4 Visual Artists Who Have Become Film Directors

Photo: RIALTO Lichtspiele movie theater interior view. Courtesy of Rialto Lichtspiele/Wikimedia Commons.

The beauty of the cinema is the way in which it combines all the forms merging the visual, audio, kinetic, and literary realms into one vast, cohesive work. White it is not uncommon for actors, producers, or other industry professionals to take the reigns that the director holds, it is far less common for the visual artist to make the transition from the still to the moving picture. Crave spotlights a selection of artists who brought their talents to film.

Also: The 8 Most Anticipated Book-to-Film Adaptations of 2017

Last week, American artist Rashid Johnson announced that he will make his feature directorial debut bringing Richard Wright’s classic American novel, Native Son, to the silver screen. Johnson, a Crave fave best known for his conceptual art that addresses the African-American experience, rose to fame in 2001 with an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and has been exhibiting his work worldwide ever since.

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Johnson is an exquisite choice for Wright’s landmark book first published in 1940. Native Son tells the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, who grows up in poverty on Chicago’s South Side in 1930. Things go amiss when he accidentally kills a white girl and he tries to escape his fate. The book was an immediate bestseller, moving a quart of a million copies in its first three weeks, and soon thereafter declared a classic on American literature. Johnson’s soaring, visceral, resonant aesthetic will surely complement Wright’s powerful words.

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Julian Schnabel was tapped to direct Basquiat, the 1996 biographical feature on the life of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Schnabel and Basquiat were contemporaries in the New York art scene at the same time, both rising to fame and success in voracious world. While Basquiat went under, dying in 1988 at the age of 27, Schnable continued his ascent as both an artist and a director.

In 2000, Schnabel directed the critically acclaimed film, Before Night Falls, based on the autobiography of the same name by Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban poet and novelist who became an enemy of the state for being openly gay. Seven years later, Schanbel returned to the screen with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a biographical drama based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s eponymous memoir that documented her life after suffering a massive stroke. The film received four Academy Award nominations and a host of other awards.

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British director Steve McQueen began his career as a video artist, studying at the Royal College of Art in London, where he brought his film Bear into being. Created in 1993, McQueen tackled issues of race, homoeroticism, and violence on 16-millimeter film. He continued producing short art films before transitioning into feature films. His first feature, Hunger (2008) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, but it was the 2011 film Shame that brought him global acclaim. Starring Michael Fassbender, the film examines the life of a sex addict living in New York City whose life is turned upside-down when his estranged sister reappears. But it was 12 Years a Slave (2013) that brought McQueen Oscar gold, as he took home the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama.

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British filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson got her start as a visual artist in the early 1990s, creating fine art photography, video works, and installations. Her most famous work, Crying Men, shows celebrities like Robin Williams, Laurence Fishburne, Paul Newman, and Sean Penn revealing their most vulnerable selves. In 2014, she created Second Floor, a series of 34 photographs documenting the private rooms of Coco Chanel at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris for The Saatchi Gallery in London.

Taylor-Johnson, who has been making films since 2006, rose to global prominence in 2015 when she directed Fifty Shades of Grey, which grossed $571 million worldwide (making it the third-highest-grossing film directed by a woman).


Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.