The term "artist" is a broad one that can encompass everything from poets to architects, filmmakers to musicians, dancers to actors. Art is subjective, but you definitely know it when you see it.
For this article on documentaries about artists, we're sticking with films that primarily focus on painters and sculptors and other visual artists, although there are a few noteworthy exceptions.
You're bound to learn a lot from these fascinating artist documentaries that take us behind the ropes of both traditional and avant-garde art galleries, exhibits, and performances.
11. Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang (2016)
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Starring Ian Buruma, Guo-Qiang Cai, Wen-You Cai
Documentary (1h 16m)
Art is typically associated with images—concrete depictions that can be captured, hung, and admired for months, years, or even centuries. Whether by brush, chisel, or lens, we think of these pieces as distilled moments of time or emotion that decorate museum halls.
Indeed, even the weird wide world of modern art can conjure up something tangible and palpable. Human displays like Rhythm 0 (1974) or machines like Can't Help Myself (2016) may be temporary and different than classical art, but they're still physical.
Contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang defies all these rules, as his work hangs in the sky for mere seconds before disappearing forever, utilizing the intangible aspects of space and light for effect.
Guo-Qiang also deals in the physical on occasion, with installations such as Heritage (2013) and Unmanned Nature (2008) never failing to drop jaws.
But for Kevin Macdonald's Netflix documentary Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, we focus on Guo-Qiang's use of flame and fireworks, specifically for his ambitious 1,650-foot pyrotechnic ladder that connects the Earth to the Heavens.
10. Gerhard Richter Painting (2011)
Directed by Corinna Belz
Starring Gerhard Richter, Norbert Arns, Hubert Becker
Documentary (1h 37m)
Unlike many artist documentaries—whether they be of painters, photographers, filmmakers, actors, or writers—Gerhard Richter Painting takes place in real-time, showing Gerhard Richter at work as opposed to celebrating him after the fact.
Richter is chiefly known for his abstract canvases, where colors slide and smear on top of one another to evoke the indescribable. As he puts it, "You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing. Painting has nothing to do with that."
Nevertheless, Corinna Belz does attempt to discuss and explore Richter's work, both with Richter himself and the art industry at large.
Like Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, Gerhard Richter Painting invites us to witness the creative process as it unfolds, all while Richter works on a new painting that speaks the unspeakable.
9. I Am Heath Ledger (2017)
Directed by Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray
Starring Heath Ledger, Ben Harper, Kim Ledger
Biography, Documentary (1h 30m)
I Am Heath Ledger might seem like a rogue choice at first, but hear me out! The heartthrob Hollywood star, who amazed viewers with his inimitable version of The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), was more than just a pretty face for cameras.
I Am Heath Ledger shows us the unseen side of the actor—the part we would have likely seen, one day, had he been given the time—which is, ultimately, an artist. Ledger primarily dealt in photography and is remembered by friends as always carrying around a camcorder.
Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis treat us to his unknown recordings—usually of himself or loved ones—in ode to his untimely death at age 28.
Ledger is described as a director and a photographer more than an actor, for which he only began to get his foot in the door. Ledger was also a graphic designer, collage maker, sketcher, and abstract painter.
These are all things the public never knew about until this celebratory documentary came out, which gives us a vibrant peek into his creative, messy brain while demystifying rumors about his apparent Joker-induced suicide.
8. Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006)
Directed by Ric Burns
Starring Laurie Anderson, Irving Blum, DeVeren Bookwalter
Biography, Documentary, Music (4h)
The art industry is crammed with all kinds of people—some lost to history, others just trying to break in. Only a few names ever push past the surface, and Andy Warhol is one of them.
Warhol pioneered the pop art movement of the 1950s and 1960s, a revolutionary era for all aspects of art, film, fashion, and music. Moving away from classical portraits and oil paints, pop art was considered a low-brow form of, well, copyright.
Creators like Warhol essentially reinvented the already known; the forgotten and the ignored. Inverting the color palette of a Marilyn Monroe headshot in The Marilyn Diptych (1962) or replicating images of a soup can in Campbell's Soup Cans (1962) are just some examples.
Warhol was bluntly honest about his work, stating he didn't create anything new because it was easier just to copy. It's this kind of casual honesty and obviousness that made Warhol such an iconic figure.
There was always bound to be documentaries made about Warhol, and Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film is the best for a complete and rounded picture of the artist's life and work, featuring rare archives and interviews.
7. Black Art: In the Absence of Light (2021)
Directed by Sam Pollard
Starring Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems
Documentary (1h 25m)
Presenting the entire history of African-American art is an overwhelming task, so director Sam Pollard began from the focal point of David Driskell's milestone exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, which was displayed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976.
The exhibition traveled around and eventually got its own book (which we highly recommend reading if you enjoy this documentary, or if you have a general interest in art history, as the 85% white-dominated catalogue of American art is not complete without it).
Curated on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, Driskell's collection opened the public's eyes to African-American artists for the first time.
Sam Pollard's documentary serves to continue that mission, promoting a multitude of mixed media artists, including Kehinde Wiley (the first black artist to paint the portrait of the first black US president in 2018).
6. Kusama: Infinity (2018)
Yayoi Kusama is an artist with a keenly specific style that somehow also boasts a huge, multi-faceted range. Surrealism, Art Brut, abstract, conceptual, pop art, minimalism; performance, canvas, fashion, video.
The one uniting factor is Kusama's love for polka dots. Whether by lights, paints, or fabrics, you can always find dots—big and small—saturating her unique vision of the world.
Kusama's canon calls to mind a starry night, the entire universe encapsulated in one room, as she describes that "polka dots are a way to infinity." There's an expansive feeling to her work, similar to that found in Cai Guo-Qiang's Sky Ladder (2015).
Being a Japanese woman of eccentric style meant Kusama wasn't as readily welcomed into the art scene as white men. Luckily, she rose to prominence during a counterculture decade of revolution, hippies, feminism, and pop artists, as Heather Lenz chronicles in Kusama: Infinity.
5. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010)
Directed by Tamra Davis
Starring Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Larry Gagosian
Documentary (1h 28m)
Andy Warhol had a few famous collaborations in his time, most iconic of all being with Jean-Michel Basquiat (although the unlikely pair did have a major falling out in the end).
Unlike Warhol, Basquiat was a contemporary artist who dealt in Neo-expressionism and Primitivism rather than bottles of Coca-Cola. Despite his wacky artwork and sense of fashion, Basquiat was a notoriously shy person, which meant interviews were uncommon.
Tamra Davis was a friend of Basquiat during his 80s heyday, back when he began his career as a graffiti artist in Manhattan. Tragically—and like many members of the 27 Club—Basquiat died of a heroin overdose, drowning in an ocean of fame, racism, and public scrutiny.
Davis was therefore left with priceless footage of Basquiat during the time he rose and fell from prominence in New York City. It was nearly 30 years before Davis put it to good use and showed the world the soul behind the "radiant child" figure.
Many documentaries claim archival footage rarity, but in Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, you can really feel the intimacy and preciousness of it in Davis's home videos.
4. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
Directed by Banksy
Starring Banksy, Mr. Brainwash, Space Invader
Comedy, Crime, Documentary (1h 27m)
The true identity of British street artist Banksy has been the subject of speculation for years. He's like a modern-day Jack the Ripper, if you swapped out all the brutal murders for darkly humored art.
The pseudonymous graffitist began his career spray-painting stencils on the walls of Bristol's underground. Then, he climbed the invisible ranks from spray cans to building an entire satirical theme park called Dismaland (2015) and auctioning self-shredding paintings.
The main style and message of Banksy's infamous stencils—which now litter the globe, often encased—are anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-war. Blending the funny with the tragic, Banksy's often simplistic artwork never fails to make you think.
As a creative guy who's all about meta, parody, and breaking rules, his documentary is unlike any other. Even the title, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is a call-out on the commercialization of art and the irony that his own works often fill gift shops.
Banksy's documentary isn't so much about him as directed by him, with narration by Rhys Ifans. The movie is overtly about the French videographer Thierry Guetta a.k.a Mr. Brainwash, who some viewers believe to be a hoax.
Everything about Exit Through the Gift Shop is unclear, as facts blend with fiction and we're left wondering if Mr. Brainwash even exists at all. Nonetheless, it's an intriguing and unique documentary that turns the camera's head onto the filmmaker... without ever showing him.
3. Waste Land (2010)
Directed by Lucy Walker, Karen Harley, João Jardim
Starring Vik Muniz
Documentary (1h 39m)
Art is an amazing thing. As Robin Williams put it in Dead Poets Society, "It's what we stay alive for." That said, it's unusual for a piece of art to truly shock, awe, humble, and inspire you, right to your core.
But Vik Muniz pulled it off in the most unlikely of places: a garbage dump. We're not talking any old junkyard here, but the largest landfill on the globe, found on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
It's here that the Brazilian artist, photographer, and sculptor decided to make his next art piece. The goal was to create huge aerial portraits of real life catadores (litter pickers) using the trash found on site. The result is more incredible than you'd expect.
Lucy Walker captured the project on film, which premiered at Sundance in 2010. What starts out as a good but worn-out plea against pollution ends up touching viewers with the power of art, boosting the effect of Waste Land's eco-friendly message.
2. Finding Vivian Maier (2013)
Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
Starring Vivian Maier, John Maloof, Daniel Arnaud
Biography, Documentary, Mystery (1h 23m)
Is an artist still an artist if nobody ever sees their work? Does it still count if it's done it private? This is the question that Finding Vivian Maier asks, and the answer is a resounding yes.
Vivian Maier didn't become famous until after she died, much like Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh. Not because her work wasn't thought of as good at the time, but because she never showed anyone.
Maier was an American street photographer who worked as a nanny during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. She was always taking the kids on walks through poorer parts of town while capturing close-ups of strangers, window selfies, and street corners.
In total, Maier took an astonishing 150,000+ photos in her life, but kept them all under lock and key in the attic. She didn't even like telling people her first name, so the idea of having a critically acclaimed documentary poke into the corners of her entire life would have probably annoyed her...
Despite this, John Maloof (the original founder of her negatives) and Charlie Siskel made an incredibly detailed documentary about the secret life of an artistic genius, which was nominated for an Academy Award!
1. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)
Directed by Alison Klayman
Starring Ai Weiwei, Dan Ai, Lao Ai
Documentary (1h 31m)
Ai Weiwei is more than an artist. He's an activist who isn't afraid—or, rather, is afraid but does it anyway—to criticize and expose the pitfalls of the Chinese Government, denigrating the motherland on camera.
Weiwei is a controversial figure, considered a hero by some and a criminal by others. He's even directed many of his own documentary films (Human Flow, Coronation, Fairytale, Disturbing the Peace), but this one is about him rather than by him.
Alison Klayman's award-winning movie depicts Weiwei installing artworks, making vlogs, and being detained by the authorities. He's kind of like China's own Jafar Panahi.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is daring, fresh, and authentic. We get to know the man behind the stunts alongside Klayman herself, which feels very organic and personable in the best possible way.