Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (American Masters)
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Winner of the Peabody Award! No artist in the second half of the 20th century was more famous, or misunderstood, than Andy Warhol. This film explores his astonishing output from the late 1940s to his death in 1987. Obsessed with the desire to transcend his origins, Warhol grasped the realities of modern society and became the high priest of one of the most radical experiments in American culture, penetrating the barrier between art and commerce.
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Having watched this excellent film, I feel a greatly enriched appreciation for Warhol's art---a sense of what it said, how it worked, and how it became a cliche. (I was particularly ill-informed about Warhol's films, which were discussed in great detail.)
The Factory--where Warhol worked (but seldom played) and where transvestites, drifters, and creative spirits intermingled--is featured in healthy portions. This locale comes across as one of those rare places in history where the geist of a era is spatially concentrated. Here, in this one extraordinary place of production, Warhol and others fomented art and a vision of a post-Fordist world. This film is essential viewing (like the Weather Underground or Berkeley in the Sixties) for those who want to ingest and comprehend the paradigm shift of the "1960s."
Warhol's cruel indifference to the self-destruction of those around him is critically revealed. While some in the Factory drank and drugged themselves to death, Warhol passively watches, always remaining cool, detached, and voyeuristic.
The attempted homicide on Warhol, his commercialism, and his later years are all mentioned. I would fault the film for not showing Warhol speak on film more often, for not really considering his cooptation by capitalism, and for skipping over his influence in art and in popular society.
I must admit though, that the film is brilliantly executed, and well worth your time and nickel.
This documentary seems to focus mostly on the silver factory years, which lasted only from the early 60s to 1968, yet takes up most of the 4 hours of this film. Granted, those were arguably some of the most influential and important years of his career, but I wish this film contained more on his later life. The last 2 decades of his career, the 70s and 80s, took up only the last 20 minutes (credits included) of the whole 4 hours, which is only a brief summary. This is the only reason I decked one star off my rating, as the 70s and 80s are my personal favorite times in his career. There's always The Andy Warhol Diaries for that area though, which I would also recommend.
So, overall, I would recommend this to anyone interested in Andy, and to those who are already fans. Even though it's lacking in it's coverage of his later career, it excels in every other aspect, and I'm glad I got to see it.
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.
I think PBS did a great job of covering some issues which motivated Andy, specifically his initial rejections from colleagues and potential lovers were hurtful to comprehend. This collection doesn't go too much into Andy's relationship with his mother, unfortunately. The second part focuses on Andy's transformation from the advertising world onto the pop "scene" as a leader of his Silver Factory... Finally tying things up with the event of his being shot by a delusional groupie, who felt he had too much control over her life. That also is very emotional to sit through. Well it seems Valerie Solanas gave Andy a good cooling-off? I did not perceive him to be calloused, or someone who used people; but apparently he had that reputation. One thing for certain: he became a nicer person.
I am not giving this documentary 5 stars because of the horrid narration. The narrator was obviously pressed to cover too much information in too short of time. As a result, her voice sounds hyper-vigilant, taking away from the spirit of this film. The director would have done better to use a someone with a softer tone, and more music back-up from the era.
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