownership, the rights of the public, and monetary versus cultural value. Rent or purchase the documentary, that was awarded the Most Innovative Documentary Feature in 2017 by Hollywood Film Festival, here.

How to Draw a Bunny

How to Draw a Bunny is an ambitious attempt to understand the mysterious life — and death — of collage and correspondence artist Ray Johnson. Directed by John Walter, the 2002 investigative documentary explores the oft-overshadowed artist, a man left in the dust of the cult of personality surrounding Warhol and other Pop Art figures. Interviews with fellow artists including Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein, Christo, Judith Malina, and James Rosenquist makes the film a star-studded recognition of this iconic talent, heralded for years as the ultimate artists’ artist. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival in 2002 and the Grand Prix du Public at the Rencontres Internationales de Cinema in Paris, the film sheds some light on this mysterious and reclusive man, proclaiming him New York’s most famous unknown artist. Want to know about Ray Johnson yourself? Watch the film now: here.

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Relevant sources to learn more

Many film festivals are offering streaming services right now, start by exploring the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam’s over 800 films
Want to see more things from the comfort of your home? Check out some of Artland’s many 3D Gallery Tours