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'Warhol' review: Portrait of the artist as a complex man

Artist Andy Warhol is the subject of Blake

Artist Andy Warhol is the subject of Blake Gopnik's comprehensive new biography. Credit: Alamy /Science History Images

WARHOL by Blake Gopnik (Ecco, 976 pp., $45)

Blake Gopnik’s new biography of Andy Warhol begins with a heartstopping moment: Warhol’s June 1968 shooting by Valerie Solanas, a deranged Warhol hanger-on (technically Warhol died, but surgeons brought him back). It’s a bloody and cinematic beginning to an exhaustive, 900-page journey though the American artist’s shapeshifting life.

After a gruesome prelude detailing the wreckage done to Warhol’s body (the artist, who used images of fatal car crashes in his work, might have approved), Gopnik goes back to Warhol’s beginnings in Depression-era Pittsburgh. The young Warhol, frail and withdrawn, endured the burden of being different and a long illness that cemented his outcast status. But his mother, Julia Warhola, encouraged his artistic inclinations, and after graduation from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech, Warhol moved to postwar New York City, where he plunged into the cutthroat world of design and marketing, commerce and fashion.

The emergent Warhol was an irrepressible talent. There was nothing he couldn’t do — textiles, children’s books, album covers, book jackets. He was always looking for the main chance:  “Andy was the most opportunistic person I’ve ever known,” said one New York roommate. He received awards. He became a staple of the uptown gay scene.

Warhol's next phase began when he used blown-up tabloid ads and superhero figures in a window display of teen fashion at Bonwit Teller. From there he used painting, photography and eventually silk screening to execute his popular and influential images of Pop Art — Coke bottles, dollar bills, Campbell’s Soup, images of Elizabeth Taylor (after Cleopatra), Marilyn Monroe (started the day she died). Gopnik, a veteran art critic, writes that “Warhol’s eureka moment — one of the greatest in the history of art — came when he realized he could take the tastes for lowly pop culture that he knew from camp and from elite commerce and transplant them, almost unchanged, into the ‘rare’ realm of fine art.”

Then another Warhol emerged. In 1962 he opened the first version of his studio, The Factory, an art and film workshop by day and a salon for celebrities, outliers and misfits by night. He produced darker and more provocative images with the relentless repetition of silk-screening, and his Factory crew made movies that provoked, lulled or browbeat the viewer into awed submission.

Gopnik assembles a brilliant portrait of Warhol and this milieu, but it’s still hard to know why the artist changed so much. Though thoughtful and widely read, Warhol began to “present himself as a curious mix of sphinx and fool, passive almost to the point of catatonia," Gopnik writes. Warhol the artist became “Andy Warhol,” a powerful personality with a cult. His followers yearned for Warhol’s approval, including the doomed Edie Sedgwick, the socialite brought to the portal of fame by Warhol, then dropped. Among Warhol’s numerous boyfriends, several attempted suicide. Henry Geldzahler, a contemporary and curator, said of the artist: “He’s a voyeur-sadist, and he needs exhibitionist-masochists in order to fulfill both halves of his destiny. And it’s obvious that an exhibitionist-masochist is not going to last very long.”

The Factory scene disintegrated. It closed, then moved and reopened, and soon after, Warhol was shot. As he recuperated and weighed his mortality, Warhol vowed to become rich. He solicited lucrative commissions for vanity portraits. He funded experimental and sexually explicit films and underwrote Interview Magazine, which chronicled Warhol’s celebrity and socialite friends. He partied (and took multiple partners) at Studio 54. He bought the estate of the Eothen estate in where he entertained Mick and Bianca Jagger, Jackie Onassis and more VIPs. 

The higher Warhol flew, the more he seemed to insulate himself against people and their pain. Gopnik reveals that Warhol was clinically depressed and addicted to Valium (oddly, this isn’t revealed until the final pages). He refused to attend the funeral of his mother, who had lived with him in New York for 20 years. His longtime partner Jed Johnson left him. He took his solace in compulsive shopping and collecting, and was a wealthy man when his gallbladder became infected and he died after emergency surgery on 1987.

What are we to make of Warhol today? Gopnik concludes that Warhol has “overtaken Picasso as the most important and influential artist of the twentieth century,” and now occupies “the top peak of Parnassus, beside Michelangelo and Rembrandt.” This seems like a leap. Admittedly, prices of individual Warhol works have passed the $100 million mark, but in 500 years, will people still yearn to see Warhol’s soup cans and Brillo boxes?

 Perhaps Warhol’s true genius was his eerie grasp of what was to come. He anticipated so much in contemporary American life — the dominance of consumerism and commercialism, the narcissism of an age where everyone is always filming everyone else. Perhaps his disconnection was both his greatest curse and his greatest asset. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote that Warhol’s “underclass childhood somehow left him amoral as a man and incorruptible, because profoundly indifferent, as an observer.”

Andy Warhol was the ultimate voyeur,and his dark vision is with us still.

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