Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff + Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography moved the meter in major ways; Unsurprisingly a few films attempt to encapsulate his complex and detailed story. “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” and “Mapplethorpe” are two good options if you don’t know much about the artist, but want to start somewhere. As an avid film viewer, especially when it comes to art documentaries, I thought I had seen every film about Mapplethorpe and his contemporaries. But in the midst of quarantine fueled restlessness, I scoured the internet and found one I hadn’t seen— “Black White + Gray.” This film is dedicated to exploring the artist’s deeply loving, yet extraordinarily complicated relationship with the older, more established, and more successful, Sam Wagstaff. The art collector and curator was immediately drawn to Mapplethorpe’s work. Wagstaff quickly became the photographer’s friend, lover, mentor, benefactor, and the list goes on. Punk rocker/ poet/ author/ musician Patti Smith was also part of this creative clan. This film captures the zeitgeist of the Beat Generation while also analyzing unique relationships that bound this brilliantly enmeshed group.
(Also available on Itunes)
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
I know, I know. Technically William Burroughs was a writer and didn’t dabble in painting, sculpture, photography, etc. But I would like some leeway here because he arguably, probably without knowing it, founded what is now considered the Punk cultural movement. Although Burroughs only displayed his creative talent through paper and pen (think Junky, Queer, and Naked Lunch), his identity belonged to being an artist of all sorts. This film reveals the layers of Burroughs’ complex mind. It also clearly outlines the groundbreaking creative and cultural tones Burroughs set for his generation and those to come. Burroughs was a controversial figure, to say the least, and pushed some serious boundaries, a personality trait that was common amongst the artist and writers of his time. This documentary unpacks Burroughs personal story while also examining his ties to countless other famous artists (Andy Warhol and Patty Smith to name a couple) who he happened to befriend. So, hopefully, you’ll decide to trust me and learn all about this underground, counterculture hero.
amazon.com/William-S-Burroughs-Man-Within (Also available on Itunes)
“Chasing a Ghost” by Nan Goldin
“Chasing a Ghost” by Nan Goldin is another, not so traditional, art documentary. The rockstar American photographer casually stands at a podium as though she’s a professor about to give a lecture. Goldin opens by explaining the sole purpose of her work—she has always strived to candidly capture her friends. A projector is mounted behind her and she clicks through each photograph while telling its’ story. If there was any chance Goldin’s pictures didn’t do the subjects justice, her words bring each one to life. Most agree Goldin’s work is iconic, but combine her pictures with her personal memories and you are left with one mesmerizing tale after another. A large part of her work is dedicated to the tragic deaths of many of her friends during the AIDS crisis. Goldin unpacks substance abuse (including her own), her travels around the world, living with the people she photographed and shining a bright beautiful light on the LGBTQ community. There is no scenery, no special effects or private interviews, but I can promise Nan Goldin standing on a stage telling the deeply raw stories behind some of her most famous photographs will keep you watching.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
After a lecture and with the incredible Marina Abramovic, (see my previous article for details about the evening,) I was dying to know more about the artist. At the time, lockdown had also begun, so needless to say I was already itching for a cultural fix. Luckily I was not the only person in the world who wanted to learn more about this artistic icon. Her documentary “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present,” was easy to find. After a (far too short) hour and 45 minutes, I felt I had witnessed something seriously great. The artist’s strength, not only as a performer but also as a human being, is palpable in the film; The viewer is transported to watching the striking Serbian genius exist and perform for her audience and for herself. The documentary touches on everything from Abramovic’s troubled childhood (her father abandoned her when she was just twelve years old,) to her artistic beginning, to the immense impact she has already made on the practice of Performance Art around the world. Of course viewing art, and traveling to see art in person is an irreplaceable experience, but during these crazy times this seems more impossible than ever. In the meantime, this film does a pretty stellar job in (almost) making you feel as if you are right there, with the legend that is the “Grandmother of Performance Art.”
amazon.com/Marina-Abramovic-Artist-Present (Also available on Netflix, Itunes and HBO MAX)
“Factory Girl” is by no means a documentary, and even received mixed reviews, but this doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. The film provides a personal look into Andy Warhol’s life and those who influenced it, specifically the young and wealthy New York Socialite, Edie Sedgwick. “Factory Girl” brilliantly depicts just how taken Warhol was with the gorgeous Harvard Graduate within moments of meeting her, and goes on to chronicle the it “non- couple’s” escapades. The American pop artist’s fame and talent combined with Sedgwick’s social standing and beauty sent the press into a frenzy. If you are looking to learn strictly about Warhol’s silk screen making process, or which colour paint he used and why perhaps this film is not for you. It does, however, dissect the various roles that Sedgwick played in Warhol’s life as a friend, partner, benefactor and muse of sorts. The pair were fast friends but their close ties did not last; Warhol abruptly cut the East Coast socialite out of his Factory and circle altogether. Sedgwick, who lived with mental health issues and substance abuse, continued into a downward spiral after losing said friendship with Warhol. She died tragically before she was thirty years old. Sienna Miller doesn’t act as, but instead becomes, the enigmatically alluring star who rocked even Andy Warhol’s world.
amazon.com/Factory-Girl (Also available on Itunes)