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Disentangling Warhol the life from Warhol the act


Warhol: A Life As Art

Blake Gopnik



Andy Warhol, icon of the Pop Art Movement, posing in front of ‘The Last Supper’, a personal interpretation he gave of Leonardo da Vinci’s Il Cenacolo, realised 1986

Andy Warhol, icon of the Pop Art Movement, posing in front of ‘The Last Supper’, a personal interpretation he gave of Leonardo da Vinci’s Il Cenacolo, realised 1986

Mondadori via Getty Images

Andy Warhol, icon of the Pop Art Movement, posing in front of ‘The Last Supper’, a personal interpretation he gave of Leonardo da Vinci’s Il Cenacolo, realised 1986

By the late 1950s Andy Warhol had already become a highly paid Madison Avenue commercial illustrator. Warhol hailed from a working-class Eastern European family in Pittsburgh, but he had no difficulty climbing up the ladder of urbane New York society.

He understood that only two things were needed: taste and money. When Warhol migrated into the world of fine arts at the beginning of the 1960s, critics aptly labelled his work Pop Art.

The American arts writer Blake Gopnik summarises Warhol's stripped-down simplistic style with clarity: it fused photographs and painting together in a kaleidoscope of explosive colour.

This included now infamous screen-printed images of Marilyn Monroe, Pepsi, Elvis and, of course, Campbell's soup cans. Pop Art could seem dumb, empty and vacuous.

But playful irony was its secret weapon. Celebrating the ordinary and everyday to the point of absurdity allowed Warhol to subtly narrate a story about a celebrity-obsessed society where mass reproduction and individual consumption were the dominant themes. Warhol made art sexy again by stripping it of its intellectual and introspective seriousness.

Warhol's cool, pristine, and quirky artistic project was held together by the idea that there was no idea. By the mid-1960s Warhol had other reasons to keep his sunglasses on indoors and keep playing the persona of eggheaded art-scene darling.

He now had a new job: managing The Velvet Underground, the band fronted by Lou Reed, and backed up occasionally on vocals by German singer Nico. The artsy rock group's uncompromising approach to the avant garde meant they were commercially disastrous.

Warhol didn't care. He viewed them as another project that suited his artistic agenda as he moved away from painting and into the world of underground films.

Many of these were directed at Warhol's Manhattan studio, The Factory. Ostensibly it served as creative playpen, product assembly line, office and film shoot location all in one.

But it transformed into a hang-out for rock stars, misfits, drag queens, hipsters, hucksters and dope fiends looking to score or sexually experiment.

Warhol's roaring popularity caused some egos to bruise. Bob Dylan fell out with him. But this seems to have been linked with a jealousy arising from Nico's bed-hopping.

With his new-found celebrity status Warhol was given the script to play the self-destructive bad boy. He hammed it up and took on the role with fervent enthusiasm. But a distinction must be drawn between Warhol the act and Warhol the life.

Gopnik stresses the more boring reality of the latter: a ruthless workaholic with a taste for bourgeois comforts. Warhol usually kept office hours and was more often than not at home with his mum and cats before dark, planning his next corporate business meeting.

Warhol was always obsessed by trends, fads, dollars and keeping up with the Joneses. His political leanings were of a Democratic persuasion. But Warhol embraced the neoliberal values of the Reagan Revolution during the 1980s. That completed his journey from underground artist to one-man corporate media whore.

Warhol once threatened the establishment. But in time he became it. Appearances on The Love Boat and MTV, and ads for Absolut Vodka gave Warholian critics ample ammunition. They always claimed he was not a risqué artist but a careerist con man.

But if money talks, the Warhol legacy is clearly a successful one. When he died in 1987, Warhol's estate was valued at $15 million. Today it is well over the $1 billion mark. Gopnik stresses it won't be long before Warhol "overtakes Picasso as the most important and influential artist of the 20th century".

Warhol: A Life as Art educates as much as it entertains. And the book strikes a fine balance between cultural theory, art history, celebrity gossip and psychoanalytical suggestion.

The Warholian wall of identity is nuanced. A great deal of that complexity arises from Warhol's natural shyness and his status as a gay man: homosexuality was still a criminal offence during the time he rose to stardom.

This meant in both art and life Warhol could never take off the Wildean mask of concealment. Playing dramatic games with identity politics wasn't all bad, though. It gave Warhol just enough distance from the society he lived in to analyse it as only an outsider can.

Warhol fascinates us because in a way he is the embodiment of what most of us truly are at the core of our being: ruthlessly ambitious but highly insecure, as we attempt to make sense of our lives in a culture that worships ego, wealth and social status.

According to this biography Warhol's artistic genius can be summarised in a phrase: Warhol identified the paradoxical and absurdest elements of a culture and then narrated it back to itself with playful post-modern irony.

Sunday Independent