Mmmm...tomato soup. Judge Mike Pinsky thinks that even a picture of soup tastes better than this lifeless documentary.
"I like boring things."—Andy Warhol
When most people want to rant about what is wrong with "modern art," they can usually name only one person to shoulder the blame. "Oh, that Andy Warhol," they say. "Soup cans are not art!" The truth is, like most important artists of the 20th century, the ones who made us redefine the boundaries of artistic practice, Warhol began with traditions.
Raised a devout Catholic, the son of Czech immigrants living in Pittsburgh, Andy Warhola (the last letter was dropped somewhere along the way) began his art career dabbling in religious themes, then embraced the religion of post-war America: capitalism. His commercial work subtly mocked commercialism, incorporating comic strip elements, then corporate logos. By the 1960s, his silk-screened serial images, repetitive icons (soup cans, celebrities, skulls) manipulated or colored so that each one looked almost but not entirely identical, played with notions of originality. Happy consumerism turns to numbing tedium. And when Warhol played the same game with images of suicides or car crashes, the abstraction becomes even more disturbing.
But Warhol's most important influence on the public perception of art came not from his canvases. Warhol became a living cartoon character, flitting about parties and making public appearances. With his white shock of hair and piercing eyes, Warhol looked like he was just one drink short of crazy. He surrounded himself with a collection of New York City's artistic elite, a crew whose job was to create avant garde as if it were a consumer product. No wonder Warhol's studio was dubbed "The Factory." Indeed, when he was shot by one of his own rejects in 1968, the event played out almost like performance art. On better days, however, Warhol spent his time between painting promoting other artists (Velvet Underground, Jean-Michel Basquiat) and selling himself as a great artist. Like Walt Disney's corporate signature, Warhol's name signed to anything meant it was authorized "art," even if Warhol had little or nothing to do with it (Paul Morrissey's Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, for instance).
Warhol pressed on with his own art, however. In his last few years, he returned to religious iconography, creating dozens of variations on da Vinci's The Last Supper. By the time he died in 1987, however, the Warhol myth had far exceeded the man himself. There were undoubtedly more parodies of his work being seen by audiences than the real thing. Maybe Warhol would have appreciated that irony, blurring as he always did the line between original and copy.
I hope you enjoyed that capsule review of Andy Warhol's career, because that is more than you will likely learn about him from Kultur's lackluster DVD, Artists of the 20th Century: Andy Warhol. After five minutes of biography that sounds like it came from an encyclopedia, the anonymous narrator (there are no credits on the film whatsoever!) proceeds with a survey of Warhol's canvases throughout his career. Yep, that's it. Just the paintings. No film clips, no background on The Factory, and no exploration of the Warhol myth. This is basically a slide show with a stiff college lecture. Indeed, some of the paintings are not even framed properly on screen—edges are cut off—and occasionally the narrator refers to things that are not shown. The images get repetitive quickly. "Colored Campbell's Soup Can, 1965." "Colored Campbell's Soup Can, 1965." "Colored Campbell's Soup Can, 1965." "Colored Campbell's Soup Can, 1965." Yes, we get it.
More interested in his religious work than in his pop culture experiments, the documentary tends to ignore Warhol's humor. Again, there is no mention (after the brief biography) of The Factory, his experimental films, or his self-promotion. The latter is really necessary to understand the games he played in his self-portraits, the manipulations of his own image. As important as his actual works (perhaps more so) is Warhol's position as de facto leader of New York City's bohemian community in the 1960s and '70s. No decent overview of his career can fail to account for the character Warhol played for the media in those years. As the poster boy for both stretching the limits of traditional art and making the avant garde accessible to the public at large, Warhol was his own biggest work of art.
But Kultur's documentary ignores this completely. Thus, the significance of Warhol's work, the impact that it had on art and popular culture in the 20th century, is likely to be lost on viewers who are not already familiar with him. And what we do get is a fairly pedestrian survey—again, more of a slide show—of his paintings. If part of Warhol's artistic mission was to expand our definition of art, then Kultur's DVD biography really only ends up pushing him back into the frame.
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