I had the good fortune to meet Andy Warhol three separate times in the early and mid 1980's. Once at Studio 54, once at Leo Castelli Gallery and once at Gagosian Gallery when he showed the large "piss paintings" shortly before his unexpected and tragic death. I own three separate Warhol documentaries and somewhere around a dozen Warhol books. I would consider myself a Warhol aficionado. I have viewed this Warhol documentary at least fifty times. Each and every viewing brings newness; certain lines, images and footage lift off the television screen and demand my attention. It is rich in detail and completeness. And is wholly accurate, which could be it's greatest feature. Now consider that such a high level of accuracy and wholeness goes on for four hours. For Warhol fans, nothing could be better.
The doc starts at his earliest moments and recounts most of the hardship he endured in his poor Pittsburgh-Slavic upbringing. From the early death of his father to the child illness that left him forever pale-skinned with patchy color, Laurie Anderson narrates objectively and evenly as if she were the perfect voice-over to Andy's life. Most of the footage is real, in other words not stock footage inserted to 'illustrate' the script. Equally important, it fits accurately and sequentially in its chronology to the script. I was amazed at the sheer volume of Warhol footage, both moving and still imagery.
Interviews with critics, collectors, artists and dealers enrich the narration. This includes dated and periodic commentary captured during the 60's and 70's and also later interviews that appear to have been filmed specifically for this doc (I haven't seen, for example, the interview with Irving Blum anywhere else). I found Irving Blum's commentary to be the most enlightening and insightful of all the guest commentators. Which is quite fitting as it was Blum who first took a chance on Andy and was the first to promote him. Blum's commentary simply bowls me over in its prophetic and close insight as both friend and art dealer. One quick stat he mentions: Blum purchased the first set of 32 Campbell Soup Can paintings in 1962 for $1000. In 2004 he sold the very same set to the Museum of Modern Art for $15 million and accurately points out that because of its historic significance along with the fact this was a complete and first set, is most likely worth over $100 million today. And he's right. But for Blum, as with many others, including Billy Name, whose commentary was also unique and insightful, the monetary value of a Warhol painting is less interesting than the importance of the man.
Warhol, it could be argued, had the most amazing life a human being could have in the 20th century. Only Picasso can rival the magnificence of Andy's life. This is quite symbolic because, to me, we can divide the 20th century in half and say that Picasso owned the first half, while Warhol owned the second. And like Picasso, who the great sculptor Alberto Giacometti once said, "an artist must either go through Picasso or around him" we can say the same of Warhol. You either go around him or you must go through him. He's that important. More important than the abstract expressionists, more important than pop artists who enjoyed critical acclaim well before Warhol, like Johns and Rauschenberg. It was Warhol who married the photographic process to painting in such a direct and simple manner. Once he did, his output was astonishing. The content of his work, combined with its presentation, created a kind of philosophy, which is mentioned in the narration and also by interviewees.
Pivotal moments in his life, both tragic and wonderful, are discussed. Like his shooting, and near-death, by the disturbed Valerie Solanas and the enormous divide it caused in both his art and lifestyle. Like his return to painting and his trip to China in the early 70's. And his eventual death caused by the negligence and malpractice of staff at NYU Medical Center. If I have one criticism of this excellent documentary, it would be a shortchanged feeling regarding his last years from 1985 to 1987. He produced an astonishing number of works, even collaborated with Jean Michael Basquiat in a 1985 show at Castelli (where I met him for the second time). He seemed to be on the verge of significant new bodies of work some of which included The Last Supper series, the Camouflage paintings, the large self-portraits and the delightful small black-and-white 60's advertisements from newspapers and magazines ("Beatle boots" and "Repent for Your Sins" come to mind). My other criticism is the "voice" of Andy Warhol, which was performed by Jeff Koons. It was nothing like Andy's voice first of all, and secondly it suggests a certain connectivity, as if Koons is our contemporary Warhol. Not. Koons is a mere shadow of Andy and in my opinion a complete and total fraud. I resent such implication.
There is one scene I will always enjoy: a very stuffy and serious art critic is interviewing Andy circa 1963. Behind him are the large Elvis silkscreens (his second show with Blum's Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles). He sits there with sunglasses on, though he's inside. The critic prods him to be forthright and 'talk serious' about his work. But Andy is aloof and in typical form, deliberately disengaged. As the interview progresses Andy insists he doesn't know the answer to the questions and asks that the critic say both the question and the answer to the question. The indignant critic is stunned as Warhol gradually begins to repeat each word and sentence, like children sometimes do to taunt. It was metaphoric for the man who was American society's greatest mirror. He was at once mocking this erudite critic and displaying his vacuous and profound perspective. That, it would come to pass, was the legacy & paradigm of Andy Warhol: his paintings were at once vacuous and deeply profound; simple yet complicated.
If you watch this documentary you will walk away, four hours later, a changed person. Even if you know his story. Even if you know his work. There is so much here I daresay even an expert will learn something. This is required viewing for any art student, hell, any artist. This is mandatory for all Warhol fans. And for those who hate him (yes such individuals indeed exist) it is even more mandatory.