Tim Needles | August 2015

10 Great Biographical Documentaries on Contemporary Artists for the Classroom

With the start of a new school year, I always make a point to share new contemporary artists with my students.  Here’s a list of ten terrific biographical documentaries on contemporary art and artists for inspiration I’ve used in class. Also, I’ve provided some helpful notes on the films to give a brief synopsis.  It’s important to share contemporary work with students, because it relates to them more directly. Moreover, it brings up issues that the classics might not, because they were nonexistent then.  These films are great as discussion starters, show some of the artists’ process, and can be used as inspirational elements.

The biographical documentaries are entertaining and they also give a glimpse of what the art world is like today and how artists live.  Before I share with the class, I always make a point to screen films, and take some notes to discuss. This is because there are scenes and language in some of the films, which I would definitely not recommend sharing.   I’ve used clips from all of these films in class, and a few of them have also inspired reflective lessons:

Wayne White: Beauty is Embarrassing

Director: Neil Berkeley

This documentary is one of my favorites. It looks at the artistic career and process of artist Wayne White who worked as a set and character designer, sculptor, and painter among other things.  It’s playful, and has some great insights on the real life of an artist. Additionally, it has a little section showing Wayne working with students in a school environment creating oversized puppets together.  I’ve used this film as a basis for some really effective lessons,  but it does have some language you may want to avoid. So, be sure to screen it first!

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Director: Alison Klayman

This compelling documentary explores the tumultuous life and work of major Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.  Weiwei  uses social media and his art to discuss important issues in China the state doesn’t agree. So, in the film we get to see the strong reaction of the government.  Moreover, the film shows him being arrested and jailed. The story continues to evolve today.  The documentary does a great job in explaining the backstory of some of his most powerful pieces. Furthermore, it shows some of his factory style process.  Again, there is some language and brief violence in his interaction with police. Certain aspects students might be sensitive to, depending on the age level.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Director: Banksy

The film provides a look into the the underground world of street art, and in typical Bansky style leaves viewers wondering.  It follows some of Banksy’s career, and then switches focus to filmmaker Thierry Guetta. In the film, he becomes a street artist himself known as Mr.Brainwash.  The film’s fun to watch and shows off some great art with social commentary. However, it also shows the reality of the street art world filled with illegal spray painting and pasting.  It brings up through-provoking questions, but may also inspire a graffiti revolution. So, make sure to frame it with a reminder of the consequences.

Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century

This is a terrific series, and is a must-watch for any art educator.  For instance, there are a number of different seasons each featuring some terrific modern art and artists. Each episode is based around a theme, making it easy to use in the classroom.  Major artists such as Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Serra are featured and the Art 21 website features great educator notes for each episode that are great to use for class.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

Director: Tamra Davis

This insightful documentary from director Tamra Davis looks at the life and art of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died early at the age of 27.   The film features a never-before-seen interview with the artist, and shows some of the controversy the artist caused in the 80’s art scene.

Waste Land

Director: Lucy Walker, Karen Harley, João Jardim

This Oscar-nominated documentary follows the work of Brooklyn based artist Vik Muniz as he embarks on a collaboration with garbage pickers near his hometown in Brazil.  The story of the garbage pickers who sort material in the trash heaps of Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho landfill is riveting and the art is truly inspiring.  The film is in Spanish with English subtitles and in my experience helps students appreciate their quality of life.

Rivers and Tides

Director: Thomas Riedelsheimer

This astonishing documentary from Thomas Riedelsheimer follows the terrific earthworks of sculptor Andy Goldsworthy.  He creates works of art with ice, driftwood, leaves, stone, dirt and snow without using advanced tools in fields, beaches, rivers, creeks and forests.  This film is one I always use in class because the artwork is so terrific and the process is as interesting as the result so it’s inspired many great lessons.

Sketches of Frank Gehry

Director: Sydney Pollack

This is an intimate and untraditional documentary which features actor and director Sydney Pollack exploring the work and style of architect Frank Gehry, his friend on screen.  It’s very entertaining and features a look at some of the architect and designers best known works from Barcelona to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Pollack shows Gehry’s process from original sketches through their evolution to 3D modeled computer-assisted renditions to the finished product.


Director: Julian Schnabel

Director Julian Schnabel’s is an important contemporary artist himself so his feature about his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat is an interesting work in itself.  The film is a narrative and gives a great reflection of the art scene in the 1980’s with Andy Warhol and Basquiat but it again has some elements that probably shouldn’t be shared in class so be sure to screen it first.


Director: Terry Zwigoff

This film follows the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb known for characters Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural who became counterculture icons. This is a fascinating and compelling documentary but only a few segments which show’s Crumbs process would be appropriate for class.  This film is great for giving some insight into how comics are made and Crumb has more personality than most other artists so it’s an amazing documentary to watch.

About the Author

Tim Needles is art and media teacher at Smithtown High School East in New York. He has been the recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Power of Art Award, was recognized by the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts, and has worked as an Adobe Master Teacher and Education Leader. Tim is also a artist, writer, and performer who continues to exhibit and perform regularly. His work has been featured on NPR as well as in the New York Times and at the Columbus Museum of Art.