Put the art world in focus with our curated list of best art documentaries, including new releases and old favorites, up-and-coming artists, and iconic figures. These award-winning films shine a spotlight on our favorite living artists, reveal untold history, and find out what it takes to make it as an artist today.
Top 10 best art documentaries
Through the stories of diverse up-and-coming artists like Jenna Gribbon, Felipe Baeza, Gisela McDaniel, Chris Watts, and more, this documentary by director Kelcy Edwards explores who gets to “make it” in today’s art world — and how they get there.
With appearances from both establishment figures and emerging artists, this film peers into the exclusive, elusive, and opaque art world from an outsider’s perspective. By tracing the artists at pivotal points in their careers, Edwards explores the contemporary art world from M.F.A. programs to the museum, giving voice to new talents as it attempts to find the secret to success as a working artist in today’s unregulated market.
The landmark LACMA exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” curated by the late David Driskell, forms the focal point of this documentary that shines a spotlight on the often-underrepresented contributions of Black artists to the contemporary art landscape. Featuring Theaster Gates, Faith Ringgold, Amy Sherald, Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems, and many more, this acclaimed HBO documentary directed by Sam Pollard both looks back on African American artists’ legacies and surveys the state-of-the-art world today.
From graphic design to architecture, set design to photography, and more, this Netflix series steps inside the minds of innovative designers at the top of their fields. Starchitect Bjarke Ingels, Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter, illustrator Christophe Niemann, and interior designer Ilse Crawford are among the subjects over the course of two seasons who give viewers an inside look at their worlds and how design concepts translate to everyday life.
The poster for this Emmy-nominated HBO documentary shows a solitary Larry Poons, trudging through the snow to his studio in East Durham, New York. A former art darling of the 1960s, Poons pivoted away from his commercially successful paintings – and fell away from his contemporaries like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the process. Cut to the factory-like studio of Jeff Koons, where teams of assistants produce his Gazing Ball paintings that sell for millions a piece. What separates these two artists? And who decides which one is a white-hot commodity while the other is not? By interviewing key players, including big-name collectors, art-world insiders, and artists like Poons, Koons, and more, Director Nathaniel Kahn paints a portrait of the relationship between art and money.
Yayoi Kusama is one of the world’s most successful living artists today, thanks in no small part to social media. She commands top prices while her immersive exhibitions draw more museum crowds than any other. But for decades, she toiled in semi-obscurity as other creatives, from Claes Oldenburg to Andy Warhol, drew more attention for similar ideas. Her boundary-pushing work as a female Japanese artist, as well as her struggles with mental illness, led to her exclusion from her family, home country and the art world writ large. “I transformed my trauma into art,” the prolific artist says in this documentary that charts her endurance through it all.
Follow the world’s most famous performing artist as she plans her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, an exhibition whose centerpiece gives this best art documentary its title as Abramović sat for eight hours a day for nearly three months, locking eyes with whoever waited in line for as long as they wanted. Along the way, learn how the artist can understand her body as her media as she prepares for one of her physical and psychological performances that put her and participants on a journey together that pushes boundaries — an intentional moment in concept art where pushing the length also pushes the engagement and suspension of time.
Art as activism gets its due in this feature on Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei, who achieved global fame as he exposed his native country’s authoritarian government. Freelance journalist Alison Klayman followed the artist for three years, from his cat-filled Beijing studio to clashes with government officials en route to his exhibitions, which gained international recognition thanks to his deft use of social media. The artist behind such famed works as “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995) endures detention, beatings, and censorship on behalf of Chinese officials as he creates “The Sichuan Earthquake Names Project,” which posted 5,000 victims’ names from a May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan to his blog, and “Sunflower Seeds” (2010), an installation at the Tate Modern made up of ten tons of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds.
Fact? Fiction? Something in between? Allegedly directed by the infamous Banksy, this Oscar-nominated film follows a street art superfan as he attempts to carve out a name for himself on the international scene. Featuring urban artists like Shepard Fairey, Invader, Poster Boy, and Banksy himself (blurred and distorted to protect his then-anonymity), the plot’s surprising twists and turns will leave you guessing whether it’s just another of the artist’s hoaxes – or the best art documentary ever made.
Few people know you like your friends. This thoughtful documentary of the renowned artist was created by Basquiat’s friend, filmmaker Tamra Davis, and chronicles the wunderkind’s ascent, relationship with Andy Warhol, and more. Through insider interviews, archival footage, and Basquiat’s own words, Davis shows how the iconic talent handled fame as a Black artist in a largely white art world.
This affecting portrait captures the legendary yet modest 80-year-old New York Times street style photographer, of whom Vogue editor Anna Wintour once said, “We all get dressed for Bill.” Cunningham, who died in 2016, contributed candid photographs of New York characters and chronicled style trends for decades. This documentary follows the bicycle-riding Bill around Manhattan and to his shoebox Carnegie Hall studio filled with photographs as he shares his philosophy on fashion, photography, and life.
We love exploring the visual arts and the secret histories of our favorite artists, thanks to documentaries like these. What’s your favorite art documentary?