I must admit that before seeing this documentary, I was never really interested in Andy Warhol or his art, but like many of these 'American Master' series of docs from PBS, I'm surprised to discover just how important Warhol was to art history particularly and American culture in general. Until seeing this film, Warhol's art never seemed that revolutionary to me. Maybe it's because I grew up in a post-pop world awash with a healthy diet of mass commercialism on a daily basis, so I never gave his art much thought. This documentary helped me to see how radical his ideas were within the context of American culture of the early sixties and how Pop art would change how we look at art in the same way that Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades had changed aesthetic theory decades earlier.
The documentary starts with this basic premise as an introduction, that Warhol's art was profoundly influential to American culture, even going so far as to suggest that Andy was one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. This bold statement sets the stage for this four hour documentary presented in two episodes, where Warhol's life is shown in a very linear manner, bouncing back and forth between the man and his times. Born into a family of poor east-European immigrants in Pittsburg, Warhol's childhood is presented quickly but efficiently; detailing his peculiar behavior, his mother's intense devotion following his father's death, and Warhol's fascination with east-orthodox icon paintings of saints and photos of movie stars. Soon his education in commercial art leads him to New York where he quickly gets work illustrating images for popular magazines. Unfortunately for Andy, commercial art was (and still is) looked down upon by the 'established' art world, in this particular case it's the expressionistic drip paintings by Jackson Pollock and the color field abstract art of Marc Rothko. If there is one complaint I have about this documentary, it would be that the film quickly passes over this part of the story by only briefly addressing Abstract Expressionism itself and rarely mentions other Pop-artists. However I recognize that the film does make the point that Warhol's art was the complete antithesis to Abstract Expressionism and thus it seems appropriate not to dwell to much on competing theories of art.
The second half of part one also establishes a good sense of drama by showing how difficult it was for Andy to become accepted as a serious artist. Warhol's assembly line techniques borrowed from his commercial art background are now legendary, but in the early sixties his ideas were unpopular to the established art world. Familiar media images taken from magazines advertisements and packaging design were seen as low brow and common, not as serious art. This all changed with the famous Campbell soup can paintings that launched Warhol's fame, presented here with slow pans across the actual paintings while also showing photos taken in Warhol's studio and the galleries where the painting were first shown. All this helps to underscore the importance of how Warhol's art challenged our perception of what art can be. Soon Warhol's attention moved to photo silk-screening film stills of celebrities and 'death and disaster' paintings that all tapped into the masses' insatiable appetite for sex and death. His genius was at choosing the right image at the right time, in this case the film uses the examples of Marilyn Monroe's suicide and JFK's assassination to underscore the cultural response of art imitating life.
By the end of part one, Warhol's art was already changing more toward film production, which is where part two begins. This second half taps into the massive amounts of footage that Warhol shot with the help of assistance from artists and actors at his art studio dubbed 'The Factory'. Here we are introduced to the many odd individuals that orbited around Warhol and his fame; transvestites and drug addicts rubbed shoulders with fashion models and art connoisseurs in a whacky world of mass produced art. His 'Factory' turned commonplace everyday objects into works of art first using rubber stamps and silk-screening that ultimately had its logical conclusions in the mass-media reproductions of films.
At times, part two does start to bog down somewhat with seemingly endless shots of groovin' beatniks trying to be hip and very tired looking drag queens. But this is more of a criticism of Warhol's subject matter than the documentary itself, since this second half always manages to redeem itself with insightful interviews from the surviving factory personnel and cultural reflections from such commentators as George Plimpton. The real drama arises from Warhol's exploitation his workforce for his own personal gain, for better and for worse. This is perfectly illustrated in the film by the tragic story of Eddie Sedgwick, a beautiful heiress that became one of Warhol's main stars before she descended into drug addiction and ultimately death. In some of the best of Warhol's underground films, we the audience are compelled to share Andy's voyeuristic thrill of watching Eddie's youth and beauty captured on film. This part of the documentary works best when it dwells on the ethical issues of artistic exploitation and digs deep into the darker side of Andy and his world, a side that ultimately comes to a dramatic climax when Warhol is shot by an insane prostitute.
The film on this DVD is presented in widescreen format, enhanced for 16x9 televisions.
The excellent direction by Ric Burns is well paced and carefully constructed to focus both on the artist and his world. In addition, two artists that were very much influenced by Warhol themselves lend their voice talents to the doc; with Laurie Anderson providing the narration and Jeff Koons as the voice of Andy Warhol. The best part about this documentary is how you don't need to like Warhol's art to enjoy this film. Warhol's art is presented as a reaction to society itself and the emotionless repetition of mass media images, destroying the myth of the modern artist as a heroic individual struggling to express his pain in paint. Ultimately, the film becomes just as much a reflection of our consumer culture as it is about our obsession with car crashes and dead celebrities.