Ric Burns’s four-hour documentary on Andy Warhol’s career, which aired on PBS’s American Masters Series and is now showing at New York’s Film Forum, opens with a priceless piece of footage. Andy, in sunglasses, is being interviewed in front of a few of his Brillo boxes by an earnest someone, while an insider in a business suit looks on, smirking.
“Andy,” she asks, “the Canadian government spokesman said that your art could not be described as original sculpture. Would you agree with that?” Warhol answers, “Yes.” “Why do you agree?” “Well, because it’s not original.” “You have just then copied a common item?” “Yes.” The interviewer gets exasperated. “Why have you bothered to do that? Why not create something new?” “Because it’s easier to do.” “Well, isn’t this sort of a joke then that you’re playing on the public?” “No. It gives me something to do.”
This riotous exchange must have taken place about a year after Warhol’s celebrated–but commercially not so successful–exhibition of what the film’s narrative calls “grocery boxes” at Manhattan’s Stable Gallery in April 1964. A Toronto dealer had attempted to import eighty of the boxes, each valued at $250. Canadian customs insisted that they were not original art but “merchandise,” and demanded 20 percent of their value as duty. The director of the National Gallery of Canada, consulted as an expert, examined some photographs of the boxes and said that he could see that they were not sculptures. At this point, I wished the film had dwelt on the historical importance of the “grocery box” show. There should have been someone to say that with these works, a new era of art had begun. That these works were blazingly original art in a new sense of the expression. That they raised the deep philosophical issue of what the difference was between art and reality when there was no perceptual difference.
Instead, the film segues into an uncharacteristically soupy verbal portrait of Andy Warhol as “the most American of artists and the most artistic of Americans”–praise ascribed to the flinty Las Vegas-based art critic Dave Hickey–while images of Warhol by Warhol slide by sideways on the screen and a screamingly monotonous background score goes loo loo, loo loo, loo loo, loo loo. It is a studied insult to speak of Warhol, the deepest philosophical artist of modern times, as “artistic.” He was “artistic” when he made shoe advertisements for I. Miller, or the effete books of pretty drawings of pussycats, butterflies and cupids for the gift shop crowd, using the broken line and luminous colors that had made him one of the most successful commercial artists in New York in the 1950s. He was artistic when he was called Andy Candy. But when he enlarged black and white images from cheap advertisements, or painted uninflected pictures of all the flavors of Campbell’s soup, or created 300 (or 400?) grocery boxes–art of a kind that had never been seen or thought of before–he was not being artistic. Nor was he especially American, except that he favored hot dogs, Coca-Cola and canned soup, and believed in hard work (even if it required amphetamines in the form of diet pills). He, more than Jackson Pollock, had “broken the ice.” He remade the world, as Hickey later redeems himself by saying. Nothing is served by calling him a genius as everyone in the film mechanically does. The point is to explain what kind of genius he was.