Thursday, September 07, 2006

Andy Warhol, Silver Screen

It would be easy to complain that Ric Burns’ new Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film has nothing new to say about the pop artist and his life. Warhol’s story has been well documented in dozens of books and films like Steven Watson’s Factory Made and Chuck Workman’s Superstar, both relatively recent and comprehensive accounts. Add to this a handful of additional biographies, a mountain of coffee-table books and even a healthy number of specialized monographs on everything from his Warhol’s interest in the fashion industry to his playful adoption of a drag persona for a series of portraits. But Burns, best known for sober PBS historical documentaries in the style of his brother Ken (he made The West and New York) has a luxury that other Warhol documentarians have lacked: time. With four hours to fill (the film will be shown on PBS over two nights this month as part of the dependable “American Masters” series) and the additional advantage of having the full support of the Andy Warhol Foundation, it’s as close to an authoritative view of the artist as we’ll ever get.
The story is, again, already a familiar one: frail, sick Andy Warhola grows up in Pittsburgh with an inclination toward daydreaming and a possessive mother who never lost her Old World mannerisms. Gifted with a strong imagination, a skillful drawing style and an obsession with celebrity, he attends art school, moves to New York, becomes one of the most successful commercial artists of the fifties, struggles with homosexuality and develops a strong urge to break into the “serious” art world. Emotionally aloof and receptive, even eager, to have other people do his creative thinking for him, Warhol’s breakthrough came after the first pop artists began to rebel against the dominant force of abstract expressionism by bringing familiar pictorial content into painting. Warhol’s brilliant decision to mask any sign of his participation, to make paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans which looked exactly like the real thing, pushed pop art into a new area; stripped of Duchampian irony, Warhol’s paintings were a new kind of object, banal and simple and yet an amazingly powerful call to arms in term of how art could put a claim on the increasingly dominant images of advertising and packaging. The rest, - the factory, Edie, the films, the ’68 shooting, - as they say, was history.
One of the most notable things that distinguishes Burns’ film from other versions of Warhol’s life is that the talking heads are, for the most part, art historians and biographers; of the people who actually worked wih Warhol, only Billy Nimich (better known as Billy Name, the man who gave the Factory its silver coating) and writer Ronald Tavel have a significant presence. (Stephen Koch, whose “Stargazer” was one of the earliest and best books on Warhol, knew him but appears here solely in his role as critic/historian). Where are Viva, Gerard Malanga, Holly Woodlawn, Lou Reed, John Cale or rival artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns – to name just a few? Burns’ intention, as he states in the interview cited below, and as one might expect for a film sponsored by the Warhol foundation, is to establish Warhol’s reputation as an artist. But thanks to the Foundation’s official collaboration, Burns’ film passes other Warhol documentaries by providing more examples of Warhol’s work – especially his early commercial efforts-, excerpts from the films and rare footage showing how he actually prepared his paintings. The Factory scene may have lost some of its wildness, but makes up for it in its intimate glimpse of Warhol in the act of creation.
Oddly, and despite the extended length (which some will certainly feel is more than enough time), the film more or less climaxes with Warhol's near death in '68. The rest - nearly two decades - is collapsed into less than 20 minutes. It's an odd narrative choice to make, yet also a significant sign of how strongly Burns wishes to make the case for Warhol's 60s paintings. If Warhol is truly an "American Master", this film argues that the creation of the Pop Art movement and the shock of those initial silkscreen canvases - the soup cans, the movie stars - were his masterpieces
Even if we already know Warhol’s story, Burns’ film scrapes away the gossip and the myth-making and the name-dropping and adds a sense of history. It’s the story of a pale, awkward man with a vision – tempered by a perverse sense of humor and increasingly obvious homoerotic obsessions – who drew on his middle-class background and the pop-culture dynamics of the mid-20th century to change the way anyone has thought about art and design and the simple act of seeing our groceries-and-newsprint-cluttered world ever since.

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