Ric Burns

Andy Warhol—A documentary film

Two among the many iconic moments in Ric Burns’ ‘Andy Warhol—A Documentary Film’ stand out. In the first, with a none-too ironised pose of fawning adoration Viva expounds upon Andy’s ‘touch of divinity’, to which the artist mumbles, ‘fudge’. And in the second, a mix of psychedelic and stroboscopic light-effects play over the decade’s first Happening at St. Mark’s Dom on April 8, 1966, to music by Lou Reed and John Cale while roving Factory habitués inject dancers with amphetamines, the lot masterminded by Andy in the projection booth, a shadow in a silver wig.

Andy, the cool democratizer of art, and Andy, the arch manipulator whose court, in Gerard Malanga’s view, resembled Hitler’s: for four hours Burns pads that shadow with biographical flesh in an often gorgeous meld of Factory, archival, and news footage, interspersed with extended shots of Warhol’s paintings and numerous scenes from his films. The outline has been given before: the immigrant childhood in Pennsylvania, successful career as a commercial illustrator in fifties’ New York, the reinvention of art in the early sixties, filmmaking at the Factory, attempted assassination and its aftermath. But as Burns tells it, the tale is a slide into darkness, arrested only by Warhol’s surviving Valeries Solanas’s attempted assassination, after which he lived something of a half-life on borrowed time from God.

Burns gives Warhol’s affectless remove serious consideration. The distancing and fear of touch are accounted for as after-effects of a childhood bout of St. Vitus dance; similarly the Warholian stare, in particular its attention to the everyday, is presented as the result of enforced periods of childhood bedrest. Burns’ treatment is indebted to Wayne Koestenbaum’s excellent study of Warhol in the Penguin Lives series (2001) and Koestenbaum features among the film’s roster of talking heads, but the paradox here is never noted. Warhol, the artist who spurned personality and embraced superficiality, who said, famously, to look to the surface of his paintings to find the meaning of what he did, is given a biopic treatment. In an interview with indieWIRE, Burns explained his approach, saying he wanted the film ‘to challenge that superficially anti-narrative quality’ of Warhol’s work, and ‘re-insert the images Warhol created…into narrative—into history. We wanted to find the story and the time element out of which he emerged’.

One of the consequences of the biographical approach is an overly long deliberation on Warhol’s ‘personality’, specifically his responsibility toward various Factory waifs and wastrels. This dissolves into the trite observation that Warhol was, perhaps, ‘not a nice person’. At the same time, the biographical project fails to adequately explain Warhol’s much-noted cool remove in the early sixties, or the dynamics of his half-life post-shooting. Burns gets the events of Warhol’s life but not enough of their connective tissue.

Biography also fails utterly to account for Warhol’s significance or his controversy. For Burns, Warhol’s possible malfeasance extends only to the personal realm in his failure to care. Other critics see it differently. Hilton Kramer called Warhol a ‘cheerful nihilist’, Jed Perl recently dubbed him ‘the prophet of the profit motive’, both comments pointing to the realisation that art after Warhol is fundamentally different and, for these critics at least, irredeemably impoverished. (Even an infinitely more complex critic like Benjamin Buchloh approaches Warhol only as an index of decline.) The film airs one petulant, negative comment by New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther; no-one with a contrary view of Warhol appears on-screen. The refusal to acknowledge the challenges Warhol’s work poses for criticism—the status of originality, the determination of intentionality, challenges which all art after Warhol must face—effectively undoes the claim that his work radically revised the concept of art.

The film’s other failure is in its efforts at historical narrative. Cursory news footage of JFK’s 1961 inauguration and violent student riots later in the decade serve as bookends to the sixties, a decade, according to various commentators, which was crystallized in the Factory scene. Dave Hickey starts to mine this territory, but for once, does not go far enough. 1964, the year of Warhol’s move to the Factory was also the year Partisan Review published Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’, a widely noted piece marking the supercession of high culture’s moralistic sensibility by camp’s ironising aestheticism, its ‘dethronement of the serious’. (This defeat of seriousness Sontag later deplored.) Shifts in sensibility of the kind Sontag described are difficult to show on film and juxtaposing a Pollock with a Warhol à la Burns is simply facile.

While the film retreats from the tough questions and effectively buries the work of the seventies and eighties in a too rapid twenty minutes, its generosity towards its subject almost redeems it. It is surprisingly moving. Warhol the man is never fully fleshed out; Warhol the onscreen image is everywhere, and if the latter only partially accounts for the former, what we sense is loss.

Andy Warhol, Empire, 1964. Still from 16mm film, black and white, silent approx 8 hours, 5 mins. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Original film elements gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; preserved by the Department of Film and Media, MoMA, with funding from the Foundation. © 2006 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 

notes: 

Ric Burns ‘Andy Warhol—A Documentary Film’ (2006) 180 mins. With John Warhola, Dave Hickey, Billy Name, Irving Blum, Donna De Salvo, John Richardson, Wayne Koestenbaum, Stephen Koch, George Plimpton, and others. Jeff Koons supplies Andy’s voice; Laurie Anderson narrates.