Some company recently was interested in buying my ‘aura,’ ” Andy Warhol once said, as recorded in his 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. “They didn’t want my product. They kept saying, ‘We want your aura.’ I never figured out what they wanted.” Ric Burns’s Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film attempts to illuminate the artist’s alleged dilemma by both chronicling the evolution of Warhol’s public persona and piercing its veil to reveal the conceptual complexities beneath. Burns’s interviewees attest that Warhol could not so easily disentangle his own existence from that of his art, and that his celebrity itself—including such carefully constructed expressions of faux naïveté—should be regarded as one of his greatest creations, as rich with intentional meaning as any example from his multitudinous output of paintings, drawings, sculpture, music, writing, films, and business ventures.
Burns eschews the obvious choice to dip back into the well-dredged pool of Factory-ites and fellow travelers (photographer Billy Name and director Paul Morrissey excepted) and opts instead for an unusually erudite roster of biographers, critics, and curators. Even the big names pressed into service are brainy art stars: Laurie Anderson narrates, and Jeff Koons reads Andy’s voice when needed (a slyly apt bit of casting, since Koons’s entire career could be seen as a vast Warhol quotation, and his own press face is as calculatedly plastic). The result is an intellectual history of Warhol, bucking the trend toward the star-studded VH1-ization of biodocs and constructed with a mission to dispel the artist’s own self-created image as high-fashion hobnobber in favor of a more profound depiction. Burns argues for a cogitating, agitating Warhol: deep thinker, cultural barometer, and world changer.
Andy Warhol‘s strongest stretch comes in the film’s first half, which relates his boyhood among the immigrant Czechoslovakian community in Pittsburgh, his art school experience (would-bes take note: he nearly flunked out), and early years in New York as a commercial illustrator. The middle bits on the classic Factory years veer too close to the standard Warhol story, while Valerie Solanas’s attempted assassination and Warhol’s near-death experience are stretched out to provide a dramatic climax.
Warhol’s ability to perceive mass culture as a malleable substance may have had to do with his multiple alienation from mainstream society, not just as fey homosexual and sickly child, but short-circuited class jumper. “Andy had no idea of bourgeois life,” art critic Dave Hickey postulates, since one minute “he’s in the ghetto” and the next, “he’s hanging out with Liza.” Writer Wayne Koestenbaum argues that this brings a revolutionary edge to Pop, a pre-punk do-it-yourself-ism; as Warhol was both a “great artist” and a “non-artist,” his embrace of easy-does-it technology like silk screening and Polaroids was nothing less than “seizing the means of reproduction.”
Clocking in at close to four hours (longer than Warhol’s own 1966 magnum opus Chelsea Girls), Burns’s supersized portrait could have been expanded into an epic miniseries on the scale of his and brother Ken Burns’s The Civil War or his 1999 public-television eight-parter New York: A Documentary Film. (Andy Warhol will screen on PBS in late September.) After the assassination attempt, Burns skips lightly over the remaining two decades of Warhol’s life in a mere 20 minutes, allowing Koestenbaum and dealer Irving Blum time to provide an interesting critical defense of the oft maligned made-to-order silk-screened high-society portraits Warhol began cashing checks for in the 1970s.
Burns can be heavy-handed, with emotive score, sometimes ponderous narration, and more than a few sweeping quotes on Warhol’s earth-shattering impact. “A supermarket before Andy looked one way, a supermarket after Andy looked another way,” says Hickey. “He literally changed the world.” But for a figure as all-encompassing, such expansiveness seems inevitable. Warhol’s advice to other artists is suitably cited: “Do everything.”