Andy Warhol: 1928-1987

In memory of the groundbreaking Pop Art master and cultural icon

Andy Warhol Credit: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Andy Warhol liked to watch. Anything: flowers, cows, stacked-up soup cans. Pop stars, comic strips, tabloid corpses. Society girls shooting up, drag queens flipping out, young hustlers engaged in fellation. His gaze was relentless, and awesome in its detachment. "A whole day of life," he said, "is like a whole day of television." Warhol demonstrated the seductive anesthetic effect of the image – of reality at one manageable remove. Secondhand life could be reviewed and savored, or simply switched off. All things really were equal. Andy looked at life and shrugged. "Gee," he said.

In the Sixties, we watched with him, of course. There was no choice: Andy was everywhere. Who among us has not stared in wonder or befuddlement at his deadpan Campbell's soup cans, his silk-screened Marilyns, his endlessly unreeling underground movies and thought, "Who is this guy?" Warhol, of course, had no comment.

"If you want to know all about Andy Warhol," he said, "just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, Andy Warhol and there I am. There's nothing behind it."

He positioned himself as an emotional void around which all manner of bizarre events flapped and fluttered. He was merely the ticket taker. And yet, when all the Warhol "superstars" are forgotten, when the shock of even his most shocking work has long receded, it is Warhol himself –— the ultimate introvert –— who will perhaps be remembered as the crucial figure in that most extrovert of eras.

Andy casually brought previously forbidden "underground" material into the cultural mainstream, desensitizing both it and us (even the most scabrous image becomes boring if stared at long enough). With his mixed-media shows and his unflagging penchant for the new and the experimental, he helped invent the Sixties. As an indefatigable party archivist, he practically defined the celebrity-addled Seventies. And by the end, he'd become the grand old man of the American avant-garde, at home at last in a world he'd largely refurbished.

"He was the person who created Attitude," said Tom Wolfe a few days after Andy's death on February 22nd. "Before Warhol, in artistic circles, there was Ideology –— you took a stance against the crassness of American life. Andy Warhol turned that on its head, and created an attitude. And the attitude was 'It's so awful, it's wonderful. It's so tacky, let's wallow in it.' That still put you above it, because it was so knowing. It placed you above the crassness of American life, but at the same time you could enjoy it."

Before Warhol, art in New York was a capital-A affair, a largely inscrutable ritual carried out among iron-browed god-artists, the critics who lauded them in little art magazines and a carefully cultivated circle of key dealers and well-heeled collectors. The public –— the "sloboisie," as it were —– played no part in this rarefied minuet. The public, corrupted by the hateful consumerism of popular culture, was thought to be incapable of Taste. People would stand and look at this stuff —– a Barnett Newman canvas, say: totally blue, save for a single fat stripe of darker blue running down one side –— and they wouldn't get it. Or, for that matter, want it.

Back in the Forties, abstract expressionism —– the rubric under which such various painters as Newman, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko came to be lumped –— had been the first American style to reap international acclaim. The artscene action had shifted from Paris to New York, where most of the ab-ex painters lived and drank (they were a very manly bunch), and this New York School still held sway at the dawn of the Fifties, when Warhol arrived on the scene. He must have realized instinctively that there was no place in it for him.

The youngest of three sons born to an immigrant Czech coal miner, Warhol had grown up in and around Pittsburgh. He took a degree in pictorial design from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1949 and lit out that summer to make his name as a commercial artist in Manhattan. In those days, setting up as a commercial artist in New York was tantamount to announcing oneself a traitor to the True Call. Serious young artists who found themselves reduced to taking commercial assignments to pay the rent did so under pseudonyms. Warhol not only worked under his own name but actually accepted awards – the ultimate depravity in ab-ex terms.

The ab-ex crowd created a tough-talking, two-fisted milieu –— hard men doing a hard job, tending their muses in the wasteland of American culture. Three childhood bouts with chorea, a nervous disorder, weakened Warhol. He was left pallid and balding, and with his bad wig and fey manner, he was a made-to-order target for macho hostility. ("I certainly wasn't a butch kind of guy by nature," he once admitted.)

But the bell was already tolling for abstract expressionism. The style had grown remote and bloodless, a private communion among its purveyors. A groundbreaking exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, in London, in 1956 introduced a new group of artists who took as their subject all of the effluvia of consumerism –— lollipops, comic books, body-building ads, bad furniture –— that the ab-ex crowd so hated. This new art drew visual juice from television and advertising; it was fresh, tough and funny. A British critic, Lawrence Alloway, dubbed it Pop Art.

Around this same time, Jasper Johns began doing his first target and flag paintings in New York. An American Pop Art ethos was in the air. Warhol, who had prospered in commercial art, was by then living with his long-widowed mother, Julia Warhola (Andy had dropped the final a from the family name), in a town house on the Upper East Side. Andy admired Johns and longed to be recognized as a "real" artist, too. He had shown some whimsical little ink drawings around town, but to scant notice. Finally, encouraged by a friend, he began in 1960 to pursue a bold new style, painting pictures based on such comic-strip characters as Superman, Dick Tracy and Popeye and on such supposed visual cliches as Coca-Cola bottles. These unlikely subjects spoke to him. "What's great about this country," he later said, "[is that] the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and, just think, you can drink Coke, too."

When Andy subsequently discovered that another artist, Roy Lichtenstein, was also doing comic-strip art, he was encouraged. Something was happening, and maybe he could be a part of it. But it wasn't until 1962 that Andy had his first one-man show, at the Ferus Gallery, in Los Angeles, where local reaction to his first Campbell's soup cans was subdued. That all changed in the fall, however, when his new work was finally accorded its own exhibition in New York, at the Stable Gallery. The show, with its Gold Marilyn, its Red Elvis, its paintings of two-dollar bills, launched Warhol's reputation. Pop –— like surrealism four decades earlier —– made art seem fun again, exciting and subversive. Warhol, Lichtenstein and other artists of their ilk found themselves feted by the mass media. Andy was not amazed. "The pop artists did images that anyone . . . could recognize in a split second," he said, "all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all."

By the time he began, in 1962, his Death and Disaster series –— harsh black-and-white treatments of straight news photos depicting dead car-crash victims and leaping suicides –— Warhol was drifting away from brush-on-canvas painting and into silk screening, a commercial process in which paint is screened onto the canvas, resulting in hard, bright, untouched-by-human-hands prints. In fact, the artist, after selecting whatever image it was that he wanted enlarged and reproduced, didn't even have to participate in the screening process: an assistant could apply the paint just as well. Andy liked that. "I wanted something . . . that gave more of an assembly-line effect," he said.

"What was radical in Warhol," art critic Robert Hughes later wrote, "was that he adapted the means of production of soup cans to the way he produced paintings, turning them out en masse —– consumer art mimicking the process as well as the look of consumer culture."

In November 1963, Warhol and his assistant Gerard Malanga moved into a new studio, a loft in a decrepit factory building on East Forty-seventh Street. Inevitably, given Andy's methods, it came to be called the Factory. A new recruit called Billy Name moved into the place and covered the walls with silver foil. Billy's speed-freak friends began dropping by, people with names like Rotten Rita, the Duchess and Pope Ondine. Warhol found these extreme characters to be ideal subjects for the films he'd begun making – unstructured vérité exercises with titles like Kiss, Eat, Sleep. (The titles defined the content of these opuses precisely: Sleep simply showed a man sleeping for eight hours.)

Soap Opera, made in 1964, introduced one of Warhol's earliest superstars –— Baby Jane Holzer, a rich, young Park Avenue matron with the perfect Sixties look and attitude. She was the Girl of the Year –— why not? "In the future," Andy said, "everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes." This was the perfect Pop notion. Like Claes Oldenburg's sculpted cheeseburgers and Lichtenstein's comic-strip machine guns ("BRATATATATA!"), it suggested that art could be produced from the lowliest materials, and by the unlike-liest people. In the future, everyone could be famous because, after all, it would only be for fifteen minutes, and then the next person would get a shot. Imagine the possibilities!

Other superstars would follow Baby Jane: the doomed Edie Sedgwick, Mario Montez, Ultra Violet, Viva, Candy Darling. The films in which they were featured over the years —– nonacted, stream-of-footage epics –— presented visual banality as a raw new style.

By January 1966, Warhol had brought a band into the Factory, a group called the Velvet Underground. He'd caught the Velvets at the Café Bizarre – two nights before they were canned for antisocial music making – and put them together with a German actress-model called Nico. The Velvets' Lou Reed wrote some songs for her, and Warhol put the group into the Cinematheque, an underground theater, for a week-long mixed-media show of his own. As Reed recalls it, "He said, 'Gee, I've got this week to do a show, and I was gonna show my movies, but why don't you play, and I'll show my movies on you?'

"He created multimedia in New York," Reed says. "All these clubs now with their lights and everything – they owe that mixed-media thing directly to Andy. The way people dress was affected by it, everything was affected by it. The whole complexion of the city changed, probably of the country. Nothing remained the same after that."

By March, the Velvets were on the road with a touring mixed-media rock circus Warhol called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The EPI had flashing strobes, light shows, film projections –— all the things that would soon become rock theater. With the help of Tom Wilson, a producer who worked with Bob Dylan, Warhol produced the Velvets' classic first album and designed its famous cover, which featured a peelable banana. That same year Warhol produced his cow wallpaper and his split-screen epic The Chelsea Girls and added to his iconic Jackie series —– screen prints of newspaper photos of President Kennedy's widow. His energies seemed endless. "He had a very intense work ethic that he was always drumming into us," says Lou Reed. "If I wrote a song, he'd say, Why didn't you write five songs?' He said, 'Work is everything. Work is the entire thing.'"

In 1967, Andy helped launch a discotheque called the Gymnasium and pulled off a startling bit of nonperformance art by retaining a Factory actor, Allen Midgette, to spray his hair silver and impersonate Warhol for a series of lecture dates —– one of the great Sixties put-ons. In the space of five years, Warhol had largely created a whole new multimedia avant-garde – one with vast commercial as well as artistic potential. As Andy later said, "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art."

By this time, the Factory had become a magnet for all who aspired to be with-it –— a place where Judy Garland might dance the twist with Rudolph Nureyev and still be outshone by the resident Warhol superstars. But the Factory's open-door policy was flooding the place with freaks. Baby Jane Holzer had dropped out, complaining about "too many crazy people" and "too many drugs." In 1968, Warhol moved the Factory into more elegant quarters downtown, at 33 Union Square West, not far from Max's Kansas City, the rock-and-art bar where Andy and his entourage held court in a fabled back room. ("He paid for all the food," recalls Iggy Pop, who first met David Bowie there.) Warhol was at the height of his fame when, on June 3rd, a disturbed woman named Valerie Solanis walked into the new Factory, pulled out a gun, fired two bullets into Warhol's stomach and nearly killed him. At one point, he was pronounced dead on the operating table. He lived, but it was the end of an era.

Warhol spent the rest of the year –— the rest of the Sixties, in fact —– recovering from massive internal injuries, and from a sudden mortal fear. New locks and security measures were installed at the Factory. Warhol started no new films or major paintings. (After 1968, he largely limited his film involvement to the role of producer.) In the fall of 1969, with the Seventies impending, he unveiled Interview, a magazine inspired, he said, by Rolling Stone but devoted entirely to the arts, gossip and taped ramblings by this or that month's reigning celebrity – essentially more gossip. The magazine had undeniable zing. In the Seventies, as Andy may have suspected, gossip itself would become an art form – most notably in the work of his friend Truman Capote, whom he interviewed for Rolling Stone in 1973. (Andy's association with this magazine was in fact ongoing: in 1977, he created a screen-print Bella Abzug cover for RS 249, and three years later he was commissioned to design the cover of a Rolling Stone coffee-table book on the Beatles.)

The Andy Warhol of the Seventies was himself a full-fledged celebrity. The Rolling Stones asked him to do the cover of their 1971 album Sticky Fingers (the celebrated crotch-and-zipper concoction). Bianca Jagger became his pal. So did Halston, the celebrity designer, and Diana Vreeland, the celebrity editor of Vogue. Andy became a fixture at Studio 54. He hung out with Liz Taylor, Liza Minnelli, all the usual fabsters. "I have Social Disease," Andy quipped. "I have to go out every night." ("But I think he went home a lot very early, too," says designer friend Diane Von Furstenberg.)

Susan Blond, an early Interview staffer and latter-day Factory actress, remembers introducing Andy one night to Michael Jackson, who became an early Interview cover subject. "He asked Michael if he had saved all his performance clothes from when he was a kid," Blond recalls, "and Michael had. Andy really liked that —– both of them collected everything, right? We ate at Regine's, and I asked Michael to dance, and he said, 'Oh, no, I don't dance. That's work.' The both of them had weird, interesting views on what was work and what wasn't, you know? They really hit it off immediately. Oh –— and Michael asked Andy if he had children. Michael has always asked that question. Andy said no." Andy Warhol

Embarking on his nightly celebrity wallows, Warhol always brought along his Polaroid camera and his little tape machine to document the fun, or whatever. "He was absolutely crazy about collecting images," says Mick Jagger with a fond laugh. "He would take millions of pictures –— which is very annoying when you're eating your soup and you've just blurped a piece of minestrone down your chin. And he always had a tape recorder on the table to collect the inanities of the night."

For Warhol, tape vérité offered a peculiar conceptual comfort. "In the late Fifties," he once wrote, "I started an affair with my television which has continued to the present. . . . But I didn't get married until 1964 when I got my first tape recorder. My wife. . . .

"The acquisition of my tape recorder," he explained, "really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape. . . . An interesting problem was an interesting tape. Everybody knew that and performed for the tape. You couldn't tell which problems were real and which problems were exaggerated for the tape. Better yet, the people telling you the problems couldn't decide anymore if they were really having the problems or if they were just performing."

For his own part, the world's most famous artist continued to claim to have nothing to say. Andy did, however, have a standard line of advice for the lovelorn. "When I used to have boyfriend problems," Susan Blond recalls, "he would say, 'Oh, just work really hard and then you'll have all the money and all the fame and then you can choose whoever you want.'"

By the end of the Seventies, Warhol was beginning to seem his own greatest work of art. His paintings had grown richer, more painterly —– particularly the outsize Mao canvases he'd begun in 1972 –— and his delicately muted 1974 portrait of his mother had suggested a new emotional forthrightness. He could still be prophetic, too –— his raggedy 1975 portraits of Mick Jagger had anticipated the cut-and-paste punk graphic style that would erupt out of England the following year.

But as the Eighties got under way, Andy Warhol no longer seemed shocking —– a tribute, perhaps, to the prevalence of his vision. In his fifties now, he accepted portrait commissions from the rich and famous, oversaw the burgeoning success of Interview and became a model for and mentor to a new generation of New York artists, among them Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He launched his own cable-TV show, Andy Warhol's T.V., and later, on MTV, Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes. He appeared in commercials, in rock videos, on The Love Boat. He drew up plans for a fast-food restaurant – — Andymat! –— to be located next door to the Whitney Museum, in New York. And with a new expansiveness, he turned his attention to such subjects as Franz Kafka and Sarah Bernhardt (for a series called Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century); to paintings for children (hung at kid height); and to paintings of endangered animal species. He most recently completed a version of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, which was to be exhibited in Milan while the original was being restored.

Warhol's endless enthusiasm for the young and the new obscured a dread of sickness and death. He worked out, he popped vitamins. But finally he had to enter New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center for gallbladder surgery on February 21st. The surgery was counted a success, but at 5:30 the following morning, he suffered a heart attack, and an hour later he was dead.

Warhol was buried in Pittsburgh on February 26th, laid alongside his mother (who had died in the Seventies) and his father. He left behind an estate valued at between $10 million and $15 million, an enormous body of paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapes, films and several books – documentation galore. And yet, the questions persist Who was Andy Warhol? What did he do, and why?

As it turned out, the silver-haired eminence behind all those wild sex-and-drug scenes at the original Factory was a devout Catholic who attended church every week. He apparently was not a druggie and, in sexual matters, not a natural participant. He liked to watch –— it was the fundamental stance of his art, just as his obsession with celebrity was a key theme. But he was an artist first, and the sincerity of his dedication was made clear in the terms of his will, which directed that the bulk of his estate be used to establish a foundation in his name for visual artists. (The will also leaves $500,000 to be divided between his elder brothers, Paul and John, and $250,000 to his longtime business partner, Fred Hughes.)

Warhol is missed in many quarters. Lou Reed calls him "one of the few people I've met in the business who never tried to screw anybody. People don't know what a good guy he was."

"The thing that he seemed to be able to do," says Mick Jagger, "was to capture society, whatever part of it he wanted to portray, pretty accurately. That's one of the things that artists do, is show people later on what it was like. If you want to be reminded of a certain period, you can look at what Andy was doing then. He was very much in tune with what was going on. Of course, he was criticized for that, for being sort of trendy. But I think that some people's great forte is being so in touch."

"He had tremendous wit," says Tom Wolfe. "But everything was stood on its head. His wit came not in saying witty things but in not saying anything. It was a matter of timing, like Jack Benny.

"To me, there was great verve in his anesthetic approach to life. You know, today there are young novelists who write what I call the anesthetic novel. They are really putting into literary form something that Warhol originated, which is the idea of immersing yourself in a very exciting life —– the life of the clubs and the discos —– and feeling nothing. Which is again an inversion of the expected. And then the greatest piece of wit of all was that, of his acclaimed and widely shown work, none of it was actually by him. And he never said it was. The Campbell's soup cans and the Brillo boxes were, of course, somebody else's images. The cow wallpaper, the famous flower series from the Burpee seed catalog —– these were all things, pieces of art, that had been created by someone else, often a commercial artist. Then he took it and did something with it and often wouldn't sign it. People would say, 'But Mr. Warhol, you didn't sign this.' And he'd say, 'Oh, I didn't do it.'"

Andy Warhol may have been Pop's truest democrat, ever eager to spread the fame around.

"He always made everyone else feel like a star," says Susan Blond, "even though he was the biggest, brightest, greatest star of all."