Andy Warhol always had a reputation for shallowness and superficiality; his assembly-line paintings and artless movies were initially received as elaborate put-ons. But in Andy Warhol, director Ric Burns parades a legion of critics, biographers and former acolytes who attribute unexpectedly profound meanings to his deceptive oeuvre. Is this one definition of genius—that an artist’s work seems to grow mysteriously in richness and prescience with the passage of time?
Warhol was born into a working-class Polish family in Pittsburgh in 1928, a shy, sickly boy with a talent for drawing and an obsession with Hollywood glamour. Burns follows him to New York, where he enjoyed success as a commercial illustrator. But it was his paintings of the early 1960s—silk-screened Campbell’s soup cans and colorized Marilyn Monroes, perfectly attuned to the forthcoming cultural revolution—that made him a phenomenon. In the middle part of the decade, Warhol and his entourage redefined painting, sculpture, film, music and celebrity at his Factory workspace-playroom. Warhol’s 1968 near-fatal shooting by a deranged lesbian playwright effectively ended this extraordinary creative confluence. Though Warhol would work prodigiously until his death in 1987, the film dedicates a scant 20 minutes to his later years.
Andy Warhol is purely conventional in approach (it’s bound for PBS later this month; Film Forum is screening it for free), but Burns makes good use of archival footage, including clips from rarely screened Factory films, as well as virtuosic commentary from critics Dave Hickey and Wayne Koestenbaum. A four-hour running time may seem unduly long, but Andy Warhol, like its enigmatic subject, is never boring. (Opens Fri; Film Forum.)—Tom Beer