While creativity remains illusive, there are countless books and resources that give glimpses into the unique mind of an artist, or the cadence of an art movement. Movies trump books for the time strapped, and are sometimes the most honest given the amount of first person interviews, discussion and revealing footage.
The following is a list of films about art, contemporary art specifically, I have found over the years to be intriguing, inspiring and sometimes hilarious. I hope they inspire you. In no particular order:
1. Kiki Smith Squatting the Palace
This documentary follows Kiki Smith preparing for her installation for the 2005 Venice Biennial. I happened to see the installation in person (it was utterly charming and very Kiki – house, art and magic all in one space), and feel the film captures well her process and personality.
2. Guest of Cindy Sherman
A story of artist Paul H-O, and his affair with Cindy Sherman. As a gonzo public access TV reporter for “Gallery Beat” he met Cindy Sherman to interview her and follow her practice, which led to a 5-plus year relationship. Cindy Sherman is notoriously media shy, so the film serves as an unveiling of sorts of the genius of disguise. While the film dips into annoying male ego issues, he ultimately pokes fun at it by showing some fitting Julian Schnabel footage. His whirlwind in the art world as a “Guest of Cindy Sherman” catapulted him back to surfing in South America, a welcome respite from art world overload. The bittersweet end has him contemplating “dealers think they are artists, critics don’t seem to matter, and I don’t know where the artists are.”
3. Certain Doubts of William Kentridge
An honest movie about the process of creativity. Juggernaut artist William Kentridge was invited to show at the Brazil Biennial. The movie takes you through his decisions on what to show. The end piece for the exhibit is only a glimmer to the gold that is learning the journey of creating it.
4. Rivers and Tides
One of the most thoughtful manipulations of mother earth by a human – Andy Goldsworthy’s zen and transient land art is a must see.
5. The Color of your Socks – A Year with Pipilotti Rist
Ever since I lied down on the floor of a church in Venice on plush pink sofas, and stared at the ceiling where her video art was projected, I fell in love with Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. While I had seen her work before, I had never seen it on this scale. Her work is always reconciling thinking and the body. She playfully presents her colorful video poems in ways that call into question your body in relation to what you are seeing, and how you are seeing it.
6. Herb and Dorothy
The sweetest collector duo ever. You will fall in love with their sensibilities, thoughtfulness, generosity and utter passion for supporting artists. The film debuted months before they announced they were bequeathing their mammoth collection (which resided in a postage stamp apartment in Manhattan) to museums in all fifty states. Did I mention Herb never finished high school and sorted mail as a career, and Dorothy was a librarian with a masters degree in Library Science?
7. !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION
The women’s movement was no small feat, and it’s only recently that there has been vast recognition of the 60’s and some of the triumphs of women in the art world. Sadly we still have major discrepancies in pay, there are far less female artists at MOMA and major collections, and they haven’t invented the pill for sperm to stop swimming but those issues are for other posts. This movie is a long awaited review and thank you to all the ladies who have stood up loudly for human rights issues, mostly gender equality, through their art.
8. Art School Confidential
A hilarious fictional account of art school. What’s not to love about watching a pretentious professor (played by John Malkovich) who implores his class to do something “he’s never seen before!” Meanwhile his own art is exclusively paintings of triangles, and purports he was one of the first to paint said triangles. Does this sound familiar to anyone? Thought so.
9. Alex Katz: Five Hours
A simple, quiet movie showing Alex Katz painting one of his famous Ada paintings. The feature is only 20 minutes in length, and there is no dialog, just a nice soundtrack of Meredith Monk. If you are a painter and watch this and don’t feel like getting dirty in the studio, I recommend changing mediums;-)
10. Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine
A touching documentary of the famously ornery artist. If you are curious, yes the tangerine, mistress and the spider are symbols for what inspired over 50 years of a beautiful career.
11. Fully Awake: The Black Mountain College Experience
Black Mountain College was an exciting experiment in education. For anyone who is interested in the power of artists to redirect what it means to learn, to grow and to have a community this is a must see.
12. What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann
An intimate portrait of the photographer Sally Mann. The film disproves any sensationalism that historically has ensconced her work, and shows her navigating the commercial world of fine art photography, while being a rock for her ailing husband and grown children. An inspiration to any artist who sees their family as ideal subjects, and may fear the consequence of using them in their work.
13. Who Gets to Call it Art
The MET’s very first curator of contemporary art is memorialized in this gem of a documentary. Henry Geldzahler championed modern American artists and did so just before and during the time that Andy Warhol catapulted the grocery store into the gallery. A hopeful vision if you believe that history does repeat itself.
14. The Woodmans
A harrowing true story of a family of artists – mother, father, brother, sister – where success and failure ride the line in their work and their lives. Heartbreaking truly.
15. In Conversation: William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas
Having South African mentors my finger is on the pulse of these two very successful South African artists. In this film they discuss their respective practices over a family dinner at Kentridge’s house. They are both close in age, both white growing up in South Africa during apartheid, one (Dumas) leaving and one staying. While different in aesthetic, both artists’ work comes from a place of urgency, with a strong hand in politics and sensuality. I adore them both.
16. How to Draw a Bunny
“New York’s most famous unknown artist” Ray Johnson is posthumously honored with this outstanding documentary full of interviews, insights and visuals. This collage-correspondence artist’s life remains a mystery, though the film shines light on the impressive amounts of work the artist made and the power of mail art which still carries on as the New York Correspondence School. Mail on!
17. Motherwell: Storming the Citadel
Motherwell talking about his work, and footage of him making his work. Need there be more reasons to watch this?
18. Alice Neel
The story of this American portrait painter will forever serve as an inspiration for me, or any artist for that matter, with respect to her will and tenacity. When she moved out of NYC to raise her children as a single mother, the art world deemed this “artistic suicide”. She continued to paint portraits for the remainder of her life, and only gained recognition years before she died. She is a force to be reckoned with, and her paintings cut through the heart of any person – she’s been quoted as feeling like an “empty house” after painting portraits due to giving all of her attention and being-ness to her subject.
19. Gerhard Richter Painting
A look at Richter’s late abstract works that reveal a little of the playfulness, and a lot of the seriousness in his work. Whether you love or hate his work, this movie will inspire you to squeegee your latest canvas (really), and pine for his immaculate, humongous studio(s).
20. The Way Things Go
The ultimate Rube Goldberg machine devised by artists Fischli Weiss. It’s mesmerizing, and after the films debut it inspired many copy cats in the advertising arena.