He changed the world. The question is, did he change it for the better? Andy Warhol redefined American art, blurring the line between commercial and fine art. Until Warhol took on pop iconography, abstract expressionism reigned in America and internationally, and there is no telling what direction American art and American pop culture might have taken if it weren't for the shy, blemished immigrants' child who took the art world by storm in the 1950s.
In his new four-hour work Andy Warhol, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ric Burns makes a strong case for the notion that Warhol was the greatest artist of the second half of the 20th century, with Picasso dominating the first. Burns—with exceptional films profiling Eugene O'Neill and Ansel Adams already under his belt—matches the spectacle of his subject with sober and affecting filmmaking, infusing the tale of Warhol's early years in particular with fascinating insight and detail.
By the time Warhol installed himself in the famous Silver Factory on East 47th Street in New York in 1963, he was an unrivaled celebrity artist. As the company he kept began to include a significant criminal element, however, Warhol's art and influence began to grow darker. Until an assassination attempt in 1968 sparked a change in lifestyle for Warhol, he was party to several suicides and an unquantifiable amount of drug addiction.
Burns documents Warhol's cold fascination with this whirlwind, as well as his tacit complicity in the utter destruction of many young lives. Warhol seems to have been perfectly willing to accept the consequences of using human beings as fodder for his art. As the artist turned toward cinema and away from painting, his work, while still quite brilliant and unquestionably fascinating, more and more took on the form of diabolical experimentation.
Even with all that Burns' documentary brings to the fore, it neglects to present a satisfying answer to the question of whether the commodification of art (and the blurred lines separating it from the commercial world, for which Warhol is largely responsible) has been a positive or negative phenomenon, and this failure renders the conclusion of the film somewhat disappointing.
But we forgive Burns in light of the enormity of his task. To quote one of Warhol's most significant champions, art dealer Irving Blum, who answered when asked whether Warhol had done more harm than good in the world: "It's complicated."
Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave. 221-1156. 6:30 pm Tuesday, Sept. 19. $4-$7. Also airs on OPB at 10 pm Wednesday-Thursday, Sept. 20-21.