Along with Gertrude Stein's Oakland, Calif., one suspects of Andy Warhol that there was no there there.
Warhol's absence of thereness -- his carefully polished vapidity, his world-class banality -- is the centerpiece of Chuck Workman's superb documentary "Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol," which opens today at the Charles.
Under some irritating glitz, Workman's method is dead solid perfect. He avoids the convention of the narrator, and moves chronologically through a life that was certainly recorded but not really penetrated, even by intimates. He covers the somewhat baffled Pittsburgh family, the breakthrough with the Cambbell's soup can (including a representative from the Campbell's company, who ends up looking like a stiff's idea of a stiff), the "Factory" scene, the dreadful movies, the shooting by S. C. U. M. agent Valarie Solanis and finally the artist's complete absorption by the culture of celebrity as represented by such absurdities as an appearance on "The Love Boat."
And finally, he evokes the pitiful death, as managed by an incompetent hospital after a minor operation. Workman frequently cuts away to key witnesses who struggle to illuminate the phenomenon that was the Andyman.
Workman has unearthed some brilliant archival matter. At one delirious point early in the pop art era, a bearded interviewer struggles with the opaque and passive artist in an attempt to tease some semblance of meaning from him.
"Would you say, Mr. Warhol, that in your works you are trying to say something special?"
Warhol, his face as untainted with evidence of intellectual activity as a Ken doll's, smiles mildly and says, "No."
Yet however stupid he pretended to be, Warhol was clearly two things. First, he was a commercial illustrator of absolute technical mastery; and second (he ate off this one for three decades; who said there's no free lunch in America?), he owned an insight that permitted him to wrap the media around his limp little finger: He understood how completely engaging passivity was to an industry designed to deal with activity.
In other words, he understood to what degree that he would be interesting as long as he was not understood. Once he became understood, he knew he would become yesterday's news. Thus he never explained, never apologized, never even admitted the existence of a subtext, a nuance, an irony. He simply gazed blankly ahead, while the minions squawked and peeped at his feet, trying to fathom what lay behind that stare. It worked: He was famous for a lot longer than 15 minutes.
Not only is the archival material extremely interesting, it's also quite amusing to watch Factory vets and art dealers and intellectuals of various stripe and hue struggle gamely to pin Warhol down while ultimately impaling only themselves. Two conservative ideologues sniff and look like grumpy squares; two ardent liberals become so excited when they explain how this "anti-capitalist" (who became a multimillionaire) was "satirizing" "consumer society" that you think they're going to wet their pants. Two art dealers self-aggrandizingly try to isolate their doubtlessly important influence on the little man with the dishpan face.
Leave it to Fran Leibowitz to have the most acute insight.
"He was the first to make fame 'famous,' " Leibowitz points out. "Before him, there were just a few celebrities. Now, in large part due to him, there are almost more celebrities than Republicans."
The Life and Times
of Andy Warhol'
Directed by Chuck Workman.
Released by Aries Film.