Earlier this year, Peter Rosen's lively documentary Who Gets To Call It Art? framed the transition from abstract expressionism to pop minimalism through the life and work of former New York Metropolitan Museum Of Art curator Henry Geldzahler, and though Rosen told a compelling story, it felt incomplete. Ric Burns' four-hour Andy Warhol documentary covers the era more exhaustively, but again, the field of vision seems narrow. Warhol is arguably the most important artist of the 20th century, but in the end, he's just one man.
Born working-class and reared on the craftsmanship and deadline pressure of the commercial art world, Warhol was ideally suited to the '60s. His early attempts at painting the mundane were bluntly derivative of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but Warhol's sheer work ethic allowed him to rapidly outpace his peers. From the time he painted his first Campbell's Soup can in 1962 until he was shot by radical feminist Valerie Solanas in 1968, Warhol created art at a fever pitch, jumping from painting to silkscreen to sculpture to film, gradually shifting from making fame his subject to making his subjects famous. Along the way, he became less puckish and more aloof, eventually turning his whole personality into a performance piece. Warhol conceptualized an entire decade as it was happening, and Andy Warhol catches the inexorability of a career that began with painstaking sketches for fashion magazines and later became all about crudely reproduced images that revealed meaning in each imperfection.
But Burns takes a dogged, un-Warholian approach to this material, lining up interviews, still photos, and omniscient narration, and not stopping until the subject is wrung dry. In some ways, the Burns approach (shared by Ric's brother Ken) is appealingly classical, but the end product feels like an extended introduction to a story no one gets around to telling. In Andy Warhol, Burns does well to get critics like the incomparable Dave Hickey to describe how Warhol "moved to the edge, declared it the center, and made the rest of the world reorganize," but by ending the film just after the Solanas shooting, Burns misses the sometimes-destructive wake of the Warhol comet, and how and why his aesthetic changed from "here's an image everyone can share" to "here's a happening that most of you missed."
Key features: None on the disc, though PBS.org features deleted scenes and an interactive Warhol timeline.