thu 27/02/2020

Modern Masters: Warhol, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Modern Masters: Warhol, BBC One

Modern Masters: Warhol, BBC One

Did Andy Warhol change the world? An art critic dons an Andy-suit to find out

Art critic TV presenters come in all sorts of guises these days. You can be scruffy, glottal-stopping and geezerish like Waldemar Januszczak (yeah, I love that combo); you can be scruffy, clearly a bit jaded but still trading in a kind of engaging whimsy like Matthew Collings (yep, I can dig that, too); you can even be a bit of a besuited toff with an old-fashioned sense of boyish wonder, just like cuddly Andrew Graham-Dixon (classy and more-ish, like a Magnum ice cream; really good at pieces to camera in big Florentine churches). Whatever. You can trust this lot to still know their leeks from their onions; their Cubist Braques from their Cubist Picassos, even.

So how does Sooke, the puppyish new kid on the block, measure up to the old hands? Did his angle on Warhol inform, educate and entertain in equal measure? I admit expectations were not especially high, since I was expecting neither revelation nor great insight in yet another TV profile. And not just because Warhol himself was all about surface, but because, like Warhol’s silkscreens, one has come to expect an awful lot of repetition. One need only to be mildly curious and passingly interested, after all, to know an awful lot about the Pop art king already: the Marilyn Monroe portraits, the Campbell's soup tins, that famous quote; the electric chairs and car crashes; Warhol with his wig and bad skin; some stuff about The Factory, where groovy people hung out and took drugs and were filmed and observed with cool detachment by a man who took cool detachment to almost pathological extremes.

That stuff, it’s all we ever get about Andy. And though there was other stuff to keep it bobbing along at a fair pace - did you know that before his cool, sartorial makeover he was known as "raggedy Andy"? Did you know that he sold his first painting, of a cat, in a coffee shop called Serendipity for $25 and that his favourite drink, which is more of a confection really, was frozen ice chocolate and lemon ice box pie, which you can still order there today? - what let this programme down was that it expected you to have almost no cultural reference points. Almost none whatsoever. Gee, it was really kinda dumb, but not in a cool, insouciant way. Marilyn Monroe, for instance, was “the movie star Marilyn Monroe”, as if we might have scratched our heads and confused her with the author of The Women's Room (oh, right, that was Marilyn French). And as for wanting to find out “if Warhol was any good and not just really famous", Sooke’s first mission-stop was to the O2 Centre, to look at one of his Michael Jackson screen prints just before it got packed off to auction - but what might we have learned about Warhol’s importance by going straight to the fag-end of his career?

andy_warhol_self_portraitThe most interesting bits focused on Warhol’s background: growing up in depression-era Pittsburgh; his close relationship with his mother; the long illness that kept him from school for a year; his fascination with Russian icons fostered at the Byzantine Catholic church he attended regularly as a child and as a young adult. One could lose oneself in that stuff. But whenever the programme was in danger of getting interesting, perhaps a little reflective, we moved swiftly on. At one point Nicky Haslam, the interior designer, who, like almost every other semi-celebrity of the era hung around at The Factory, states that Warhol was, in fact, an oddly shockable character. My ears pricked up. Really? What sorts of things shocked him? But Sooke moved swiftly on.

Granted, the programme wasn’t meant to offer a detailed biography, but an overview on Warhol’s impact on our world (three more Modern Masters are to follow, on Picasso, Matisse and Dali, attempting to do the same). But in this area, too, Sooke was light on observation and critique. You know, Warhol did not, in fact, single-handedly “invent” reality-celeb culture, nor would we have never had Facebook if he hadn’t been around. With regard to any of that, anyone, including Sooke, who wants to argue his world-changing influence over and beyond a necessarily peripheral one must have a slightly blinkered world view.

What we got a lot more of instead was Sooke in a variety of Warhol guises: executing a Warhol-style silkscreen self-portrait, which resulted in Sooke, by his own admission, looking “like a mouse with lipstick"; being “Warholed” again on computer;  getting an “Andy-suit” makeover, or did I hear an “Andy-pseud” makeover? This was all quite agreeable and fun, but, for Sooke, it probably wasn’t half as exciting as his one-minute encounter with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy outside the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Now, he was dead chuffed about that.

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I think this program was primarily aimed at people born after 1985, hence the amount of re-inventing the wheel and references to the origins of Facebook, Big Brother, etc. This might also explain why all the experts, not to mention the presenter, were fresher-faced than Nick Clegg. The only silver hair or wrinkles to be seen were on Veterans of the Scene, much as elderly people are wheeled out to recount eyewitness testimony for documentaries on World War II but rarely appear in any other capacity. For those of us who actually lived through some of these events, it was all a bit well-worn, except for the anecdotes about Warhol's early days in New York . I especially liked his former employers at the leather factory describing him as a model employee, punctual and respectful. Andy Warhol, model employee - who would have thought?

Your review is very polite - I thought it was hatefully bad, and an apalling squandering of the opportunity to make an arts programme with genuine popular appeal. Sooke is not an idiot, but neither is he a television presenter; he has a weak voice, couldn't read an autocue without over-pronouncing and doing all kinds of weird and deeply awkward pauses and emPHAsis OF all the wrong WORDS, and his interviewing technique seemed to consist of "so um like right yeah ok yeah right um right ok yeah" as much as it did actually asking questions. It would have been passable, just, as a schools programme, but as a high-budget primetime flagship arts show it is simply disgusting. Like I say, though, Sooke's not an idiot and isn't to blame for the ghastliness - the person to blame is whichever penis commissioned this thinking they could "do for modern art what Brian Cox did for astrophysics".

It was 'Warhol for Dummies' and a little annoying. I was the most upset, however, when the presenter termed Warhol's factory people 'freaks'. That is not acceptable.

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