Required Viewing: Essential Documentaries About Famous Artists


We’re happy if our previous roundup of feature films about artists inspired or rejuvenated any of your artistic or bohemian impulses. That said, pull up a chair. Let’s get real. Here you will find some of our favorite documentaries about artists, many of them current and some even freshly made. Dig out the heart of Louise Bourgeois’ gigantic spiders. Go behind Pablo Picasso’s brushstrokes. Wonder eternally if Banksy’s fooling you. Rebels, superstars, activists, eccentrics, con artists — they’re all here and they’re ready to tell you their story.

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

Gutsy sculptress Louise Bourgeois died at 98 years old in 2010, but not before her retrospective at the Guggenheim and the release of this intimate, captivating documentary. The mark she left on art history is indelible. The artist? Oh, she’s feisty. Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine uncovers the immense emotional origins of her giant spiders, sewn pink orgies, surreal sculptural genitalia, and remarkable, intricate “room” installations, as told by the Louise “psychological vampire” Bourgeois herself. It will leave you charmed, intimidated, devastated and, possibly, titillated.

The Mystery of Picasso (1956)

One of the most unique documentaries ever made, The Mystery of Picasso truly captured the master at work: Picasso’s director friend Henri-Georges Clouzot filmed the artist as he created twenty unique works for the film, documenting each piece as it grew with each new brush stroke, each new idea. Ingenuously, the filmmaker had Picasso paint on thin paper, capturing the ink bleeding through from the other side. When Picasso switched to oil, Clouzot switched to stop-motion animation. Get closer to the mystery!

Crumb (1994)

Anachronistic, jazz-loving, controversial and unlikely counter-culture hero R. Crumb spends most of the documentary rejecting his legacy — the “Keep on truckin'” Mr. Natural, the psychedelic music associations, and so on. The graphic novelist and artist is also incredibly, incredibly candid with his fetishes and sexual urges. Meet his wife and fellow artist Aline. See him visit his brothers — tranquilizer-addicted, compulsive scribbler Charles who lives with his mother, and the hermetic, amateur yogi Maxon, who lives in a hotel. Presented by David Lynch, Crumb is one of the most fascinating character portraits you’ll ever see.

Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006)

This is a four hour-long PBS documentary by Ric Burns and yes, it takes four hours to fully dissect the phenomena of Andy Warhol, his Pop Art reign, his celebrity screen test shenanigans, his Factory family, his proteges and superstars, and their eventual fates. Just like in life, “poor little rich girl” Edie Sedgwick grabs center stage, turning this character study into a tearjerker. Coupled with Laurie Anderson’s soothing narration, this is not only an engrossing art doc, but a definitive capture of a moment in New York City’s history.

Con Artist (2011)

With the recent criticism of Damien Hirst’s art hustle, it’s particularly important to look back on the self-proclaimed king of the biz — Mark Kostabi. A legitimate celebrity of the 1980s East Village art scene with his faceless, surreal and simply allegoric people, Kostabi made millions when he turned the creation of his work over to his assistants entirely, treating them like indentured servants and blatantly bragging about how his signature is often the only thing that he’s actually contributed to his highly valuable work. A successful businessman, a not-so-successful game show host, a self-made celebrity, a mean eccentric, a tragic romantic… There’s something very punk rock about Kostabi in all his shamelessness.

How to Draw a Bunny (2002)

Dubbed “the most famous unknown artist,” New York-based talent Ray Johnson worked in reappropriation, collage, and genius… doodling? This documentary herds insights into this life, work, and eventual drowning in Long Island, rumored to be his last “performance.” From Christo to Roy Lichtenstein to Chuck Close to the sheriff who investigated Johnson’s suicide, this documentary slowly and tenderly unravels the enigma of the artist and the playful, significant body of work he left behind.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010)

It’s hard not to fall in love with Basquiat and this documentary, culled from exclusive footage circa 1986 that the doc’s director (and Beastie Boy Mike D’s wife!) Tamra Davis, a close friend of the artist, had sat on for twenty years. With appearances by Julian Schnabel, Larry Gagosian, and Jeffrey Deitch, the film touches upon Basquiat’s heroin abuse and racial exploitation, but the true centerpiece is the rare home video footage, shot shortly before his death.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)

One of the most anticipated Sundance Festival documentary debuts, this film about Ai Weiwei couldn’t have come soon enough. The dissident’s artist, whose three-month imprisonment by the Chinese government aided the meteoric rise of his fame outside of China, is a resilient, invincible bad boy, human rights campaigner and online activist, police beatings, harassment, censorship and ceaseless surveillance be damned. The story is current, zeitgeisty, and potent, and we have the highest of hopes for this film.

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (2012)

When subversive rocker Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle fell hopelessly in love with Lady Jaye, he wanted to be with her forever, to absorb her, to consume her. This new documentary tells the story of two soul mates becoming one… through intense cosmetic surgery, as to resemble each other as closely as possible. “Pandrogyne” was their greatest art project. See it live on after Lady Jaye’s death. Will you ever love as hard as this?

Exit Through the Giftshop (2010)

A brilliant documentary about one of the most truly awful artists of our time, in this blogger’s humble opinion. Directed by the elusive, anonymous, world famous street artist Banksy, the Oscar-nominated film turns the camera on Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. amateur street art/graffiti documentarian turned artist sensation Mr. Brainwash. Not just diehard graff heads but normal people will tell you that Mr. Brainwash’s assistant-created, mass-produced work is nauseating kitsch, yet, it’s so damn popular that it’s truly mystifying. By the end of this clever film, you’re left eternally wondering — Is this for real? Is this a mockumentary? Are Space Invader and Shepard Fairey complicit in this prank? Either way, this is an incredible doc on street art, art hype and fame.