Pin It

Ten of the best American visual artists on the big screen

From neo-expressionism to making sculptures from petroleum jelly, we chart the art about the artists

A prolific street photographer who worked as a Chicago nanny in the '50s and kept her work a secret, only becoming known after her death, is the subject of collector John Maloof's intriguing documentary Finding Vivian Maier, out in the UK on 18 July. To mark the release, we've gathered other great films about American visual artists, which explore the double-edged sword of public recognition as much as they do the creative process itself.


American Neo-expressionist painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel enlisted Jeffrey Wright to play Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Brooklyn-born talent who from street graffiti became star of the New York art scene before joining the notorious 27 Club via heroin, in this energetic biopic that milks the doomed genius archetype. David Bowie plays pop art legend Andy Warhol, winning the praise of Factory collaborator Paul Morrissey, who said of the numerous Warhol screen portrayals: "Bowie was the best by far. You come away from Basquiat thinking Andy was comical and amusing, not a pretentious, phoney piece of shit, which is how others show him."


If there's such a thing as a fashion monk, it's probably Bill Cunningham. Now over 80, the legendary New York Times street style photographer has ridden his bike round Manhattan for decades with his camera, snapping the surprising aesthetics to be found in the everyday. He lives an ascetic life of $3 lunches in his tiny apartment, honoured by the fashion elite but undazzled by celebrity. After years on his trail, director Richard Press unearths hints of the complex back-story to this humble fanatic in an utterly charming documentary.


Obsessed with the permanent mark of deviancy within the mundane, Diane Arbus produced some of the most disquieting images of American photography. Director Steven Shainberg sentimentalises the late New Yorker and plays loose with the facts in this imaginative tale of her first creative stirrings, but while it might reveal little about Arbus herself it's an audacious take on the influential figure with an intense portrayal of repressed urges from Nicole Kidman.

POLLOCK (2000)

Crippled by self-doubt and mired in heavy drinking but finding an outlet in producing thrillingly bold work dripped with colour, American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock is the subject for another biopic about troubled genius. Ed Harris both directed and stars, with Marcia Gay Harden having won an Oscar for her role as Lee Krasner, a fellow painter who became Pollock's wife and helped him win the patronage.


Christina Clausen's celebratory documentary tribute captures the life and times of artist Keith Haring, whose energetic, vibrant murals of block figures, often infused with bold statements about sexuality and stigmatisation, have become instantly recognisable. A small-town boy from Pennsylvania, he became an artworld star in '80s New York, and a social activist for AIDS awareness before himself succumbing to the disease. Yoko Ono and painter Kenny Scharf are among those interviewed.


The relationship between artist Noriko Shinohara and her husband Ushio – a Neo-Dadaist and frequently drunk enfant terrible renowned for his junk art sculptures of found objects and his paintings done while wearing boxing gloves – is the focus of this tenderly bittersweet and charming documentary from Zachary Heinzerling. The couple, both born in Japan, have lived together in pressure-cooker New York since the '70s. As Ushio prepares for his latest exhibition, Noriko is putting together her own show of vibrant, comical illustrations about their drama-filled and financially strained marriage, determined to showcase a talent she long sacrificed to assist him. 


Charlie Ahearn's improvised, massively influential early snapshot of the hip hop scene in New York stars graffiti legends Lee Quinones and Sandra "Lady Pink" Fabara as street artists Zoro and Rose, who spend their nights tagging subway yards. She accuses him of selling out when, taken to a party hosted by art collector Nina Kislac, he accepts a commission to paint the Manhattan skyline out her window – another of many street artists to move into the downtown art world of white-walled galleries.

Read our throwback piece on Wild Style here.


Wayne White is an exuberantly inventive artist from the mountains of Tennessee – in case you thought from this crop of movies that New York is the only US state that exists for the visually inspired. He did start out as a cartoonist in NYC before relocating to Los Angeles, as this humorous and vividly coloured documentary by Nell Berkeley shows as it paints his career journey from childhood to present day and his family life with graphic novelist Mimi Pond.


On June 3 1968, feminist extremist Valerie Solanas shot and wounded pop art icon Andy Warhol at his New York studio The Factory. Director Mary Harron portrays the life of the troubled perpetrator, who became obsessed with the notion that Warhol's patronage could determine her fortunes, and enraged by his contempt. The film captures the decline of print culture – Solanas is always banging away at an ancient typewriter - and rise of new technologies of reproduction championed by Warhol.


This is no straight-up biopic by any means - but American artist Matthew Barney (who stunned London audiences recently with his bonkers visionary epic River of Fundament) is not one for a conventional approach. His out-there ocean production merges his romantic life and fantasy, as he takes over a Japanese whaling ship with then-partner Bjork as it journeys toward Antarctica. A 25-ton hunk of petroleum jelly is cast into a sculpture while the pair – in mammal-hair kimonos – flense parts off each other's bodies off below deck in a jelly tub, transforming from humans into whales in a visually sublime courting ritual.