Fifteen Long Minutes

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The New York Sun

‘If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”

This is, arguably, the least true statement Andy Warhol ever made. We will probably never know all about the man or his contradictory depths, but that is not the fault of “Andy Warhol,” the new four-hour documentary in PBS’s American Masters series. Directed by Rick Burns and co-written with James Sanders (the same team that brought us “New York”), this excellent film, which begins a two-week engagement at Film Forum tonight, nevertheless promises to be Mr. Burns’s most contentious.

Few will disagree, however, that his is a thorough, engaging, and thoughtful production. Happily, almost no celebrities appear: You won’t see Dennis Hopper or “Love Boat” extras rattling on about their experiences with the bewigged one. Instead you will find a clutch of critics, friends, and others integral to Warhol’s life telling his story and, somewhat surprisingly, making a long, impassioned case for his work.

Warhol, says the writer Stephen Koch, had no gift for narrative, though his life reads like a novel. Born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh to a working-class immigrant family, he managed, by the time of his death in 1987 at age 58, to become America’s most famous artist, one whose impact is, by now, diffused throughout our culture. That said, the name Warhol seems to enrage almost as often as it inspires.

This divisiveness is summed up by the professor and writer Wayne Koestenbaum, who praises Warhol in the film for showing that “you can be a nonartist who is the world’s greatest artist. And that’s why he’s controversial, he is a nonartist. He is not an artist, in a funny way, and he is the world’s greatest artist.”

Substitute “greatest faker” for “greatest artist” and you pretty much have the argument on both sides.

Each, it seems to me, is equally silly. Warhol was most certainly an artist: Between 1961, when he revolutionized modern printmaking and helped instigate Pop Art, and 1964, when he first showed his Brillo boxes, he made significant contributions to two-dimensional art and to sculpture. In the later 1960s, he became, among other things, an important avant-garde filmmaker. He was neither a fraud nor a fool. Indeed, while people like the art critic Dave Hickey and the curator Donna De Salvo offer informative and admirably persuasive assessments of Warhol’s work, the most brilliant statements come from Warhol himself (spoken, somewhat eerily, by the artist Jeff Koons, one of Warhol’s most visible descendants). Still, to say he is the world’s greatest artist or to claim he proved anyone can be an artist seems no less false than calling him a fraud.

Of course, the hyperbole stems from what was certainly his most forceful creation: Andy Warhol. That persona, which propelled the talented artist into superstardom, is without a doubt the engine that drives all the extravagant claims, both pro and con. Was he the impresario of cool, the genius philosopher of surfaces? Or was he the sultan of shallowness, the cynical manipulator who replaced high art with commodified, celebrity culture? To its credit, Mr. Burns’s film is quite serious in its attempt to demonstrate the former, while remaining judicious about the man — his unfortunate behavior does take a brief tanning.

Mr. Burns is somewhat less judicious about the work. That Warhol was, at various times, both a genuine talent and a bit of a cynic is hinted at by the film’s pacing: It covers the last 18 years of his life, a period during which Warhol indulged too often in what even Mr. Koch calls “self-imitation,” in a mere 20 minutes.

As for the work, the ultimate determination of Warhol’s place in the hierarchy of art will not be made by Ms. De Salvo or Messrs. Hickey and Koch — people old enough to have been dazzled by Warhol’s live magic and his impact on his time. It will come from a generation that knows of Brillo only through Warhol, that grew up eating Progresso rather than Campbell’s Soup, one that knows Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, and Jacqueline Kennedy and, for that matter, Andy Warhol, as history rather than visceral elements of their own experience.

There is another sense in which this film is likely to ignite the fuse of controversy, and it is illustrated by a fascinating anecdote. Warhol had two solo shows of fine art during the 1950s — one in 1952, another in 1956. Not a single work sold. In 1962, the dealer Irving Blum gave him what is thought of as Warhol’s first mature show, an exhibition of the 32 Campbell’s Soup can paintings. Blum bought out the entire set for $1,000. About 35 years later, he sold the set to the Museum of Modern Art for $15 million; he estimates that today they would go for about $100 million.

Warhol didn’t just like money and paint money; in the art world his name means money.The fact that a collector, Peter Brant, and an art dealer, Larry Gagosian — both of whom buy and sell Warhols — served as executive producers of this film is sure to spike the barometer of skepticism. They asked for it. One might ask: Can a PBS documentary really affect the already ultra-high market for Warhols? Doubtful. But if it could, it would have Warhol applauding in his grave.

Through September 14 (209 W. Houston St., between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, 212-727-8110).

The New York Sun

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