The general consensus has always been that Warhol’s output can be divided straight down the middle, by Valerie Solanas’ attempt on his life in 1968.
There was all of that frenetic yet incredibly focused energy that he put into an extraordinary variety of work before. And then there was a long and protracted decline as the shock of coming so near to losing his life shattered his confidence and sent him forever into a premature shell.
By the early 60s, the shy, asexual workaholic had established himself as one of the most successful art directors in east coast advertising. When he then launched himself as a full time artist his success was meteoric. And between 1962-8 he was one of the key people responsible for transforming New York into the centre of the world.
First came Pop art. The seeds of which, the film convincingly argues, had been sown in him by the sight of the stained glass windows at his local church. His pious mother had taken her sickly child there every weekend and he’d gaze up at them for hours on end.
That was followed by the now famous and genuinely iconic silk-screen portraits. The Marylins, Elvises and the Jackie Os. But there were also the avant garde films, the happenings and the music. All of which culminated with the Velvet Underground and the four seminal albums they produced.
It seemed like the entire artistic universe was centred around Warhol’s whirlwind and increasingly infamous Factory on East 47th Street.
But, the film points out, Warhol had acquired his nickname Drella for a reason. A combination of Cinderella and Dracula, it cleverly suggested an ingénue who sits innocently watching. But one that’s secretly and silently sucking all the blood from all who come into contact with him.
The drag queens, pimp, pushers and assorted wannabes that Warhol was openly encouraging to gather there and hang out might have been fantastic fodder for his art, music and film. But he was demonstrably using them. And there were few of any of them producing anything of worth. The Velvets were the exception not the rule.
Promising so many lost souls the earth was always going to cost him, eventually. And when Solinas shot him for not carrying her with him up into the heavens, there was a sense of inevitability rather than surprise about it.
Ric Burns is the younger brother of Ken, and the pair made the seminal The Civil War in 1990, which was followed up by Jazz in 2001. They’ve carved out a reputation for austere if slightly conservative, old school documentaries. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As this fine 4 hour plus film demonstrates.
And although it does sail dangerously close to hagiography, as the NY Times suggests in its superb piece here, Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film nonetheless makes a very convincing case for its claim that he was the most important artist in the latter half of the 20th century. Keep your eye out for it.
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