Everyone knows documentaries are great for providing background noise while you avoid your Sunday chores or nurse a nasty hangover, but were you also aware that they often impart information, too? Shocker, right? Listicles abound online telling us exactly where to watch shiny movies on a wide variety of topics, but resources for films about women artists are few and far between. We've put together a tabulation of under-hyped titles that delve into the lives and work of women artists, legendary and overlooked alike.
1. Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress, and the Tangerine
Available On: iTunes
This iconic peek into Bourgeois' inner life, directed by Marion Carjori and Amei Wallach, was distributed by Zeitgeist films two years before the artist's death in 2010. As the nonogenarian sheds light on her inspirations by exposing audiences to the most intimate aspects of her process, viewers are introduced to her spectacular home studio space, haunting past, and unparalleled flare for story-telling (plus, an assortment of very exciting outfit choices). Filmed over a 14 year period, The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine constitutes a full-scale examination of creativity in real life.
2. Sign Painters: The Movie
Available On: Prime Video
While this documentary doesn't focus exclusively on women, it is a personal favorite, and more than worth a gander—it excavates the quintessentially American history of sign painting, a highly specialized industry with its own heart, aesthetic, and code of ethics. As hand-painted signage makes a modest, artisinal comeback in a sea of monotone automated lettering, filmmakers Faythe Levine and Sam Macon interview legends and newcomers side by side in this beautifully shot ode to a remarkable craft.
3. Finding Vivian Maier
Available on: Youtube, Prime Video, iTunes, Google Play
This Academy Award-winning documentary maps the life of Vivian Maier, a French-American woman who worked most of her life as domestic for a variety of Chicago families. While she was never without her camera, Maier's photographic legacy was not uncovered until writer-director John Maloof came across her negatives at an auction in 2007, inspiring a spate of news articles and a success Kickstarter campaign for the documentary itself. This portrait of an unsung artist is in turns fascinating, heart-rending, and mysterious, and well worth a second (or third!) look.
4. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Available on: Prime Video, Vudu, Youtube, Google Pay, iTunes
Abramovic, darling of the press and lionness of the art world, may be no stranger to surveillance, but this documentary provides unparalleled access leading up to one of the most important moments of her career, the major 2010 retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the centerpiece of which involved a live durational performance wherein she silently stared at visitors across a table. Powerful, seductive, poignant and glamorous, this time capsule gives viewers a birds-eye view to the exceptional oeuvre of a peerless force in contemporary art.
5. Maya Lin, A Strong Clear Vision:
The Story of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and it's Inspiring Creator
Available on: Youtube
This elegant documentary tracks the incredible story of artist Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial design and its 1982 execution in Washington D.C.. Lin, who was a Yale undergraduate at the time of her selection from a pool of nearly 1500 entries, was met with fierce pushback from the likes of Pat Buchanan, Ronald Reagan, and Henry J. Hyde, who deemed her approach too stark and "nihilistic" to stand. Lin stuck by her guns, and the results speak for themselves. A tale of art's triumph over small-mindedness, A Strong Clear Vision makes a case for the new over the known, and to stunning effect.
6. Double Take: The Art of Elizabeth King
Available on: Prime Video
Straddling the worlds of classical sculpture and uncanny automata, Elizabeth King has created a signature aesthetic all her own that pairs movable figuration with stop-frame animation, blurring the boundaries between actual and virtual experience. Focusing on her pedagogical output as well as her artistic endeavors, this enchanting movie captures the unsettling beauty of King's unique vision.
7. The Woodmans: The Life of the Photographer
Available on: Fandor via Prime Video Date: 2011
This elegiac exploration of an artistic family's journey through unspeakable tragedy and the posthumous fame of their 22 year old daughter, Francesca, whose haunting black-and-white self-portraits became the subject of great admiration after her suicide in 1981. As they piece together a life after love lost, the Woodmans ruminate on art, grief, professional rivalry, and the nature of heartache. Director C. Scott Willis delves deep into the psychological life of a fraught family tree.
8. Guest of Cindy Sherman
Available on: Prime Video
An intimate look at the notoriously private artist's personal life, Guest of Cindy Sherman revisits "Gallery Beat," the public-access cable show hosted by co-director and star Paul Hasegawa-Overacker (Paul H-O), that functioned as a charming '90s hangover from the gluttonous art scene of the Reagan era. This quirky chronicle of the brief relationship between H-O and Sherman provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the ups and downs of the art world and the gender dynamics of superstardom, a plight reflected in the fact that this isn't the only documentary an ex-boyfriend has made about Sherman. Plus, if you loathe Julian Schnabel, there's plenty of fuel for your fire on screen, here. A testament to love against the zeitgeist, Guest of Cindy Sherman gifts the viewer a sentimental time capsule that eschews exploitation in favor of a breezy trip down memory lane.
9. Our City Dreams: Featuring Swoon, Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Ambramovic, Nancy Spero
Available on: Prime Video
This lyrical documentary profiles five prominent women artists through the lens of their chosen milieu, and is as much a portrait of the artistic process as it is a love letter to New York, the city that makes or breaks all manner of creative pursuits. The subjects are Nancy Spero, '60s feminist pioneer, Marina Abramovic, performance art innovator, Kiki Smith, queen of psychosexual prurience, Ghada Amer, cultural shapeshifter, and Swoon, street art dynamo; each allows director Chiara Clemente unprecedented access into her respective studio practice and relationship with New York itself, presenting viewers a lush collage of testimonial vibrancy and rigor.
10. Faces Places
Available on: Vudu, Prime Video
This film follows French New Wave trailblazer Agnes Varda and mysterious guerilla muralist-cum-photographer JR as they travel around rural France, creating portraits and memories with the people they meet. A L'OEil award recipient and Academy Award nominee, Faces Places stands as a unique totem to joy in the face of mortality, and its inherent populism never undercuts its deeply personal and thoroughly felt approach to production, humanity, and creative solidarity.
11. !Women Art Revolution
Available on: Tubi, iTunes, Prime Video
A relatively straightforward contribution from legendarily inscrutable filmmaker Lynn Hersham Leeson, this film collates interviews, artworks, and documentary footage into an all-encompassing topography of feminist art. Leeson draws on the expertise of a wide range of artists, curators, critics and historians over the course of nearly forty years, covering a vast swathe of cultural upheavals and trajectories. Borrowing it's name from the Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) coalition created in the '60s to raise awareness about the exclusion of women in the arts, Leeson's movie amplifies the activist spirit of her predecessors, making a case for a relentless, insistent animation of the archive.