Documentaries

19 Art Movies Available to Stream Now, From an Appreciation of Banksy to Dueling Documentaries on the Knoedler Scandal


The past year has been a tough one for the movie business. But despite the widespread closure of theaters and delays in releases, an impressive bunch of films related to the arts have come out.

From dueling documentaries on the infamous Knoedler forgery scandal to biopics on artists M.C. Escher David Wojnarowicz, here are 19 new art movies and where to stream them.

 

Driven to Abstraction (2020)
Amazon or iTunes ($4.99) and in virtual theaters

Undoubtably one of the biggest art scandals of the 21st century, the Knoedler forgery ring saw the eminent U.S. gallery sell some $80 million in forged mid-century masterpieces. Those involved said they did so unknowingly, despite an unverifiable provenances, wildly anachronistic materials, and, most damningly, a misspelled signature. Daria Price covers it all in this documentary. (Bonus: The film features expert commentary from Midnight Publishing Group News’s senior market editor Eileen Kinsella.)

 

Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art (2020)
Netflix (free with subscription)

Knoedler forgery scandal, take two. This documentary interviews Ann Freedman, the gallery’s president, and a central figure in the forgery ring. She presents herself as the scam’s biggest victim—but was she actually its mastermind?

 

Wojnarowicz: F–k You F-ggot F–ker (2020)
In virtual theaters

Chris McKim draws on the audio journals of the late artist David Wojnarowicz—plus commentary from the likes of Fran Lebowitz, art dealer Gracie Mansion, and art critic Carlo McCormick—to paint a full picture of the queer painter, photographer, writer, and activist, who died in 1992 of AIDS. The obscene title comes from a graffiti message that Wojnarowicz found scrawled on the street and appropriated for his art.

 

Marcel Duchamp: The Art of the Possible (2019)
iTunes ($4.99), Amazon ($4.99)

Artist Matthew Taylor directs a love letter to Marcel Duchamp, who changed the course of art history not once, but twice. First with his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, which ignited controversy at the 1913 Armory Show in New York even as it ushered the Modernist movement into the mainstream, and then with The Fountain, his urinal “readymade” that became a legendary Dada masterpiece.

 

Museum Town (2019)
In virtual theaters

Jennifer Trainer, who spent decades as the head of public relations at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts (and is married to Joseph C. Thompson, its former director), directs a film celebrating the institution and the way it revitalized a rural town after local factories shut down. Meryl Streep offers some star power as the documentary’s narrator.

 

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own (2019)
Vimeo ($3.99), iTunes ($4.99), Amazon ($4.99)

Artist Ursula von Rydingsvard, known for her monumental wooden sculptures, shaped from towering cedar trunks, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the studio machinations that make her large-scale public artworks possible.

 

Pat Steir: Artist (2020)
YouTube ($3.99), Amazon ($3.99)

Novelist and filmmaker Veronica Gonzalez Peña spent two years interviewing the painter Pat Steir in this intimate portrait of the groundbreaking feminist artist and her beloved “waterfall” paintings, made by dripping, splashing, and pouring paint.

 

Lifeline: Clyfford Still (2019)
YouTube ($2.99), Amazon ($3.99)

For this documentary, director Dennis Scholl gained access to the personal life of Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still in the form of 34 hours of audio recordings of the artist, as well as interviews with his daughters, Diane Still Knox and Sandra Still Campbell.

 

Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire (2019)
Netflix (free with subscription)

Carlos Almaraz was a Los Angeles artist and Chicano art activist who died of AIDS in 1989. His widow, artist Elsa Flores Almaraz, along with actor Richard J. Montoya, co-direct this Netflix documentary about his life and legacy, including his struggles to come to terms with his identity as a Chicano and his bisexuality. Watch to find out why David Hockney, Richard Diebenkorn, Jack Nicholson, and Cheech Marin have all been fans of Almaraz’s work.

 

Black Art: In the Absence of Light (2021)
HBO Max (free with subscription)

This HBO documentary is largely narrated by artist and curator David Driskell, who died last year. The film explains the influence of his seminal 1976 group show “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” and features prominent Black artists working today, including Theaster Gates, Kehinde Wiley, and Jordan Casteel,

 

Aggie (2020)
YouTube ($2.99)

After decades of supporting institutions behind the scenes—including more than a decade heading the board at the Museum of Modern Art—New York City art philanthropist Agnes Gund gets her moment in the sun with this documentary directed by her daughter Catherine Gund.

 

Feels Good Man (2020)
YouTube ($3.99)

Illustrator Matt Furie never could have predicted the afterlife of Pepe the Frog, a character from his comic book series Boys Club. This documentary from Arthur Jones unravels the mystery of how the slacker frog morphed first into an internet mascot and a symbol of hate for the alt-right—and how Furie attempted to reclaim his most famous creation.

 

Martha: A Picture Story (2020)
Amazon Prime (free with subscription)

Martha Cooper, who in the 1970s became the first female staff photographer at the New York Post, has made a name for herself as the foremost documenter of graffiti art in New York City. Now, her unlikely career is itself the subject of a documentary film, directed by Selina Miles.

 

The Painter and the Thief (2020)
Hulu (free with subscription)

Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree found a pair of unlikely documentary subjects in Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech painter, and Karl-Bertil Nordland, a thief that stole two of her paintings. The movie tracks their unlikely relationship as Kysilkova attempts to paint a portrait of the heavily tattooed criminal who committed the robbery because, she says, “they were beautiful.”

 

Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman (2020)
First Run Features ($10)

You might not know the name Gustav Stickley, but the late designer was a key figure in the American Arts and Crafts movement, which rebelled against industrialization. Director Herb Stratford provides a full picture of Stickley’s life and career, and what’s behind his lasting significance.

 

M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity (2019)
In virtual theaters

The mind-bending work of M.C. Escher, known for his optical illusions, was an exploration of both art and mathematics. Director Robin Lutz explores the evolution of the Dutch printmaker’s increasingly intricate work, animating his illustrations to stunning effect, with voiceovers from actor Stephen Fry.

 

Banksy Most Wanted (2020)
iTunes (£7.99)

This documentary from Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley explores the various theories as to the identity of anonymous British street artist Banksy and praises his high-profile stunts, like Love Is in the Bin, the shredding of a Balloon Girl print after it sold at auction. It’s likely to be enjoyed most by diehard Banksy fans (one talking head apparently claims that “Banksy is the Picasso of the 21st century”).

 

Paint (2020)
YouTube ($3.99)

In this indie film, directed by Michael Walker, three art school grads are determined to navigate the New York art world, even if they that means resorting to blackmail, betraying their friends, and—perhaps worst of all—painting their own mothers in the nude. (Full disclosure: a group of real-life art-world professionals were called in as extras in the penultimate scene at a gallery opening, so keep an eye out for the writer.)

 

Beyond the Visible (2019)
YouTube ($3.99)

Director Halina Dyrschk continues the important work of restoring the legacy of pioneering Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, who began experimenting with abstraction five years before it was “invented” by Wassily Kandinsky. The film recounts Klint’s life and career, her descent into obscurity, and ultimate rediscovery, including the blockbuster 2019 exhibition of her work at the Guggenheim Museum New York.

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How Garrett Bradley’s Quiet Documentaries Found a Rapt Art-World Audience


The thing is: Sibil and Robert Richardson were guilty. But that didn’t dissuade filmmaker Garrett Bradley from telling their story. 

Director Ava DuVernay recently asked Bradley why her celebrated documentary, Time—which tells the story of Sibil’s fight to get her husband Robert out of prison—doesn’t explicitly address America’s criminal justice system.

“What brought me to making this film,” Bradley replied, “wasn’t so much those big issues as it was… leaning into the intimacy and beauty and strength of what I saw in [the subjects] as individuals.”

One of the hardest parts of being an artist is finding the right story to tell. Bradley’s priorities and instincts—which, to a certain extent, have been lived and not learned—led her to focus first on the Richardson family, with the rest of the narrative falling into place from there. 

This approach is emblematic of 35-year-old Bradley, who is quickly becoming a force in both the art and cinema worlds. 

Still from Garrett Bradley's Time (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Amazon.

Still from Garrett Bradley’s Time (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Amazon.

Time, now streaming on Amazon, has won nearly every award for which it’s been nominated (including best director for Bradley at Sundance). It captures the life of Sibil, better known as Fox Rich, who, along with Robert, made a botched attempt to rob a bank in the late ‘90s. Sibil, who was 16 at the time, was sentenced to three years in prison; Rob was released in 2018 after serving a 21-year sentence. 

When Bradley considered adding details about our prison-industrial complex to Time, she essentially found herself trying to “explain racism in America,” she told DuVernay, “and then that made me ask myself: Well, who is my audience? Do I need to explain racism? Or do I just trust that who I’m speaking with is just going to understand what’s going on?”

 

“This Is What I’m Doing Now”

Bradley was born in New York in 1986 and raised by two artists. She made her first movie in high school. Her teacher told her it was good—so good that she encouraged Bradley to submit it to a festival at her school, Brooklyn Friends. Academics never came easily to Bradley, who has dyslexia, so when she excelled at something, she thought, “I’m not doing anything else. This is what I’m doing now for, like… forever.”  

The film, which Bradley describes as “a little thing made with her school’s camcorder,” was centered on her parents, who divorced when she was two. Through the film, she wanted to get to know her father a little better—both individually and through his relationship with her mother.  

Before spending any more time going into detail about the movie, though, Bradley quickly warns me not to assume she had been “affected in any kind of way by their divorce.” It felt as though she sensed where my mind would go; that, when left with no context, people tend to fill in the gaps—just like I was about to—with the easy story, but not necessarily the right one. 

Still from Garrett Bradley's Time (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Amazon.

Still from Garrett Bradley’s Time (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Amazon.

This is classic Bradley: she seems to have the ability to recognize someone else’s tendency to make quick—and oftentimes false—assumptions, but not succumb to the same. In her work, she allows narratives to naturally progress rather than forcefully shaping them, and that’s rare. This openness was especially evident when, at the tail end of shooting Time, Fox Rich handed her more than 100 hours of archival footage of herself and her family, recorded over the 21-year period of her husband’s incarceration. 

With that, the film immediately transformed from a short into a feature—one that is neither strictly documentary nor strictly fiction. “One of the things that’s most interesting about her as an artist,” notes curator Rujeko Hockley, “is that she’s really destabilizing a lot of these categories that we place around types of moving image-making.”

Missing History

Bradley’s work began to gain widespread notice in 2014, when she debuted her first feature, Below Dreams, about three millennial strivers in New Orleans, at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

Around the same time, she was busy filming 12 short vignettes as part of a project to reimagine Black feature films that could have been produced between 1915 and 1926—a period during which, according to the Library of Congress, 70 percent of the films made in America have been lost. 

Bradley arrived at the idea after reading about the Museum of Modern Art’s unlikely discovery of footage from what is believed to be the earliest feature film with an all-Black cast, Lime Kiln Club Field Day. Could there have been more of these Black-made movies, Bradley thought? 

Garrett Bradley, America (2019). Courtesy of the artist and MoMA.

Garrett Bradley, America (2019). Courtesy of the artist and MoMA.

“They found this one film that happens to be in this period that’s super progressive,” Bradley says. “What would it mean to fill that gap with the assumption that all this work was equally as progressive—socially and cinematically—as what we see in Lime Kiln?”

This line of thinking turned into America (2019), a multi-channel video installation on view at MoMA (through March 21). In it, Bradley intersperses scenes from Lime Kiln with the black-and-white films she began shooting and remixing years earlier.

America was my first time really trying to investigate and work through archives… something that I did not have control over,” she says. Bradley joins a cohort of filmmakers and artists, like Ja’Tovia Gary and Bisa Butler, who are, in different ways, mining the historical archive and looking for ways to responsibly insert Blackness into it. 

Garrett Bradley, America (2019). Courtesy of the artist and MoMA.

Garrett Bradley, America (2019). Courtesy of the artist and MoMA.

She, along with these other artists, is addressing something that is “bigger than truth at this point,” says City College of New York film professor Michael Gillespie. “It might sound hackneyed or tired to say it, but there’s a measure of a political consciousness-raising that’s happening.”

Into the Archive

After beginning with a few stills from Lime Kiln featuring its black-faced star, Bert Williams (who, mind you, was already Black), America features a scene of a white man sitting beneath a tree with a white sheet draped around his body. A Black woman quietly moves towards him, takes off her hat, violently grabs the sheet and fights him for it. Then she cooly returns her hat to her head and walks away. 

This was one of Gillespie’s favorite parts. “I always think of that as a great reading, thinking about the history of the Birth of a Nation,” he says, referencing the horrifically racist 1915 film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, “and just how quickly he can be disrobed and we can just keep on moving down the road—that that doesn’t necessarily have to be the beginning of the story, it’s just one point along the way.”

Installation view, Garrett Bradley, America (2019) at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Photo: Will Michels.

Installation view, Garrett Bradley, America (2019) at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Photo: Will Michels.

America moves through a carefully crafted chronology of historical events, with some that represent Blackness and others that do not explicitly—but Bradley feels still can. There’s 1915, when Birth of a Nation was screened at the White House; 1916, when Woodrow Wilson established the Boy Scouts, which Bradley re-envisioned using students she’d taught at the Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center in New Orleans; August 2, 1974, the day James Baldwin was born and New York City held its first-ever Macy’s Day Parade. 

This kind of melding of real events with reconstructed scenes represents an evolution in thinking about film and the role it plays in establishing the Black image. Each of us carries a set of preconceived ideas about the truth in history, the truth in life. With America, Bradley began to understand how incomplete and disjointed that truth can be, not only in our archives but also “in this present moment,” she says. 

After making that work, she was able “to take it a step further,” she continues, “in working with a contemporary archive with a living person, with Time.”

Still from Garrett Bradley's Time (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Amazon.

Still from Garrett Bradley’s Time (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Amazon.

Community Building

Bradley accepts her subjects for who and what they are—so much so that she brought in Fox Rich as a co-creator of Time. The film operates “within a community, and incorporates the community,” says Yale media studies professor Thomas Harris, who considers Bradley’s work as part of a lineage that includes Camille Bishops and William Greaves. 

Like America, Time thrives on ambiguity, on showing how a story about Blackness doesn’t have to fit into a neat package to be a story worth telling. “Most Black film isn’t allowed to be ambiguous,” Michael Gillespie notes, because “it has to provide immediate answers on how to save Black people.”

On top of that, films about systemic racism often highlight Black pain and trauma first and foremost. Those that bluntly spell out what is wrong with the “system” tend to be judged only on how well they fight the “good” fight—rather than on their creative merits. By contrast, Time isn’t intended to convince an external audience of much of anything. 

“It was beautiful that the film wasn’t interested in trying to traumatize,” says Darius Monroe, who is very familiar with how audiences react to films about incarceration, having made one about his own called Evolution of a Crime.

Garrett Bradley, America (2019). Courtesy of the artist and MoMA.

Garrett Bradley, America (2019). Courtesy of the artist and MoMA.

By taking away “things that normally would be included, like the court case, and jail,” Thomas Harris says, Bradley brings us “into this other world and we then get this validation of that world.”

Not the world of prison. Not the world of Fox Rich and prison. Just Fox Rich and the poetry of her family’s world.

Filling the Gap

In the end, history—and life—will never be a singularly understood set of facts. The truth will always be how we are willing to see it.

Of the 7,500 films missing from the Library of Congress, “we’re starting with 12,” Bradley says in reference to America. “It’s my dream that one day we would be able to create some kind of fund for other artists and filmmakers to continue to make films in the spirit of these parameters, until we collectively have filled that gap.”

In all of her work, Bradley is providing audiences with an opportunity to let go of their sense of context. Because without letting our expectations get in the way, it all seems so simple to her. “When something touches you, it touches you,” she says. “It’s really not that deep.”

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