What Are Some Good Art Documentaries?

Peggy Guggenheim in Venice.
Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, where her eponymous collection is housed.

Dear BURNAWAY,

What are some worthwhile art documentaries? I am an art instructor, and I am working on compiling a list of films for my students to watch in their spare time. I figured you’d probably be a good person to consult on this. Any suggestions?

Thanks,
Doc Hunter


Dear Doc Hunter,

What a fun question to answer! Thank you for writing in. First off, that’s a great thing to do for your students. Like it or not, movies unlock a lot of doors for young people (and some not-so-young people) that no amount of reading or showing or speaking can. Sometimes, to pay attention to a subject for an hour-and-a-half, a person needs to be under the riveting spell of cinematic wizardry.

I am a fan of art documentaries and biopics. Always have been. Even though they can be a bit questionable in regards the narrative they construct (I can hear my cynical friends barking in my ear now), art docs can bring artists’ biographies to life in ways that text and photographs just can’t. And, I mean, if we’re being honest, even the most academic historical accounts can be equally questionable in terms of what actually happened in history and what didn’t, and who was important and who wasn’t. So we can never really know the 100-percent truth about the past, can we?

"Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child."
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child.”

That said, have you seen the most recent art doc to hit the big screen, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict? If not, I’d start with recommending that one. I saw it last week at the Belcourt, which, if you aren’t familiar, is Nashville’s beloved and inimitable 90-year-old independent art house theater. It’s one of the city’s great treasures, so if you find yourself in town before Christmas, go see it before it closes for some seriously shiny new renovations. Anyway, the documentary is about the life of art collector and gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim, who was highly influential in the mid-20th century art world. It’s a thrilling story and you’ll learn loads of new information about modern art and Mrs. Guggenheim herself — like that her father died on the Titanic and she had a botched nose job before it was hip to have a botched nose job. Very interesting stuff.

Scene from Guest of Cindy Sherman," by Paul Hasagawa-Overacker.
Scene from Guest of Cindy Sherman,” by Paul Hasegawa-Overacker.

Now for you, my dear, I’ve decided to compile a list of some of my favorite art films, the ones that stand out in some special way. They’re the films that either taught me something I didn’t know, or added dimension to what I already did. For anyone interested in watching art films, students of school or of life, these are my must-see picks (in no particular order):

Picasso and Braque Go to The Movies (2008): Very good, explores how early filmmaking influenced the work of Picasso and his Cubist buddy/contemporary Georges Braque.  

The Mona Lisa Curse (2008): narrated by the fantastic art critic Robert Hughes, about the art market and its rise to sheer insanity since the 1960s. Very informative, and mandatory for anyone working in the art world.

What Remains (2005): about contemporary photographer Sally Mann.

The Colorful Mr. Eggleston (2009): From BBC’s Imagine series. A portrait of the iconic Memphis-based color photographer William Eggleston.

William Eggleston in the Real World (2005): another doc about William Eggleston. This one is much slower, but good.

Eames: The Architect and the Painter (2011): about the power couple of modern industrial design, Charles and Ray Eames.

Herb and Dorothy (2008): about adorable middle-class contemporary art collectors, Herb and Dorothy Vogel, who housed an impressive collection in their tiny New York apartment.

Beautiful Losers (2008): about a diffuse collective of 10 artists in the 1990s, many of whom are now well-known, like Harmony Korine, Shepard Fairey, Barry McGee, and Mike Mills. Also tracks the heart-wrenching story of Margaret Kilgallen, who died in 2001 at age 33.

Who Gets to Call It Art (2006): About the Met curator Henry Geldzalher and the 1960s pop art scene.

Man at Work (1997): about Robert Rauschenberg. It’s kind of lame, but an in-depth look at how the artist lived and worked. He was a chill person, and chill people sometimes make for poor cinema.

Superstar (1990): about Andy Warhol’s life and career.

Beauty is Embarrassing (2012): about the life of artist and set designer Wayne White. He made the sets for PeeWee’s Playhouse, and the behind-the-scenes footage alone is worth the watch.

The Antics Roadshow (2011): directed by Bansky, about street art and art activism.

Exit through the Giftshop (2010): another Bansky film, this one is about the artist himself and other top graffiti folk.

Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock (2006): about the art world and its crazy prices.

Crumb (1994): about the famous illustrator Robert Crumb.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010): portrait of the artist’s life.

The Rape of Europa (2007): about Nazi Germany’s theft and destruction of European art during the Third Reich and World War II.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010): filmmaker Werner Herzog goes to the Chauvet caves of Southern France to find the oldest man-made images.

Finding Vivian Maier (2014): about John Maloof discovering a huge cache of negatives by enigmatic and reclusive photographer Vivian Maier.

Guest of Cindy Sherman (2008): Cindy Sherman’s ex-boyfriend made a movie about how terrible it is to date a famous artist.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012): tracks the artist as he gets ready for a series of exhibitions. He also (surprise!) gets in trouble with the Chinese government.

So that’s my list, or at least what I can think of at this moment. There are so many more that are good, but these are the ones that I’ve seen and would definitely recommend. Hope this helps. Happy viewing!

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is co-founder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.

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  • Magda Salvesen, Curator, Jon Schueler Estate
    January 3, 2016 at

    Further additions, perhaps particularly relevant for 2016, the centenary year of Jon Schueler’s birth, would be:

    Jon Schueler: An Artist and his Vision, Films of Scotland 1972
    and

    Jon Schueler: A Life in Painting, 1999

    See web site: http://www.jonschueler.com

  • Joseph Peragine
    November 27, 2015 at

    Great List!

    Here are a couple more worth mentioning: “Gerhard Richter- Painting” and “Over our Cities Grass will Grow” about Anselm Keifer.

    Then there is also the train wreck of a documentary about a long forgotten artist named Chuck Connely. “The Art of Failure” is one of my guity pleasures

  • Craig Lowy
    November 27, 2015 at

    Excellent suggestions. Here are 3 more documentaries that will help students see art, and even the world, in a new light.

    “National Gallery” is by one of the grandfathers of the documentary – Frederick Wiseman. Exploring all aspects of The National Gallery in London, one of the world’s most extraordinary museums.

    “Rivers and Tides” Thomas Riedelsheimer’s film follows the Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy as he creates evanescent sculptures he calls earthworks. And philosophically explains what and why he creates.

    “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” follows the performance artist as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The circus around her central exhibit becomes Deeply mysterious and surprisingly moving.

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