Blessed with all the trademarks of a Burns brothers documentary, Ric Burns’ look at the life of Andy Warhol is well researched, packed with rarely seen footage and loaded with eloquent observations. Effusive praise of Warhol is overflowing. While he deserves his place at the top of the post-1950 class of artists, “Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film” has no interest in debate or even bringing in an observer to question Warhol’s work or activities. Nevertheless, art aficionados the world over will want to catch the pic, which PBS airs later this month; given the impact Warhol had on the world, it’s a must for culture vultures.
In standard Burns fashion, a little more than the first reel is spent with talking heads extolling Warhol’s qualities: He changed the world, he was a touchstone of the culture we live in, he worked against every disadvantage possible, his genius was his absolute refusal to tell a story. Each of those points is expanded upon and supported with observations that are not just 20/20 hindsight but honest impulses from the 1960s, when Warhol ruled the art world.
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Ultimate point is how much Warhol was a sponge: a trained artist who absorbed the world and produced immediate art, images that were locked in the here and now. A most telling interview closes out the first half of the pic as a struggling Warhol asks the interviewer to give him answers, just words to say, and he will gladly say them; it reveals the personal blank slate Warhol worked with even when he was a world-famous artist.
Once it gets past Warhol’s odd childhood in a Pittsburgh ghetto, doc extensively covers his years rising through commercial art in Gotham. As the young hot artists emerged in the post-abstract expressionist world, specifically Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, Warhol remained an outsider despite sharing their ideas, background and sexual orientation.
Warhol’s first great achievement was the way he pushed art away from any painterly properties; the second was his use of iconography, color and repetition. They are the rootstock of Pop Art, the last great art movement to have an effect on the culture at large.
On the heels of his silk-screen paintings, he turned to sculpture that received a thumbs-down from the champions of his soup can series. He sought new media and developed the Factory, where he could work, take visitors and surround himself with drag queens, drug addicts and other artists. Warhol became the grand observer of decadent lifestyles, surrounding himself with people on downward slides. The Factory’s opening party in 1964, it has been said, was the night the ’60s started.
Second half of “Andy Warhol” is nearly all set in the Factory, both its 47th Street and Union Square locations. Warhol essentially created “happenings” whereby music, film, art and dance converged in a state of drugged-out bliss. Doc paints Warhol as a master conductor who uniquely blended his talents with those of the droning rock band Velvet Underground and actress Edie Sedgwick.
His films earn raves from those in the doc. They praise his aesthetic — showing how a portrait artist looks at a face, for example, in “Sleep” — and his technical experiment of shooting at 24 frames per second and showing at 16 frames per second to slow down the viewer’s perception. His “screen tests,” three-minute silent pics of people seated 15 feet from the camera, are hailed as masterpieces, as is his “Chelsea Girls.”
Among those who posed for the shorts were Salvador Dali, Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper and Bob Dylan, who frequented the Factory until an apparent rift developed between the singer-songwriter and the artist. It’s mentioned quickly and never explained.
Warhol’s life started to spin out of control, and he changed the location of the offices where his life started to intersect with Valerie Solanas, the man-hating crackpot who shot Warhol once she’d decided he had conspired with her publisher to steal her ideas. The shooting is used as evidence of Warhol’s inability to deal with others, how he enjoyed the company of talkative people and put no barriers between himself and the hangers-on.
Post-recovery, Warhol’s people got his operation in order and he started a commission business that brought in $25,000 a pop. It generated $1 million year for him before he died of medical malfeasance in 1987 at 58.
Burns’ project is a model of restraint that ties in with Warhol’s own timidity. Commentary and historical footage weave together with a gentle ease; Jeff Koons reads Warhol quotes as a parent would read a bedtime story. Laurie Anderson’s narration is acutely minimalist.
While the presence of dealer Irving Blum, Paul Morrissey and George Plimpton provides some insight into the day and age, one misses the voices of Lou Reed and John Cale, Rauschenberg or the critics who pegged the soup cans a vulgar joke. There’s little sense of what Warhol had to overcome in the art establishment — or how he helped create a new art establishment — or of the state of mind of individuals who rode a Warhol wave through the ’60s.
Brian Keane’s various underscores are knockoffs of the music that filled Warhol’s life. He nicks Euro folk, some neoclassical, a bit of Velvet Underground droning and even some Rolling Stones-ish grit. Keane’s efforts are used a bit too much, pushing past cleverness in a number of cases.
Film Forum is screening “Warhol” for free for the next two weeks, beginning today. It will air on PBS as part of “American Masters” on Sept. 20 and 21.