Review/Film; Warhol: The Man Behind the Can
By JANET MASLIN
Published: February 22, 1991
New York Times
Why does Andy Warhol's work reveal so little about the artist? "Well there's not very much to say about me," drones Warhol, in an old interview that Chuck Workman has included in "Superstar," his witty and enterprising documentary about Warhol and his world. The film itself, which spans the same wild extremes that Warhol's life did, offers strong evidence to the contrary. It bears out the thought that Warhol, described by one of Mr. Workman's many interviewees as "this crazy peasant who somehow is the eye of the storm," was indeed a person about whom others -- and he himself, in "The Andy Warhol Diaries" -- could speak volumes.
Mr. Workman, using many conversations with Warhol's friends and associates, as well as frequent glimpses of his films, paintings and early advertising illustrations, has a distinct visual advantage over the artist's print biographers. He uses it well. "Superstar" displays much of the lively eccentricity that so captivated Warhol and also stops to note the artifice behind it (which is never hard to spot in any of the artist's pet luminaries). So Ultra Violet makes a point of painting her cheeks with a beet while being interviewed. And Sylvia Miles, never shy about these things, turns up wearing as much merchandise bearing the Campbell Soup logo as she can.
Putting this fully in perspective, Mr. Workman begins the film with glimpses of other media luminaries (Donald Trump, Geraldo Rivera, Jim and Tammy Bakker) beside whom Warhol's celebrity makes perfect sense. And he ends with televised scenes of stars (including Don Johnson) showing up at the artist's funeral. The film's opening montage also depicts the manufacturing of silk-screen portraits in the Warhol style, which makes artistry quite indistinguishable from merchandising.
These and other efforts to provide a context for Warhol's life and legend are deftly effective. "I couldn't believe it -- I never thought he would die," says Steve Rubell.
Deemed "as genuine as a fingerprint" by the editors of his high school yearbook, Warhol devoted the rest of his life to proving them wrong. But the artist's cousins and brothers, who are interviewed by Mr. Workman, attest to his homey side. "When we read his philosophy, we laughed out loud because we didn't know we were so much like him," says one of Warhol's cousins. A cousin also tells of making contact with the artist's New York set when she met Calvin Klein and "asked him whether he was going to design jeans for the heavy woman, like me."
The film's glimpses of the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Warhol grew up make understandable his eagerness to escape and also his need to keep his past at a distance from his present. "I guess Andy sort of kept us away from some of the people that he had," says Paul Warhola, one of the artist's brothers, who is interviewed on a farm. Mr. Warhola adds, in the film's later segment on Warhol's love affair with the Campbell soup can, that Campbell was indeed the family's favorite brand. A spokesman for the Campbell Soup Company is more guarded, saying, "I think there were a lot of people in the company who were leery about having this kind of person involved with our brand image."
Circling carefully through the morass of opinions about Warhol's life and work, Mr. Workman interviews art dealers and critics about what, if anything, was at the core of Warhol's creativity. Irving Blum, who exhibited Warhol's work very early in the artist's career, attests to Warhol's industriousness no matter what was going on around him. Henry Geldzahler calls him "a highly intelligent blotter" with "an infinite longing for having the familiar codified in some way." Tom Wolfe describes the Warhol outlook on American culture as "Oh, it's so horrible, I love it." According to Hilton Kramer, "The statement he was making in his work was something like 'Ha, ha, ha.' "
In addressing Warhol's film work, which is shown here in snippets and at times in split-screen images, the film elicits conflicting thoughts on what his directorial role actually was. Warhol himself says of film making that it's "just easier to do than painting. The camera has a motor, and you just turn it on and walk away." Dennis Hopper agrees and demonstrates his own approach to having been filmed in such a way. "He wasn't even there most of the time," says Candy Darling, one of the artist's former film stars . Warhol offers one of his own characteristic thoughts about cinema by saying that he thinks today's movie stars are more glamorous than those of the past "because you can run into them."
While Mr. Workman's portrait of Warhol is as vibrant (and deliberately two-dimensional) as any of the artist's celebrity images, it avoids the gaudier aspects of Warhol's life that have been so enthusiastically chronicled elsewhere. The artist's peculiar strain of voyeurism is alluded to only in an anecdote about Warhol's having been lent the original Howdy Doody doll for his series on pop-cultural myths, and having felt the need to undress it.
The gossipy revelations of Warhol's diaries are also avoided, as is the diaries' editor, Pat Hackett, whom Viva accuses of having made up the whole thing. Most of Warhol's later companions are also absent, no doubt chastened by the diaries' mean-spiritedness and notoriety. Halston is heard saying that Warhol "would go to the opening of a drawer." But beyond that, Mr. Workman is clearly more interested in Warhol as an artist and an enigma than as a fixture of New York nightlife.
""Andy's genius to me was his fingerpointing," says Dennis Hopper, who cites Marcel Duchamp's prediction that the artist of the future will merely point his finger and designate art rather than create it. "Andy made fame more famous," Fran Lebowitz observes. "Oh, I'm speechless," says Warhol himself, giving his favorite kind of answer to a direct question. Mr. Workman's fascinating portrait has the insight to reconcile these differing points of view. SUPERSTAR: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANDY WARHOL Directed, written, produced and edited by Chuck Workman; director of photography, Burleigh Wartes; released by Aries Films. Running time: 87 minutes. This film has no rating. Interviews with: Viva, Dennis Hopper, Ultra Violet, Tom Wolfe, Sylvia Miles, Irving Blum, Paul Warhola, Fran Lebowitz and others