By Owen Gleiberman
Updated August 30, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Andy Warhol: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1989, I attended the Andy Warhol retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and within a short time — it might have been 15 minutes — I saw the light. Like a lot of people, I’d walked in thinking that Warhol’s art was submerged in irony — that it was a joke, a lark, a candy-colored postmodern ”statement.” Yet as I strolled through the galleries, staring at the Campbell’s soup cans, which seemed to vibrate in their starkly wholesome repetitive banality; at the Marilyns, which weren’t just psychedelic, they were phosphorescent; at the images of death and disaster, a silk-screen vision of American tabloid hell…as I wandered through it all, I saw only one thing, and that was beauty. Yes, these paintings said, behold the godlessness of our bright, plasticine, fame-fixated, factory world. But then see that these images are anything but godless, because they are our world. Why can’t a soup can be a sublime still life? (Is an apple more glorious?) Or a Marilyn our Madonna? Don’t just see the artifice, declared Warhol. See the light!

Ric Burns’ splendid, searching Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film doesn’t come on as a voyeuristic biography. It steers clear of gossip (the people Warhol coveted or slept with, the Studio 54 days), recognizing that Warhol found his identity in the images that obsessed him. Burns, drawing on rare photos and home movies, fashions his four-hour-long film as a meditation on those images. The early New York days, when Warhol was a working-class wallflower who got rich tossing off whimsical sketches of ladies’ shoes, are brought to life with a new vividness, and so is his fabled insecurity about his looks (the nose he fixed, the thinning hair he hid under wigs). The film traces how his breakthrough as the guru of Pop emerged from his tormented ambition, his lust for fame, the willingness to appropriate (the soup can idea was suggested by a friend), and a leap of technical audacity when, with his mass-production methods, he removed the ”painting” from painting.

In many ways, Warhol’s creation, in 1963, of the silver-walled Factory, the original counterculture party of druggy, ambisexual, society-meets-the-underground decadence, was every bit as potent a work of art. So was his blasé android-bitch persona. Andy Warhol offers footage of Susan Sontag and Salvador Dalí mingling with the hip hustlers, and we see how this fame-and-flesh atmosphere was the petri dish for Warhol’s underground films, which are examined with a fascinating, if a bit too reverent, scrutiny. (Having sat through all 210 minutes of The Chelsea Girls, I can testify that a little of it goes a long way.) The movie turns into the darkest of thrillers as it chronicles the 1968 shooting of Warhol by Valerie Solanas, an event that nearly killed him and may have destroyed him as an artist. In the most haunting moment, we hear what Warhol, after his recovery, said to a reporter, in a mood of rare candor, about his emptiness, and his desire to fill that emptiness. Andy Warhol makes you see that beneath the gargoyle hipster mask, he filled that emptiness with an art of transcendent sincerity.