19 Art Documentaries You Shouldn’t Miss

With so many good documentaries about art available, it's time to update my list. Add them to your queue, watch them online when you can, or find clips on YouTube.

These are too good to miss.

[ Read How We Run Our Documentary Group and What We Watch, with more recent suggestions ]

Tops on My List

The PBS series art: 21. A pioneering series on artists making art today. Don't miss a single episode.

How to Draw a Bunny  – The mysterious art, life, death of Ray Johnson. I haven't seen it in a long while, but it made an impact and is still at the top of my list.

The Woodmans – I watched this in 2011 and again in 2019–had to move it toward the top of the list. The artistic family of ceramist Betty Woodman, the tragic death of her talented daughter, photographer Francesca Woodman, and how their art triumphs. Watch the full feature here

The rest...in no particular order

My Architect – The life of Louis Kahn, through his son’s eyes.


Glaring omission from the original list (thanks for catching it, John) – #20: Rivers & Tides – Follows “landscape sculptor” Andy Goldsworth as he creates ephemeral works of art using objects found in nature. Terrible website, by the way – not at all reflective of the film.

A documentary on Morris Louis that I saw in his traveling retrospective. But I have no title or resource for it. It's just terrific and I'd love to see it again. (I know it's not fair to leave you hanging like that.)

Painters Painting – An amazing 2-part film featuring key figures in American art from 1940 to 1970.

Helvetica -Yep, a whole film about the typeface. Very fun to hear all of these designers talking about typefaces and visual communication.

Herb & Dorothy – Who hasn't seen this lovely film about two unlikely art collectors?

Valentino: The Last Emperor – I adored this movie about fashion designer Valentino. It's gorgeous to look at.

Exit Through the Gift Shop – Banksy's film about street art. Is it a documentary or not? It certainly makes us question how art is made.

Waste Land – More than a film about art, this is about an artist (Vik Muniz) affecting social change through art. The stories are heartwarming, the people are beautiful

Others Worth Watching

Rothko’s Rooms – About Mark Rothko's Seagram paintings at the Tate Modern and the demand he put on exhibiting his work. Often available for viewing on OvationTV.

Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision

Any film about Christo and Jeanne-Claude – All of them show the amazing, unconventional (and laden with red tape!) process that these artists go through to make their vision a reality.

The Rape of Europa – The story of American GI's whose duty it was to return art stolen by the Nazis.

The Art of the Steal – Definitely a one-sided view of relocation of the Barnes Collection from Merion, PA to Philadelphia.

Sketches of Frank Gehry – The Sydney Pollack documentary about the famed architect.

Matthew Barney: No Restraint – An inside peek at Barney's work, with his partner and collaborator Björk, aboard a whaling ship. A little too bloody for my taste, if I recall.

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow – About the personal universe created by German artist Anselm Kiefer on the grounds of his estate in the South of France. Haunting soundtrack!

Add your own art documentary choices in a comment.

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See also: fictional movies with an artist as the central character—real or imagined artists.

[ Read How We Run Our Documentary Group and What We Watch, with more recent suggestions ]

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83 thoughts on “19 Art Documentaries You Shouldn’t Miss”

  1. What an awesome list! There are many here that I have not seen. I’m going to put this on the studio education “plan” for 2012.
    Another great idea is to host a “SALON” evening…”Dinner and a Paintbrush”…etc. Invite no more than 8 friends to watch, and host a guided discussion afterwords with some challenging questions around the film. It’s a great way to extend the conversation – stimulating and fun.
    Recently, we watched “Coco Before Chanel”. I’d recommend it as well.
    The PBS series art:21 is a favourite. So inspiring, and well produced.

    1. Helvetica is really good, after the first of it, also its the name of switzerland, and also the typeface

    1. Alyson B. Stanfield

      Oooo. Why haven’t I heard of this? I’m going to add it to my queue right now. I think he’s having a big show right now.

  2. Rivers and Tides (Andy Goldsworthy working with time)
    Netflix summary:
    This astonishing documentary from Thomas Riedelsheimer shadows renowned sculptor Andy Goldsworthy as he creates works of art with ice, driftwood, leaves, stone, dirt and snow in open fields, beaches, rivers, creeks and forests. With each new creation, he carefully studies the energetic flow and transitory nature of his work. The film won the Golden Gate Award Grand Prize for Best Documentary at the 2003 San Francisco International Film Festival

    1. Alyson B. Stanfield

      Dang it all! I’m adding that to the list right now. I can’t believe I overlooked R&T. I own it on DVD!

  3. While it’s not about visual artists, “It Might Get Loud” is one of my favorites for how it illustrates the creative process. It’s a documentary on the electric guitar featuring guitarists from three different generations: Jack White from The White Stripes, The Edge from U2, and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin. There’s great stuff, even in the deleted scenes and the Toronto Film Festival press conference “bonus” footage. When these guys talk about creativity and the creative process, there’s no sense of navel-gazing about it (well, maybe a tiny bit, but it’s clarified in the press conference. What you get instead is a look behind the curtain at how three artists approach their craft.

  4. Definitely going to look up your list on Netflix. These are a few that I’ve seen recently:
    “Bill Cunningham New York”- LOVED this; very touching story; 80-yr old photographer- the original “street style” watcher before the blogs; worked for the NY Times Style section
    “In the Realms of the Unreal”- animated story bringing to life the work of Henry Darger; very interesting life and work
    “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”- admittedly I like the film Basquiat better, but this is a good documentary

  5. Ooh, forgot one. I saw this awhile back- “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” Loved this as well, he was a musician, manic depressive, and a visual artist. He’s unknown, yet influenced so many. The “Hi, How Are You” character that Nirvana used was actually his drawing. For anyone that hasn’t seen this, it’s a must.

  6. You have to add “Who the @#$%&* is Jackson Pollock.” Not only do I think it’s excellent and entertaining, but it got a 100% rating on Rottentomatoes.com. Also “Rivers and Tides” by/about Andy Goldsworthy.

  7. Julie Kaldenhoven

    You probably get a lot of him in the States, but Dale Chihuly the glass sculptor is a wonderful novelty for us up in Canada. I have found a few docs on DVD at the library. The vibrant colours almost make me forget the cold outside. For those of you who get CBC (or perhaps they have videos on the website), there are some fascinating docs on Peter von Tiesenhausen, who is the Canadian answer to Christo. Re: “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, I found the first 1/3rd a bit tedious, but well worth it in the end.

  8. Don’t know if this one fits your documentary theme or not, but it is fascinating! An Abraham Lincoln History lesson while sculpting! Can’t you just hear the 9mm film sound in the darkened elementary classroom? 1954.

  9. One that meant a lot to me, as a painter…. “A Life Lived”. Philip Guston talking about his own work, with lots of shots of him painting (and smoking!) On the occasion of a retrospective at the SFMOMA , filmed in the 80’s. Priceless.

  10. How about “The Making of the Dinner Party”? Judy Chicago and all It is old though, and I dont know if it is still available.

  11. I enjoyed “Art and Copy”. Also, “Van Gogh: A Brush With Genius”. Both were on Netflix when I watched them.. not sure if they’re still available there.

  12. Kate Klingensmith

    About a year and a half ago I saw a documentary called “Jimmie Jones: Red Rock Painter”, on KUED, a PBS station in the Salt Lake City area. He painted more than 1400 paintings in his lifetime, many of them focusing on the landscapes and canyonlands of southern Utah and northern Arizona. What was remarkable was that some of his most brilliant works were done right before he died at the age of 76. Incredible painter, excellent movie.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Elizabeth: Oh, yes. This is a good one! Not great, but good to watch – especially for women and especially for mothers.

  13. p.s. thanks for the list and everyone’s additions especially “In the realms of the unreal” I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Elizabeth: I wasn’t that crazy about “In the Realms of the Unreal,” which is why it’s not on my list. But it’s nice that it has inspired others.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Christine: I’ll bet! I just saw a Close exhibit. I’m guessing there is more than one film on him since he’s ubiquitous.

  14. Rivers and Tides is excellent as is the Art:21 series and many others that people have suggested. Also I loved the Joan Mitchell documentary, Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter. I’ve watched it several times. Also, Our City Dreams- about women artists in NYC- is pretty good.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Thanks for the Joan Mitchell rec, Julia. After reading her bio, I’d love to see the documentary.

  15. Simon Brushfield

    Hi Everyone,
    The BBC created an excellent series in 2005 about Art through-out the ages. Its so so coooool. As a lecturer, I often used to show snippets to many of my bachelors and masters students who were studying Art and Design in Australia. Here is a link to the introduction to the first episode of “How art made the world”.
    The series is broken up into small bite sized chunks (10mins) on Youtube. But you could also buy it online ($25) in a dvd format from – http://www.amazon.com/How-Made-World-Nigel-Spivey/dp/B000FFJYCK
    Simon Brushfield

  16. Alyson Stanfield

    You know, many of these aren’t available on Netflix. I’m wondering if there is a better source. Is anyone aware?

  17. Thank You all for sharing. Along those lines, I want to recommend checking out iTunes audio and video podcasts for even more education/inspiration sources (free). The audio podcasts are also perfect for killing time while driving.
    Art21 – weekly video podcast content (more content then the DVD’s)
    TateShots – video interviews of acclaimed artist – like Art21
    Whitney.org – video from the Whitney in NYC
    National Gallery of Art – Videos (art history refreshers)
    KQED: Spark Art Video Podcast – San Fransisco Artist interviews
    KQED: Gallery Crawl – video of SF gallery exhibits
    The Art of Photography – dialog and discussion of all things photographic
    National Gallery of Art – Notable Lectures
    National Gallery Podcast
    MOCA Audio Podcasts
    MoMA Talks: Conversations
    SFMOMA Artcasts
    Norton Simon Museum Podcasts
    KCRW’s Art Talk (Los Angeles art happenings)
    LensWork – Photography and the creative process

    1. Richard: Yep, Art21 is top on my list.
      I need a post on audio. Care to be a guest blogger for me?

    2. I would be happy to be a guest blogger on the audio portion. Though, I am also a huge fan of the video podcasts which is a rich and ever growing resource that may provide artist-relevant inspirational content. Can you fill me in on the process and content you think is most relevant?

    1. Rebecca: I saw this. He’s the Philadelphia artist, right? It wasn’t my favorite doc, but I guess I’m glad I saw it and know about him — especially since his name came up when I was in Philly last fall.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      This is about origami and I think was in my queue forever until I finally took it out. You rally liked it, Amy?

    2. Amy is spot on. I have coerced all of my friends into watching Between the Folds and so far none of them have complained afterwards. I know it sounds strange but the description really doesn’t do it justice.

    3. Alyson Stanfield

      Thanks, Patrick. I think I had deleted that from my queue, but need to re-add. Just haven’t been watching DVDs much lately.

  18. I’d like to recommend some others.
    Style wars:80’s NY graffiti scene, follows the young artists around and explores some tricky ideas to do with “What is art?” when everyone else hates it. (has a terrific soundtrack aswell!)
    Who is bozo texino? -A short documentary about a railroad graffiti by a hobo of almost mythical proportions.

  19. Pingback: 10 Movies About Artists to Your Queue (and 2 You Should Skip) — Art Biz Blog

  20. This is a great start for art documentaries and it has inspired me to create a library of quality videos on This is Art. It is very exciting to discover what is around.

  21. I have watched and/or own many of the suggestions put forth, but there are a few I am looking forward to watching! I was surprised that no one has mentioned “Beautiful Losers”, which covers the young group of artists that came up in the 90s from punk culture more or less, including Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Shepard Fairey and others. It’s a great film, one of my favorites. I also want to stress how amazing “Milton GLaser: To Inform and Delight” is… he is a designer/artist with no boundaries. I show the film, or pieces of it, to my art appreciation, graphic design, drawing, and foundation design classes. Everyone gets something to take away from it.
    Another film, perhaps less well-known, is about the life and work of letterpress artist Amos Kennedy called “Proceed and Be Bold” – a dynamic personality that you’ll enjoy as much as the creative work he produces. Another perhaps more sober and technical look at the art/craft of letterpress is the documentary about Jim Rimmer, who was still designing and producing metal type up until his death just recently. It’s called “Making Faces” and was directed by type designer and P22 Type Foundry founder Richard Kegler.

  22. The Cats of Mirikitani
    a homeless Japanese American man living on the streets of New York but painting every day. How he evolved thru the kindness of a stranger who ended up writing and filiming this documentary about his life and art. Very moving. I met the film-maker at a screening of this film

  23. One of my new favorite discoveries in Art Documentaries is “El Bulli – Cooking in Progress”. If the knee jerk reaction is, Cooking? I thought we were talking about art? Trust me, watch it. This film is about the renowned avant-garde Spanish Chef Ferran Adria, who brought liquid nitrogen and a passion for making art that you experience with all senses. This glimpse into their creative exploration, scientific methodologies and masterful teamwork gives me new insights on how to approach dauntingly large projects while maintaining the creative force.

  24. While in Amsterdam recently, I happened into a book/video/music store, and found a DVD series produced by the BBC with Simon Scharma, called ‘The Power of Art’. It’s 4 DVD’s, with 8 artist’s lives and most profound work. Caravaggio through Rothko, Turner and Rembrandt, Van Gogh and David, and two others I just can’t remember right now. Scharma’s droll mix of british humor and deadly seriousness gives a personal view of the artist’s life, and leaves me with even more conviction that art matters!!

  25. Megunica (2008)
    A recent documentary about an artist you may have seen on youtube, who animates large scale street art. It’s really a wonder to behold. Just search for some Blu Muto and you’ll se what I mean, and probably want to find out more about this guy.
    Frazetta: Painting with fire (2003)
    I just watched this one, great for fantasy art.
    Bombin (1987)
    More graffiti but this time from the UK. Some of it takes place in the town where I grew up, Birmingham. It takes place around the time of the riots that happened there, and the street art that developed because of this.

  26. I moved to South Florida a year ago, discovered a Miami artist named Purvis Young and began collecting his work. Some classified him as “outsider” or “folk artist” but since his death in 2010, has been labeled “Urban Expressionist.” His story and works are amazing. A documentary about him called “Purvis of Overtown” is out on DVD.
    Also, HBO Documentary Film Series, The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, Produced and Directed by Jeff Stimmel (2008).
    The documentary details the tragedy of a fallen artist as he fights to maintain his dignity and integrity in the face of a world that refuses to accept him.

  27. Alyson. If you ever find out more about this Morris Louis doc. PLEASE let me know. I think it’s sacrilege to sit on an art documentary and not let anyone see it. There are a couple I’ve seen that I would put in there too.
    One is an art doc with Orson Welles. called THE CHALLENGE.
    Another is Matthew Collings’ massive doc THIS IS MODERN ART.
    And no art doc list would be complete without Simon Schama’s The Power of Art.
    And as an artist and filmmaker myself. I must add in my own documentary that is in the process of being filmed. Kinda like PAINTERS PAINTING and THE CHALLENGE, but with my favorite artists and writers of today. You can view many clips of it online.
    Jeffrey Collins

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Agreed! I’d love to see that documentary again and look for it every so often.
      Thank you for your other recommendations and the link to your own work.

  28. A new doc out called BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING that chronicles artist/puppeteer Wayne White and it is something that many docs on aren’t are not: FUN! It’s got tremendous energy, banjos, the South, Pee Wee Herman, puppets and all kinds of statements regarding the stuffiness of the art world. Comes out on DVD soon and is worth checking out.

  29. Pingback: Art documentaries not to be missed | SHARDS: fragments and reflections

  30. “The Mona Lisa Curse” BBC series from Robert Hughes was a big one for my development in artschool as is “the Five Obstructions from Jorgen Leth and Lars Von Trier.Another excellent series is ArtSafari.

  31. Wow! I loved this blog! I am a recent graduate in Architecture and have a passion for art. Here are some of my recommendations:
    1 – Powers of Ten, by Charles and Ray Eames – a very short documentary, but still fascinates me every time;
    2 – Downtown 81 – feature film starring Jean-Michel Basquiat as himself and on the club scene of NYC in the early 80’s;
    3 – Factory Girl – american biographical film based on the life of 1960s underground film star, socialite, and Warhol Superstar Edie Sedgwick.
    4 – This is England – british drama film written and directed by Shane Meadows. The story centres on young skinheads in England in 1983.
    I could be here listing movies/documentaries all day…!
    Hope you enjoy them.

  32. River and Tides is my favorite Art Documenatary hands down. I also got a lot out of Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child and Exit through the Gift Shop.

  33. Alyson Stanfield

    Must add a new one: Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present. Amazing! Move it to the top of your queue right now if you haven’t seen it.

  34. Art Bastard – a documentary about Robert Cenedella. I would recommend watching it on TubiTV. It’s on Amazon but for some reason the title graphics (like captions)are not there

    Nothing Changes: Art for Hank’s Sake- about New York artist Hank Virgona. Portrait of one of the hardest working and most underappreciated artist. Amazon Prime

    Mr. Bitchin: The Art of Robt. Williams. “Low brow painter and founder of Juxtapoz magazine. He’s pretty fascinating

  35. There Are No Fakes – new documentary about controversy surrounding Canadian artist Norval Morriseau’s paintings.

  36. Words and Pictures (2014). “An art instructor and an English teacher create a competition at their school in which students decide whether words or pictures are more important.”

  37. Pingback: Bored kids? Online creative resources for our teacher, artist, creative community during COVID-19 - Arts Active

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