When an influential cultural figure dies, especially in unexpected circumstances, the race to define their life and work begins almost immediately. It’s only natural of course: eulogizing the dead, trying to make sense of what they meant to us and where we’re left without them, making a quick buck publishing a salacious tell-all book, these are perfectly normal reactions to a notable death, but an obituary is the first step in turning a human being’s messy life into a story and into history. Take Portrait of an Artist: Andy Warhol, (later repackaged simply as Andy Warhol) Kim Evans’ television documentary, which has the distinction of being the first film about the iconic artist to come out after his sudden death following routine gallbladder surgery in 1987, premiering that very same year. Even now it’s largely considered the go-to Warhol documentary, but while it remains a compassionate, informative and entertaining retrospective, it’s far from the whole story.
As director of The South Bank Show, a long-running cultural program on Britain’s ITV, Evans had previously done a program on the Velvet Underground and had experienced the Factory scene firsthand, developing a deep respect for the man behind it all. When Warhol passed unexpectedly, Evans naturally saw a documentary seemed an appropriate way to memorialize him. “I really believed that Warhol had made a significant contribution to 20th century art through his paintings and his films,” Evans later recalled, “I loved the way he understood the transaction between the image and the world; between life and the consumer event; between money and art.” After conducting in depth interviews with some of the artist’s closest associates, including Warhol Superstar Brigid Berlin, his first dealer Ivan Karp and biographer Victor Bockris, Evans then meticulously researched and selected archival footage, weaving it altogether to paint, if you’ll pardon the pun, a glowing portrait of Warhol the artistic iconoclast.
In capturing that side of Warhol at least, the film succeeds admirably, tracing the development of his work from the its very beginnings, the sketches and paintings made as a sickly and often bed-ridden child growing up in a Czech immigrant family in Pittsburgh, through his time as an in demand commercial artist, known for his flair for footwear, and on to his ascension to pop art icon and unlikely multimedia celebrity. As an art history lesson, the film deserves its place as a much watched and often referenced text, managing to distill decades of paradigm-shifting, highly conceptual work, along with how it reacted against art as it was and helped invent art as it would be into just over an hour. In part because he was painfully shy and in part to keep up the coolly aloof public persona he’d created, Warhol was famously loathe to explain, or even describe, his own work, which made him an amazingly awkward interview subject (plenty of his cryptic televised mumblings are on display here), but the firsthand accounts of those integral to its creation are illuminating, even for those well acquainted with his oeuvre. “I remember everyone we interviewed for the film as being incredibly generous. Generous with their time and in what they said about Warhol,” said Evans, “That was probably to do with the moment the film was made. People seemed very protective of him.”
“Protective” could easily be applied to the film as a whole as well, since for all the detail and perception that Evans brings to Warhol’s artistic endeavors, the man himself and his complex, colorful personal life are related in rather broad strokes. His family, his many anxieties and his obsession with fame are discussed insofar as they impact the content (or lack thereof) of his creations, but Evans seems to have been reluctant to dig too deep into what really made Warhol tick. Produced so close to his passing, it might be unsurprising that his sexuality or his relationship with his Superstars, which in some cases could be construed as uncaring or exploitative, are quickly glossed over or ignored completely (Edie Sedgwick’s long in the works fatal overdose is related via a caption that scrolls by so fast as to be almost comical), but you’d think something as momentous as his attempted murder at the hands of writer and radical feminist Valerie Solanas, would warrant a few minutes of discussion, not simply a few unexplained allusions sprinkled in among the aesthetic analysis.
At the end of the day however, any documentary on Warhol is going to be incomplete, given that the artist accomplished so much in so many different media across such a long span of time, and revealed so little about his inner life (if he’d admit to having one) along the way. He’s enough of an enigmatic, influential figure to sustain several docs; that Evans’ became the definitive film on the subject has just as much to do with its being the first as it does with it being any good (which it very much is, but so is Ric Burns four-hour Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film from 2006). The final irony here is that really the definitive Warhol documentary is the one that he made himself, seeing as how he was fond of filming just about everything, and tape recording anything he didn’t. Even his diaries, full of mundane day-to-day occurrences, appeared as an encyclopedia sized hardcover book, edited by his personal secretary Pat Hackett. Dropping one of his trademark aphorisms, Warhol once remarked, “Dying is the most embarrassing thing that can ever happen to you, because someone's got to take care of all your details,” but then left behind enough “details” to fill an entire museum in his native Pittsburgh. Maybe that’s why he’s still so hard to define, even a quarter century after his death; on canvas, on film, and certainly in our popular culture, Warhol is still very much alive.