Andy Warhol was one of 20th-century art’s great success stories. He was born in 1928 as Andrew Warhola, the son of working-class Eastern European immigrants in Pittsburgh, and improbably went on to wealth and global fame as almost a living embodiment of celebrity itself.
Meanwhile, many recall the actual art that Warhol made only in broad strokes – Campbell’s Soup can, Brillo box – and gloss over the man himself as a lightweight. Both moves are a real mistake, says Blake Gopnik, author of the new biography “Warhol” (ecco).
“The thing that really drove Andy Warhol, from the day he entered college to the day he died, was a desire to make really, really important art, to be an artist who was more important than Picasso,” said Gopnik.
And Gopnik – drawing on countless hours of research in Warhol’s archives at The Andy Warhol Museum -- argues that Warhol did just that. The 976-page book, likely Warhol’s definitive bio, convincingly makes the case that he was not only a truly self-made man (in senses of the word that didn't quite exist before him) but also the most important artist of the century.
His works have often sold at auctions for tens of millions of dollars each. How Warhol got there is a fascinating story.
“There’s been this gap between what art historians and critics have written about Warhol and what the biographers have written, and I felt I wanted something that combined the two,” said Gopnik, who trained as an art historian and is the former art critic at both The Washington Post and Newsweek. “I think to understand the art, you really need to understand the life.”
It was a life, Gopnik writes, informed far more by serious thinking than Warhol himself let on, and far more influenced by his queerness than we’ve been led to believe by his almost asexual image.
Gopnik’s account of Warhol’s childhood, on the North Side and in Oakland, is broadly familiar: He was a sickly kid who grew up in humble circumstances, and whose interest in art was sparked by the Carnegie Institute’s Tam O’Shanter classes. A few myths are exploded: Warhol almost surely did not eat Campbell’s Soup as a child, and in many ways was actually a pretty regular kid.
But Gopnik really breaks ground with his portrayal of Warhol’s years at Carnegie Tech. It was there, starting in 1945, that Warhol got his grounding in everything from avant-garde theory to his first exposure to silk-screening. Many instructors at the school (now Carnegie Mellon University) even saw little difference between fine and applied (or graphic) art, a blurred line that Warhol would later shockingly exploit.
Warhol and companions including friend and classmate Philip Pearlstein – whom Gopnik interviewed – also frequented Elizabeth Rockwell’s pioneering Downtown modern-art gallery Outlines. It was one more way Warhol absorbed the lessons of avant-garde heroes like Marcel Duchamp, composer John Cage, and poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
Contrary to his later self-characterization as “all surface,” they were lessons that Warhol drew on throughout his life.
“He pretended to be a goofy, know-nothing, talk-nothing character,” said Gopnik. “But that was an absolute and created persona that was for the benefit of the press and the public. He was actually extremely well educated. … He actually was a pretty substantial reader, his whole life, even though he pretended that he never read anything. So he was a canny, sophisticated cultural figure and artist, and he knew exactly what he was doing. There were profound goals underneath this surface appearance.”
His college years were also when Warhol began to explore his identity as a gay man. Gopnik emphasizes the dangers of being queer in 1940s Pittsburgh, from the police Morals Squad no less than at the hands of local toughs.
Once in New York City (where he wasted no time in moving after graduation), Warhol discovered a whole new gay world, though most of the men remained deeply closeted. Gopnik shows how the sense of being an outsider, which would have come naturally to him as a gay man in a virulently homophobic society, informed his art throughout his life. So did Warhol’s highly refined sense of camp, which was evident in his illustrations for newspaper and magazine ads, as well as his early gallery shows.
“In the ’50s, his art was quite explicitly gay, and as a result of that, it only found an audience in gay New York,” said Gopnik.
Even those later soup-can paintings were instantly pegged as high camp by gays because of how that brand’s label embodied the curlicued, turn-of-the-century aesthetic that was then the very essence of camp, said Gopnik.
That Warhol is typically thought of as asexual seems odd given the copious evidence Gopnik uncovers that he had multiple lovers and an active sex life – not to mention that his first big experimental film, “Sleep,” consisted of more than five hours of footage of his lover, John Giorno, naked and slumbering.
Warhol “was no sex fiend, but he was definitely very interested in sex his entire life,” said Gopnik. “So the notion of him as asexual, I think is just plain factually wrong, and kind of subtly homophobic. There's something about people being squeamish about the idea of gay sex that makes them prefer a man who's asexual. And he was always acutely sensitive to what people wanted from him. And if they wanted an asexual Andy, then that's what he was going to give them.”
Gopnik’s assertion of Warhol’s artistic pre-eminence relies largely on something that’s often forgotten today: just how radical those early Pop works were, coming out an era when abstract expressionism, as practiced by the likes of Jackson Pollock, was considered the height of artistic achievement.
Warhol wasn’t the first to incorporate images from popular culture into his gallery work; Gopnik cites precedents dating to the 1930s. But Warhol’s take was the most shocking. Gopnik notes, in fact, that Warhol’s first Pop paintings – which included imagery from Superman and Popeye comics -- were “exhibited” as part of a Manhattan department-store window display in April 1961. Warhol later used them in a gallery show, effectively stating there was no difference between the two settings. (Another great Warholian paradox: He was an ingrained avant-gardist who craved the validation of gallery exhibitions over the mere money-making of commercial work -- yet he disdained the contemporary art world, and habitually thumbed his nose at it whenever he could.)
The soup cans, which came out in 1962, made a bigger splash, in a way now hard to imagine.
“People just couldn't make heads or tails of it,” said Gopnik. “Paintings of Campbell's soup cans -- some of the most famous critics in the country said, ‘There's simply nothing to look at there. They aren't art.’ The people were so used to looking at art for its formal qualities, for color, for composition. They were used to looking at abstract art and all of a sudden, art that was only about the thing that it represented really threw them for a loop. … The early reviews were mostly insane pans with the critics just couldn’t have been more angry.”
Were the cans a critique of American consumer culture – or a celebration of the same? Critics today still disagree.
But Warhol wasn’t just tweaking conventional wisdom, Gopnik said. “That was really a moment of crisis in the entire Western art world. … Abstract expressionism and its European versions had been so powerful for the last 10 years that there was really a sense that something had to be done to move things forward. And no one quite knew what to do when the pop artists and Warhol, more than anyone, really figured out a new way of making art. … And for him to arrive on the scene at exactly the right moment and figure out what the scene needed was amazing. And that's Warhol’s greatest skill. He's a kind of Zelig figure. He's just always in the right place at the right time. And most importantly, with the right idea.”
Warhol followed up quickly with his famous silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy and his “Death and Disaster” paintings – all of them radical for their use of photographs as source material, something still unheard-of in high-art circles – and then those infamous Brillo boxes.
Such core works cemented his importance -- and, Gopnik believes, vaulted him ahead in rank of Picasso, who’d been the great godhead of modern art since before Warhol’s birth.
“Picasso made some awfully interesting-looking pictures, and a few interesting looking sculptures -- but they were pictures, they were sculptures, they were within the tradition of Western European art. And then here Warhol comes along,” said Gopnik. “What happens when someone just presents what seems to just be an unchanged Campbell's Soup can as a painting? Or what happens when someone takes a Brillo box and holds it up and says, ‘Just look at this’? … He really redefined the fundamentals.”
Gopnik spent several years researching the book, much of it in Pittsburgh, burrowed deep in Warhol’s archives, housed at The Warhol, which he called “just extraordinary.”
“I'm not sure any other artist has as big an archive, but if they do, it's certainly not as deep and weird as the archives Warhol left behind,” he said. A lot of that is thanks to Warhol’s famous Time Capsules: the 610 banker’s boxes in which he hoarded every scrap and memento of his personal and business life (and which themselves were original conceived as sort of an anti-art project).
“The archives have every kind of ticket stub, and invoice and bank statement. I mean, it's just -- for anyone who's got the time to do the kind of research I did, it's heaven,” he said. He praised the museum’s staff, especially the late archivist Matt Wrbican – one of two people to whom Gopnik dedicates the book. (The other is his wife.)
“Warhol,” of course, recounts many eras and episodes of the artist’s life, from a vivid evocation of the life of a commercial illustrator (at least, a highly successful one) in 1950s Manhattan to the famous debauches of the Silver Factory scene, Warhol's crucial role in managing seminal rock band The Velvet Underground, and his near-death experience at the hands of a gun-wielding Valerie Solanas. And it gives plenty of credit to people who worked with Warhol along the way, from studio assistants like Nathan Gluck and Gerard Malanga to his art-world mentor Emile de Antonio.
It also covers less-trodden ground, including the years in the late 1960s when Warhol essentially gave up painting to become an underground filmmaker, and a highly influential one at that.
But Gopnik argues that Andy Warhol’s longest-running project was actually crafting “Andy Warhol,” who during his decades as a professional artist was seen variously as a provocateur, con man, put-on artist, arbiter of cool, fame whore, sleaze merchant, celebrity caddy, and gnomic poser, among other guises. And none of it had much to do with who he was in private.
“I mean, he turned himself into his maybe his most important artwork,” said Gopnik. “He became a performance artist, if you like, by becoming this weird character called Andy Warhol from pretty much the day he started pop art to the day he died."
“You get the feeling that someone like Salvador Dali, who was also a celebrity artist, was really invested separately in his celebrity and in his art, and the celebrity was at the service of the art," said Gopnik. "Well, with Warhol, it's kind of the other way ’round. I think the art is a kind of an attribute of Warhol. It's what tells you that you're in the presence of this celebrity. When you see the umpteenth Campbell's Soup can, you know that that stands for Warhol, this very famous artist. So the fame, the celebrity, the persona is just as important, or maybe more important at different times in his life than the art itself. And he works just as hard at polishing the persona as he ever did at finishing one of his paintings.”