the docs that captured the wild vibrancy of new york's art scene

From Robert Mapplethorpe to Jean-Michel Basquiat to Candy Darling, we celebrate New York’s iconic art stars and the films that documented their incredible lives.

by Oliver Lunn
06 April 2016, 1:55pm

This week, Robert Mapplethorpe's infamous photographs of NYC's underground BDSM scene will beam into cinemas in the new documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. When you take that film's advice and look at the pictures, you think: everything about this screams New York City; Mapplethorpe is New York City, in a way -- like Warhol, like The Velvet Underground.

His work is tethered to the scene in which it was born, to the city and its inhabitants. For Mapplethorpe: "The photographs are less important than the life that one is leading." And that life -- like most artistic pioneers that the Big Apple has birthed -- often eclipses the work itself. In NYC, life moves fast. Scenes come and go. But filmmakers have always been there to document the city's rich creative tapestry, past and present. Here are some of their best.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
It's because of crazy stories like Basquiat's that most artists want to move to New York City. They think that's the place where they will be 'discovered.' In the early 80s, when he would walk the streets of Manhattan for days on end with no money and no place to sleep, Basquiat himself was discovered. He sold postcards in Washington Square Park and around SoHo. One day he handed a postcard to Andy Warhol, and well, his career basically skyrocketed from there. In this definitive documentary, which unearths intimate interview footage and features contributions from Thurston Moore, Fab Five Freddy and others, we hear how Basquiat survived on the streets by having lots of girlfriends, how he thrived in the downtown art scene, how his work was rejected by the Whitney and MoMA, and how became the most iconic painter of the 80s.

Everybody Street
Everybody Street captures the everyday romance of street photography in NYC; what it's like to wander around the city armed with a camera, hunting for that isolated moment amid the chaos of street life. But then again, it also shows the perils of that endeavor. Like: getting smacked in the face by someone who really doesn't want to have their photo taken. The insightful documentary, which puts raw street photography center frame, features luminaries like Bruce Davidson, Jamel Shabazz, Bruce Gilden, Jill Freedman and more, all of whom went to extraordinary lengths to get their shots. It doesn't exactly answer the question of why New York is the mecca of street photography, but it doesn't really need to. The images -- as the cliché goes -- speak for themselves.

Blank City
It's hard to watch Blank City and not feel a deep pang of nostalgia for the New York City of the 70s and 80s, a New York City that most of us never experienced; you know, before gentrification tightened its greedy grip and crushed almost every underground scene in sight. But at least we're not alone. In this gushing tribute to the downtown No Wave scene of the late 70s and 80s, filmmakers and musicians like Lydia Lunch, Nick Zedd, Jim Jarmusch, and Thurston Moore wax nostalgic about their old stomping grounds. They talk about how they shot movies on shoestring budgets with friends, how it was like the Wild West on the Lower East Side, all the crumbling buildings, the crack epidemic, how getting mugged was a daily fear. They created their own vibrant scene, making work that was both challenging and groundbreaking, and they did it with next to zero bucks. Today it's impossible to do what they did. On that scale. With that amount of cash. In that city.

Herb & Dorothy
Meet Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a charming old couple. They collect art but they're not like other collectors. Their rule for collecting? It has to be affordable and it has to fit in their one-bedroom apartment in New York City. So they bought work by Sol Lewitt, Carl Andre, Donald Judd and other minimalists whose work was cheaper than the pop art and abstract expressionism of the time. Today the tiny old couple are formidable art-world figures with a collection described as "one of the most important post-60s art collections in the United States." To the artists, their approach is personal, they get to know them, understand them. If nothing else, Herb & Dorothy shows us that not all collectors are besuited bastards who see nothing but wads of cash when they look at art. What the Vogels have done -- their collection, their approach -- is art in itself.

Chelsea on the Rocks
Abel Ferrara's definitive portrait of Chelsea Hotel -- the NYC hotel where Sid Vicious's girlfriend Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in 1978, the hotel where Warhol shot Chelsea Girls -- is a time capsule of the NYC art scene across the decades. In the 70s and 80s it was the epicenter of the counter culture scene, with everyone from Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg to Patti Smith and Charles Bukowski staying within its hallowed walls. Ferrara's documentary, which features talking-head appearances from Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper, Gaby Hoffman, and Robert Crumb, chronicles the hotel's eccentric residents over the years, recounting the wild stories of drug dealers, artists, rock stars and the lawless atmosphere out of which so many creative voices were born.

Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar
The transgender actress Candy Darling was catapulted to fame the instant Andy Warhol sculpted her into a 'Warhol Superstar.' She starred in his art movies Flesh and Women in Revolt, and was photographed by everyone from Robert Mapplethorpe to Cecil Beaton. She swiftly became Warhol's muse and a key part of his colorful Factory entourage. She was also a muse of The Velvet Underground, immortalized in their song "Candy Says," and the lyrics to Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side." This documentary -- which features a treasure trove of archival footage, interviews, pictures and personal diary entries read by Chloë Sevigny -- paints a portrait of a depressed and lonely woman with dreams of being rich and famous. In her own words: "All I know is that I love and I am not loved. I do not know happiness. I know despair, loneliness and longing."

On the Lower East Side in the 80s you could be whoever you wanted to be. That idea was captured via the stark lens of intrepid photographer Clayton Patterson. Skinheads, transvestites, junkies -- Patterson framed them all. In so doing he documented the area over 25 years, presenting us today with what we've since lost: the glory days of the Lower East Side. In the film, we see how he chronicled the Tompkins Square police riots, how he navigated a mosh pit clutching a camera during the last ever show at CBGB, and how his personalized baseball caps got picked up by MTV and Elle, becoming an unexpected fashion must-have of the 80s. Ultimately, he used his camera to record sweeping social change and injustice in Manhattan, as he explains on Oprah: "This [camera] is a revolutionary tool. Little brother is watching big brother."



Text Oliver Lunn
Film still from Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

Andy Warhol
the factory
Everybody Street
art scene
radiant child
beautiful darling
best art docs on youtube
blank city
chelsea on the rocks
herb and dorothy
jean michel basquait