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.
Later, in the second part of his film, Burns again shows the dialogue that serves his film as prologue. He does so this time after we have seen some footage of the opening at the Stable Gallery. We’re told that Warhol was “deeply wounded” by his show’s reception. Yet again, we have a portrait of the “misunderstood artist,” ahead of his time, when in truth he created the time. It is a piece of soap opera disguised as documentary truth. To be sure, people were baffled and uncertain about the grocery boxes. To this day, specialists are trying to figure out how they are art and what they were about. Warhol certainly wasn’t used to selling much. His show of Campbell’s soup cans “sold out” only because the gallerist, Irving Blum, bought the entire series for $1,000, which he paid out at $100 a month, the way people did in those days. The later show, also at his gallery, of Elvis and Liz, sold nothing. But shortly after the grocery box show, Warhol was taken on by Leo Castelli’s gallery, which was his dream. That was where his heroes, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns exhibited. It was the place to be if you were a Pop artist. And everyone in the art world was discussing his show.
Warhol had made the transition from a highly paid commercial artist to a poorly paid fine artist (he eventually became a highly paid one, too), but his reputation for greed notwithstanding, what he was really interested in, as the film makes amply clear, was fame. And there he would soon outshine everyone else. There was something about the soup cans and the Brillo boxes that, more than Lichtenstein’s appropriation of Mickey Mouse, more than Jasper Johns’s American flags, certainly more than Oldenburg’s giant hamburgers and slabs of painted pie, flouted what had traditionally been accepted as art. Never mind that something like it had been done fifty years earlier by Marcel Duchamp with his ready-mades. Nobody knew about that at the time. Warhol’s art captured the popular imagination in ways that nothing in the history of modern art had. He made his work out of what everyone knew and had believed was the absolute opposite of art. Exactly what, given his values, could have made Warhol unhappy about that?
The miracle years were 1961-1964, the years in which his astonishing output consisted in the kind of art that could not get through Canadian customs without being taxed, the most original art of its era that looked exactly like nothing but “copies of common items.” It began with Warhol’s first show at Bonwitt Teller in April 1961, which chiefly consisted of those enlarged crude black-and-white images taken from the back pages of blue-collar magazines, advertising remedies for what he agonized over–his awful complexion, his thinning hair, his unprepossessing physique–displayed as background for mannequins dressed in summery frocks. It ended in June 1964, with his monumental eight-hour film Empire, which showed the Empire State Building standing still. Between these extraordinary works came the images of stars; the soup cans; the portrait of Ethel Scull composed of thirty six dime-store photographs, suitably enlarged; the photographic silk-screens of disasters, messily reproduced from the front pages of tabloids; and the home movies in which nothing happens–a man sleeps, or gets a haircut, or eats a banana, or (though it is not evident) receives a blow job. Warhol had an eye for significant banality, and made the “artist’s hand” irrelevant to the making of art. He turned what everyone in the culture was familiar with into art. No one has to be told who Elvis was, or Marilyn, or Liz. No one needs to be told what a grocery box is, or a newspaper photograph. All they have to be told is why any of this is art. The explanation was up to the critics and the philosophers, who are still arguing over why and how.
By mid-1964, the breakthroughs had all taken place. Warhol left behind the small group of advisers who wanted a new kind of art and helped him produce it (the curator Henry Geldzahler, the documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio, the dealer Ivan Karp) and fell into the hands of the transvestites, the speed freaks, the slumming celebrities and the crazies who constituted the edgy population of the Factory–the studio Warhol found on East 47th Street in early 1964, and had lined with silver foil by a certain Billy Linich, aka Billy Name–where he began to make films in which something actually happened. Burns’s film comes to life in this phase, which culminates in the assassination attempt by Valerie Solanas in 1968, after which everything changed. In the final phase Warhol was taken over by a final group of managers (Fred Hughes, Bob Colacello, Vincent Fremont and Paul Morrisey)–educated, entrepreneurial and ambitious men who kept the underground at bay and rationalized Warhol’s artistic production. It was the period of celebrity portraits, print portfolios, what Saul Steinberg once called political still-lifes, like the great “hammer and sickle” pictures of 1977. It was the period when Andy was seen wherever there was glamour.
The narrative sequence, then, is: a childhood of illness and poverty in Pittsburgh; followed by a successful career as a commercial artist in New York (1929-59); the breakthrough period of creative genius, (1961-65); the Silver Factory period of sex, drugs and studio movies, culminating in The Chelsea Girls and the Solanas murder attempt (1964-68); the post-Solanas wind-down (1968-87). Despite Burns’s helpful experts–Dave Hickey, Donna de Salvo, Stephen Koch, Wayne Koestenbaum, John Richardson, Neil Prinz (who is doing the indispensable catalogue raisonné) and others–the segment that deals with the great artistic breakthrough is by far the least satisfactory. That period was really the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” to use Warhol’s name for his famous East Village nightclub–a condensed renaissance in which contemporary art was invented and the history of Western art up to that point definitively ended–and it calls for an equally innovative cinematic format. The rest of Burns’s documentary is fascinating, thanks to all the archival material he’s assembled. I watched it three times and expect to see it again, if only to marvel at the beauty of Edie Sedgwick, the paradigm Superstar who emblematized her era and died, tragically, at 28.