If you want to find inspiration for all the new art supplies you’ve stocked up on, or you’re simply wanting to delve into a history lesson in a more interesting way, now’s the perfect time to stream art documentaries.
Whether it’s walking the streets of the Lower East Side with Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s, or staring into the eyes of Marina Abramović, getting to know the work of someone who’s spent their life investigating visual and experiential ideas is a valuable use of time — or, at the very least, something to look suddenly knowledgable about.
The best documentaries about artists give you more than a PowerPoint presentation of the artist’s portfolio, instead letting you into their studios and homes, interviewing their friends and enemies, and dredging up as much old and new footage as possible, digging into the history and context of the artist and how it affects their work.
It’s actually kind of hard to track down some of the best, like Finding Vivian Maher or Guest of Cindy Shermanspeckyweb
It’s actually kind of hard to track down some of the best, like Finding Vivian Maher or Guest of Cindy Sherman, to stream online — they appear at film festivals or are available to buy, but aren’t available to stream that often. So we’ve tracked some of the best art documentaries and where you can stream them. Get into it.
1. Kusama – Infinity
One of the world’s most instantly recognisable, influential, and successful artists — and the top-selling living female artist in the world — Yayoi Kusama has not had an easy road to fame. The Japanese artist known for her extraordinary Infinity Mirror Rooms, installations covered in polka dots, and her obsessive, repetitive pattern-work, Kusama shared press attention with Andy Warhol during the ‘60s in America, and worked through a time of unbridled sexism and racism in the art world (and beyond it).
This documentary film takes a look at the artist’s long life from her tough, conservative Japanese upbringing to her move to the U.S. post-WWII, through career success and battles with mental health, up to her time spent living in a psychiatric institution in Tokyo.
2. Boom for Real
Before you watch the exceptional, life-spanning Jean-Michel Basquiat documentary, The Radiant Child, take a look at the New York artist’s younger, formative years in director Sara Driver’s illuminating documentary, Boom for Real.
Rather than looking at the New York artist’s sadly brief and wildly famous years, the documentary looks squarely at the influence of his time as an 18-year-old making ends meet and moving with the artist crowd on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late ’70s. The sheer involvement of the scene in Basquiat’s early development as an artist is laid bare, with plenty of awesome old footage and photographs to dig into, and fascinating interviews with close friends, former flatmates, and contemporaries including Kenny Scarf, Fab 5 Freddy, and Jim Jarmusch, all of whom describe him with as much love, admiration, and subtle digs as old friends do.
3. Faces Places
An unlikely friendship between two artists forms the core of Faces Places, with truly beautiful results for everyone. Nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary, Faces Placesfollows a large-scale project rolled out in small villages across rural France formulated by the late and great director Agnès Varda and muralist/photographer JR. The artworks themselves are stunning portraits of people they meet, transforming and honouring the installation locations, but the true beauty of this film is the friendship between the two artists — yes, literally the friends we made along the way.
4. Marina Abramović — The Artist Is Present
Take a seat in front of the self-described “grandmother of performance art” for an hour or so — Marina Abramović did this exact thing for hours in her iconic performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Lending its name to the documentary film too, The Artist Is Presentis the work that usually sets off furious debates, but is nonetheless one that changed performance art forever, and saw hundreds of thousands of people turning up to the experience in 2010. For 736 hours, Abramovic sat across from each participant, not saying a word. From start to finish, this fascinating documentary goes behind the scenes of this intimate, now legendary feat of endurance and pushing one’s limits.
5. Cutie and the Boxer
Director Zachary Heinzerling’s beautifully-shot, intimate, Oscar-nominated documentary takes you inside the studio, home, and 40-year marriage of Japanese artists Norika Shinohara and Ushio Shinohara. Cutie and the Boxer looks at the partnership between the pair, and how complicated love can be, especially when it comes to supporting each other’s careers. Known for his boxing paintings, Ushio’s success comes long-supported and steered by Noriko, a multidisciplinary artist in her own right and a woman who put her own career on pause while her husband’s soared. The film features brand new artwork created in front of your eyes — it is just so incredibly satisfying to watch Ushio punch the crap out of a canvas with his boxing glove “brushes”, with paint splattering everywhere — and animations bring Norika’s work to life on screen in strange vignettes.
6. Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang
If you’d like to watch what it takes to install and successfully realise a large-scale installation work, the likes of which Cai Guo-Qiang has made his career on, watch Sky Ladder. The Chinese, New-York based artist specialises in event-based art using pyrotechnics and gunpowder…which is a roundabout way of saying he’s really into explosions. This documentary takes a look at some of the artist’s most show-stopping work to date, notably his Black Rainbow projects, but really focuses on one of his most ambitious, personal projects: the Sky Ladder, a 1,650-foot ladder of fire climbing into the heavens above the artist’s hometown. It’s highly emotional and a true testament to the creation of something beautiful…yes, through explosions.
Where to stream: Netflix
7. Exit Through the Gift Shop
If you haven’t seen this film connected to elusive street artist Banksy, you’ll probably have heard about it. Hilarious, weird, and questionably real, Exit Through the Gift Shop hinges around the inimitable Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr Brainwash, a French immigrant, shopkeeper, and insistent artist who lives in Los Angeles and never really puts his camera down. Without giving the game away, Guetta’s enthusiasm for street art and celebrity leads the film through a series of encounters with the biggest names in the scene: Invader, Shepard Fairey, Swoon, Neck Face, and Banksy themselves. And of Banksy’s work, you get to see some real fun. Although there’s been speculation that the film is fake, who really cares?
Lygia Barbosa and Eliane Brum’s documentary about Brazilian cartoonist Laerte Coutinho is quiet, frank, and intensely personal on her own terms. Alongside animations which bring her lauded comic strips to life, Laerte has countless open conversations on the couch, around the dinner table, and while doing errands with the documentary makers about being transgender and the experience of transitioning, alongside broader discussions around identity, gender, desire, politics, discovering our true selves, and our relationship with our bodies.
Where to stream: Netflix