Volume 19 • Issue 15 | August 25 - 31, 2006


Through September 14 at Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
and on PBS September 20 and 21, 9 p.m.

Photo by Gretchen Berg

Andy Warhol’s life, re-committed to memory, in Ric Burns’s exhaustive, informative re-examination of his life.

Handy Andy: Fame was the spur


The poet tells us:

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin …
— and so was, so did, Andy Warhol.
Grishkin is nice: her
Russian eye is underlined for emphasis …
Andy lined Marilyn’s eyelids in baby blue, her lips in vivid tangerine, over and over and over and over again, one MM after another after another after another after another — in serial permutation — for emphasis.

The question is: Will the misfit from Pittsburgh who came out with the news that everyone is famous for 15 minutes outlive, in fame, the misfit from St. Louis whose poems are signed T.S. Eliot?

Maybe not.

What does jump out at the onlooker (this one) early on in Ric Burns’s four-hour “Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film” that opens Friday, September 1, for two weeks at Film Forum on Houston Street and will be televised at 9 p.m. on September 20 and 21 in the PBS “American Masters” series, is how Handy Andy instantly seized on the death of somebody famous (MM, JFK) to make art out of that somebody, or someone (Mrs. JFK) close to that somebody.

Near the middle of the documentary’s four hours there is even a shot of Andy himself standing beside an enormous black-and-white rendering of a skull, and those who have followed his career do not easily forget the reality-shock array of “Death and Disaster” news photos of automobile accidents he made after the death of his mother in 1972. 

Even when he turned his silk screens over to somebody famous and alive — Elizabeth Taylor, for instance — it was, he said (or this movie tells us he said), “to rescue her from the garbage can” because “Liz is lost.”

It may be a libel that when the dancer Fred Herko danced out of a Cornelia Street window to his death in 1964, Warhol said: “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to shoot it,” but somehow I believe he did say it, and not in jest. Warhol was not the jesting type.

And we all know — or we all should know — what happened to more than one of the Andy Warhol Superstars when the glitter and the glory wore off, but most particularly to the most Super of all, the heartbreakingly beautiful and screwed-up Edie Sedgwick, who went into the garbage can and died at 28 without Andy (as more than one person remarks in the Burns film) lifting a finger to save her. Andy primarily existed, as we are reminded by another disenchanted acolyte, “to make the world safe for Andy.”

Edie Sedgwick and Julia Warhola, mother of Andy Warhol, are sort of the two opposite poles of this examination of his life and times.  (Warhola became Warhol when a negligent typesetter left off the final “a” from the credit line for the first drawing 21-year-old Andy, just arrived in New York in 1949, sold to Glamour magazine — where he’d landed a job — to illustrate an article titled “Success is a job in New York City.”)

One can’t help sort of falling in love with Julia Warhola, the “strong-willed, idiosyncratic,” tight-faced, churchgoing, God-fearing working-class Polish-American woman who cleaned houses for $1 a day and saved tinfoil to sell to neighbors when Andy was growing up on the wrong side of the tracks during the Depression. (His father died when Andy was just short of 14.)

The woman who also refused all her life to face up to the basics of an “excruciatingly shy” son who, when the other kids were out playing baseball, would sit at home drawing butterflies and flowers. A child whose rheumatic fever paved the way for what is called St. Vitus Dance, a tremor of the nerves of hands and arms and body that made schoolboy Andy the object of “gales of laughter” whenever he had to go to the blackboard. A youth prey to — in the words of George Plimpton — “13 nervous breakdowns in his first 13 years.”

No wonder the numbed-out features, the poker face, the toneless uninflected voice, the keep-the-world-out dark shades, the ever more grotesque wigs throughout later life.

And which of us, finally, could not in some small measure love the woman who, having moved to New York to live with Andy in his East 75th Street townhouse “until he can find a nice girl of his own,” did an album cover for the street singer Moondog, and signed it “Andy Warhol’s mother”?

Where did it come from, then, this enormous fecund tide of drawings, paintings, silk screens, photographs, Brillo boxes, Coke bottles, Campbell’s Soup cans, dollar bills, Marilyns, Jackies, Liz’s, Marlons, Mineos, Donahues, Warren Beatties, Mona Lisas (ah there, Marcel Duchamp!), Vivas, Ondines, Candy Darlings, “Kiss,” “Sleep,” “Blow Job,” “Empire State,” “Chelsea Girls,” several dozen other films (or anti-films), from 1949, when he’d hit New York, to the February 22, 1987 — Washington’s Birthday — when, having for almost 19 years painfully survived the ravaging effects of the third of the three pistol shots of Valerie Solanis, Andy Warhol died, at 58, of a “medical accident,” at New York Hospital?

First, manifestly, unarguably, it came from talent — a clearcut, uncomplicated commercial talent for drawing, right off the top, if nothing else. It is art curator Donna De Salvo who in the documentary underscores how Andy in the bare lines of, say, a Coke bottle, eliminated brushwork, shading, shadows, all those messy encroachments to produce “very radical, in-your-face” paintings “that were essentially non-paintings.”

Second, I should say, was a keen, never-fogging eye on the main chance. By God I’m going to be famous, for as many multiples of 15 minutes as I can make it. Hundreds and thousands of 15 minutes. Andy Warhol, the Jay Gatsby of modern art, collecting around him, like a magnet, without really trying, “all those working-class drag queens” — lost souls who thought “if this poor, scared, shy, miserable, talented guy can make himself into the most famous person in the world, maybe I can do it too.”.

Third driving force, as several of the people who speak in this movie see it: simple envy. (Andy’s big secret:  be simple in everything.) In the field of art there was not only Picasso bestride the world like a Colossus, but, coming up fast on the inside track, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Frank Stella & Co., the nuts-and-bolts murderers of Abstractionism. If they can do it …

In the literary world there was Truman Capote, who, in that famous book-jacket photo on the chaise longue, looked like Andy Warhol wanted to look. The young Andy not only besieged Capote with fan letters and telephone calls, he began, we are told, to stalk him. It is again (the late) George Plimpton, a cut more wry, dry, and detached than most of the talking heads in these four hours, who remembers how Capote considered the 1950s Warhol “just a window-dresser, a hopeless born loser.”

That “window-dresser” — Plimpton calls him “a voyeur” — had at 25 had his “first tentative sexual encounter” with a picture clerk in the New York Public Library. He would be coming back with a boyfriend to The Factory at 37 Union Square North when, on the night of June 3, 1968, SCUM-sister Valerie Solanis, who’d intended to shoot her publisher Maurice Gerodias, but he wasn’t in, was waiting upstairs for Andy — who, she’d finally realized, was never going to make her movie, much less read it.

A four-hour documentary does need talking heads as support pillars. Those here range from the sourly objective Ronald Tavel, screenwriter of many of Andy’s films, to the worshipful, true-believing dealer/collector Irving Blum, to the modest, no-nonsense John Warhola, Andy’s brother. Central to everything is Warhol’s onetime chief-cook-and-bottle- washer Billy Name, long of beard and forehead now as then, except the black beard is now straggly grey-white. Another prime source is Paul Morrisey, Warhol’s onetime manager and filmmaker.

(Blum has one fairly good incidental reason for his enthusiasm. The 32 different Campbell Soups by Warhol he bought for a total of $1,000 in the 1960s he has since sold, if my ears didn’t deceive me, for $15,000,000.)

Each and all of the heads contribute intelligent nuggets, but when the sub-screen I.D.’s peter out, one’s memory of who said what also peters out. My estimate is that a good third of these talkers put the advent of Andy Warhol somewhere (as he would have loved) on a par — well, somewhere on a scale — with the advent of Jesus Christ. “Picasso owns the first half of the 20th century,” says one magpie, “and Andy owns the second half.” Uh-huh.

Does “Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film” teach us anything new?  Not really. What it does, and does well, if a little exhaustively, is recapitulate. And it also brought back to (my) forgotten memory two samples of Warhol’s silent, waspy sense of humor. One, when he sent a bewigged Andy Warhol doppelganger out to a speaking engagement in Wisconsin, and two, when, for a mural at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he proposed a wall of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted thugs; and when that was indignantly turned down, offered to put in its place a giant portrait of World’s Fair ringmaster Robert Moses.

Shrewdly enough, Burns opens and closes his film with Soho gallery pioneer Ivan C. Karp, one of the heralds of latter-day American art, asking Andy Warhol why this endless repetition. “Why not something new?” To which Warhol responds flatly, tonelessly: “Because it’s easier to do.”

Exactly. You can breathe out now, Thomas Stearns Eliot.


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