Must-See Art Documentaries… How Many Have You Seen?

MutualArt.com is one of my favorite spots for all-things art. Their email newsletters are worthy of singing up for, and you can also sign up to receive auction updates and alerts. I recently spotted this Must-See list of art documentaries, which has some of my favorites. Their number one pick, Wasteland, was screened here in Park City at the Sundance Film Festival, as were several others that I have been fortunate to see. These moves can be difficult to source, and are not typically at the local cineplex, but Netflix and arthouse movie theaters are your best bet. Happy viewing!

From MutualArt.com: “[We are] a revolutionary online art information service which covers the world of art by collecting content about events, venues, artists, articles and auctions from thousands of web sites.”

“What I really want to do,” says Vik Muniz, “Is to be able to change the lives of a group of people with the same material that they deal with every day. “And indeed, from the world’s largest trash dump comes an astonishingly true story. Filmed over nearly three years, Wasteland follows renowned artist Muniz as he journeys from his home base in Brooklyn to his native Brazil and the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. There he photographs an eclectic band of “catadores”—self-designated pickers of recyclable materials. Muniz’s initial objective was to “paint” the catadores with garbage. However, his collaboration with these inspiring characters as they recreate photographic images of themselves out of garbage reveals both the dignity and despair of the catadores as they begin to re-imagine their lives. The movie offers inspiring evidence of the transformative power of art.

This feature-length documentary film takes viewers inside Marina Abramovich’s world, following her as she prepares for what may be the most important moment of her life: a major retrospective of her work, that took place at MOMA New York, where through a time period of two months she sat every day at a table in the museum’s atrium while members of the audience were invited to join her, one at a time, at the opposite end of the table. No talking, no touching and no explicit communication of any kind were allowed. Abramovich’s objective was ‘to achieve a luminous state of being and then transmit it­­’ and to engage in what she called “an energy dialogue” with the audience and a chance to explore and maybe even answer the question of “what is art?”.

Ai Weiwei is China’s most famous international artist and its most outspoken domestic critic. Against a backdrop of strict censorship and an unresponsive legal system, He expresses himself and organizes people through art and social media. China’s leaders have been trying to figure out how to deal with Ai as he seeks to bring transparency to a traditionally opaque government. In response to his actions, authorities have shut down his blog, beat him up, bulldozed his newly built studio, and held him in secret detention. This film is the inside story of a dissident for the digital age who inspires global audiences and blurs the boundaries of art and politics. This film is a detailed portrait that provides a nuanced exploration of contemporary China and one of its most compelling public figures.

John Walter and Andrew Moore’s critically acclaimed film, How To Draw A Bunny, delves into the enigmatic world of Ray Johnson. The movie launches into the investigation of the puzzling circumstances surrounding Johnson’s suicide on Friday January 13, 1995 that left both his closest admirers as well as the general public baffled, wondering about the role of “performance” in his life and in relation to his death.  The movie reveals the identity of this unique artist, when after his mysterious death, Frances Beatty  began combing the archives in the Locust Valley home where Johnson horded collages, working materials, books, magazine articles, as well as thousands of letters and fragments of mail art compiled over the previous three decades. Soon after, Walter and Moore became increasingly intrigued by the artist and began conducting extensive series of interviews and compiled photographs, works of art, home movies, and video to uncover some aspects of Johnson’s life.

A fascinating portrait of the late photographer Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22, is told through the young artist’s work (including experimental videos and journal entries) and remarkably candid interviews with her artist parents Betty and George, who have continued their own artistic practices while watching Francesca’s professional reputation eclipse their own. The tragic story of Francesca Woodman, a young photographer renowned for her extraordinary nude self-portraits, is also the story of her brilliantly artistic family. The movie shows how the struggle for fame in the high-stakes world of art resulted in tragedy, and then in healing and redemption. By piecing together Francesca’s photos, never-before-seen experimental videos and personal journals, and through conversations with her family and friends, the movie depicts four lives committed to art and whose art lives through them and explores what it truly means to create.

One of the world’s greatest living painters, the German artist Gerhard Richter has spent over half a century experimenting with a fantastic range of techniques and ideas. Infamously media-shy, he agreed to appear on camera for the first time in 15 years for a 2007 short film by filmmaker Corinna Belz called Gerhard Richter’s Window. Her follow-up, Gerhard Richter Painting, is a documentary of Richter’s creative process, juxtaposed with intimate conversations with his critics, collaborators, and his American gallerist Marian Goodman in addition to rare archive material. Viewers get to watch the 79-year-old create a series of large-scale abstract canvasses, using fat brushes and a massive squeegee to apply (and then scrape off) layer after layer of brightly colored paint. This footage of a highly charged process of creation and destruction turns this portrait of an artist into a work of art itself.

This movie is the striking documentary on the world and work of renowned artist Edward Burtynsky. Internationally acclaimed for his large-scale photographs of “manufactured landscapes”—quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines and dams—Burtynsky creates stunningly beautiful art from civilization’s materials and debris. The film follows him through China, as he shoots the evidence and effects of that country’s massive industrial revolution. With breathtaking sequences, the filmmakers also extend the narratives of Burtynsky’s photographs, allowing viewers to meditate on human’s impact on the planet and witness both the centers of industrial endeavor and the dumping grounds of its waste and powerfully shifts viewers consciousness about the world and the way we live in it, without simplistic judgments or reductive resolutions.

How does artist Matthew Barney uses 45,000 pounds of petroleum jelly, a factory whaling vessel and traditional Japanese rituals to create his latest art project?  With his acclaimed Cremaster Cycle and 2005 feature Drawing Restraint 9, avant-garde artist Matthew Barney established himself as a bold experimentalist who wasn’t afraid to take a few risks for the sake of his art.  Set into motion in the late ’80s, Barney’s Drawing Restraint series consists of works in which the artist attempts to create works while hindered by physical weights and barriers.

With Drawing Restraint 9, the artist teamed with his wife, Björk, to tell the tale of a couple who boards a Japanese whaling ship to partake in a series of obscure rituals. Barney creates a “narrative sculpture” telling a love story of the couple while they are transforming from land mammals into whales. This documentary by filmmaker Alison Chernick mixes clips from Drawing Restraint 9 with interviews and footage of Barney playing high-school football, as well as conversations with Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Yuko Hasegawa, and more.

This is the inside story of Street Art – a brutal and revealing account of what happens when fame, money and vandalism collide. Exit Through the Gift Shop follows an eccentric French shop-keeper turned amateur film-maker as he attempts to capture many of the world’s most infamous vandals on camera, only to have a British graffiti artist named Banksy turn the camcorder back on its owner with wildly unexpected results. Banksy is a graffiti artist with a global reputation whose work can be seen on walls from post-hurricane New Orleans to the separation barrier on the Palestinian West Bank. He fiercely guards his anonymity to avoid prosecution. This is one of the most provocative films about art ever made and a fascinating study of urban and street art.

Centered on a rare interview that director and friend Tamra Davis shot with Jean-Michel Basquiat over twenty years ago, this definitive documentary chronicles the meteoric rise and fall of the young artist. In the crime-ridden NYC of the 1970s, he covered the city with the graffiti tag SAMO. In 1981 he painted on canvas for the first time, and by 1983 he became an artist with “rock star status”. He achieved critical and commercial success, though he was constantly confronted by racism from his peers. In 1985 he and Andy Warhol became close friends and painting collaborators, but they parted ways and Warhol died suddenly in 1987. Basquiat’s heroin addiction worsened, and he died of an overdose in 1988 in the age of 27. Basquiat was 25 years old at the height of his career, and today his canvases sell for more than a million dollars. Davis explores the mysteries that surround this charismatic young man, an artist of enormous talent whose fate mirrored the rollercoaster quality of the downtown scene he seemed to embody.

Vivian Maier’s photos were seemingly destined for obscurity, lost among the clutter of the countless objects she’d collected throughout her life. Instead, these images have shaken the world of street photography and forever changed the life of the man who brought them to the public eye. This film brings to life the interesting turns and travails of the improbable saga of John Maloof’s discovery of Vivian Maier, unraveling this mysterious tale through her documentary films, photographs, odd collections and personal accounts from the people that knew her.  Maier was a mystery even to those around her. A secretive nanny in the wealthy suburbs of Chicago, she died in 2009 and would have been forgotten.  As the filmmakers track down an odd collection of parents who hired her, children she cared for, store owners, movie theater operators and curious neighbors who remember her, the story that emerges goes beyond clichés of the undiscovered artist and offers a portrait that is at times bewildering and troubling. Maier’s story pushes us to ask as many questions about ourselves as it does about her. What started as a blog showing her work, quickly became a viral sensation in the photography world. Photos destined for the trash heap now line gallery exhibitions, a forthcoming book, and this documentary film (Expected 2014).

This film tells the extraordinary story of Herbert Vogel, a postal clerk, and Dorothy Vogel, a librarian, who managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history with very modest means. In the early 1960s, when very little attention was paid to Minimalist and Conceptual Art, Herb and Dorothy Vogel quietly began purchasing the works of unknown artists. Devoting all of Herb’s salary to purchase art they liked, and living on Dorothy’s paycheck alone, they continued collecting artworks guided by two rules: the piece had to be affordable, and it had to be small enough to fit in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Within these limitations, they proved themselves curatorial visionaries; most of those they supported and befriended went on to become world-renowned artists including Sol LeWitt, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Lucio Pozzi, and Lawrence Weiner.

After thirty years of meticulous collecting and buying, the Vogels managed to accumulate over 2,000 pieces, filling every corner of their tiny apartment. In 1992, they decided to move their entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The vast majority of their collection was given as a gift to the institution. Many of the works they acquired appreciated so significantly over the years that their collection today is worth millions of dollars. Still, the Vogels never sold a single piece. Today Herb and Dorothy still live in the same apartment in New York with 19 turtles, lots of fish, and one cat. They’ve refilled it with piles of new art they’ve acquired.

MutualArt.com is a revolutionary online art information service which covers the world of art by collecting content about events, venues, artists, articles and auctions from thousands of web sites.

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