In the "Factory Diaries" section of I Just Want to Watch: Andy Warhol's Film, Video, and TV, the wall text reads, "[T]he tapes expose previously hidden aspects of Warhol -- the person and the artist -- who during his lifetime hid behind many masks."
It's a developed approach to regard Warhol as impermanent and self-constructed, and my fascination with this exhibit largely sprung from the chance to unravel the inscrutable character that Andrew Warhola played daily. Since this formerly traveling exhibition is slated to be at the Andy Warhol Museum for about seven years, we'll all have ample opportunity.
By the end of his career, Warhol saw himself as more a filmmaker than a painter. Granted, he often leaned on the charisma and debauchery of his Superstars, and while filming many of his "screen tests" he simply left the room. Nonetheless, his place in video's early avant-garde is intriguing for many of the reasons his painting is: In both cases, he avoided direct manipulation and embraced the effortless momentum of the medium.
Warhol's TV programs marked the terminus of his filmmaking trajectory. His involvement in TV culminated his aspirations as a "business artist"-- but it also marked the cancellation of his creative authority. For that reason, the exhibit's "TV" component is the cornerstone of this review.
The space dedicated to TV is preceded by Warhol's earlier film and video. In well-known film works like "Sleep" and "Empire," the filmmaker's role was minimized, relying on the camera to record minutes or hours of a static shot. The Factory Diaries, many of which are displayed on monitors in the exhibition's front room, showcase an extension of this aesthetic equalizing. They represent Warhol's near-compulsion to document the Factory and the people in it. Celebrities and members of his rolling entourage make appearances, of course. Dennis Hopper, in an extended recorded dialogue, seems especially stripped down, while consummate performer David Bowie eschews the typical restraint of the screen test in favor of miming his own disembowelment.
Naturally, Warhol's more complete film works, like My Hustler and Chelsea Girls, are shown. Most are situated in a single room, screened in both front and rear projection, in a confined sort of zig-zag arrangement. Rather than concentrating on one, or trying to decipher the garbled audio, viewers will find it easier to absorb these works as a plotless visual ambiance, with one Superstar's gesticulations giving way to another's.
The room dedicated to television is physically the most impressive, with rows of double-sided monitors laid out across the entire space. Star-shaped stools allow for a little more viewing comfort.
In 1979, Warhol and some colleagues decided to develop a semi-experimental television show entitled Fashion. What could have easily been a half-hour of Andy and friends paying tribute to glamour, though, was instead a surprisingly probing look into the intricacies and hypocrisies of a fickle but tenacious industry. Fashion coaxed long-form discussion on clothing and trends from writer Fran Lebowitz and curator Henry Geldzahler, as well as models and designers. By accident or intention, it put a coolly anthropological emphasis on the function of appearances in contemporary culture.
Andy Warhol's TV, which began in 1980, starts to look more like the short-cut, short-segment, Q-and-A-driven cable show that was by then becoming the norm. The format still allowed for revealing discussions, like a monologue on "surfaces" in painting by an amusingly droning David Hockney, but flashy cutting and a preference for rock stars were beginning to eke their way in.
In one sense, becoming a television presence was the culmination of Warhol's career. An irrepressible preoccupation with celebrity had led him to focus on the sort of work that would make Warhol a household name -- which, by the '80s, it absolutely was. By then, Warhol represented the kind of "underground" that excites and appeases the business class; he was even doing modeling work for fashion magazines.
Television was still rapidly evolving in 1979, and even more than now, it sought to be capsule-sized and neatly digestible. For a filmmaker whose primary resource was a kind of emptiness -- a stylized void -- that medium had a natural appeal. He spelled it out unequivocally in 1970: "My movies have been working towards TV. It's new everything. No more books or movies, just TV."
But television broadcasts have to engage the viewer immediately, holding his attention or facing banishment. The solution, wrote critic Arthur Danto, was for Warhol to "surround himself with personalities he would be interested in watching when he was not interested in cultivating boredom."
And so it went, with the recruitment of Lebowitz, John Waters and dozens of others, to reverse Warhol's old paradigm of stasis. In order to expand to the degree he wished, meanwhile, Warhol was forced to seek sponsorship. His benefactors were the Madison Square Garden Network for Andy Warhol's TV, which broadcast in New York City, and MTV for his final program, Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes, which was on cable nationwide. These media companies naturally sought to inject their own marketing savvy into the productions they were paying for. Hence, shorter individual dialogues and more colorful, uptempo editing.
Warhol's television work gradually lost the plodding fixation, the near infatuation with a single face or conversation, that grew out of the Factory Diaries and screen tests. Instead, it began to look more like other youth-oriented programming on the air in 1987. Even Warhol, who hosted Fifteen Minutes, became just a means of branding. The artist's discreetly firm oversight of his material was trumped by the unforgiving demands of television's satisfaction-guaranteed collectivity. Andy himself became a mere performer -- one more dues-paying member of Club Warhol.
In the catalog for the Amsterdam installment of this show, Eva Meyer-Hermann remarked that in "his own programs [Warhol] often haunts the inserts like an unapproachable trademark figure, or simply stands in his standoffish way on the margins of whatever is going on. " Deprived of his status as detached overseer, Warhol seemed adrift in an overwhelming multitude, his control eroded. For someone who had, in his own words, "always wanted to be noticed," visibility proved as much a curse as a boon.
I Just Want to Watch: Andy Warhol's Film, Video, and TV continues into 2017. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org