Warhol by Blake Gopnik

Blake Gopnik opens his exhaustive biography of Warhol with Andy’s near death, on June 3, 1968, the day he was shot by Valerie Solanas, über-feminist pamphleteer and brooding outlier in the Warhol universe. “Near death” doesn’t do justice to how near dead Warhol was. In the emergency room, he had no detectable pulse. By chance, a doctor pushed open an eyelid to discover that Warhol’s pupil contracted in the light, a reflex that separates the still faintly living from the truly dead.

After an operation that removed his spleen, salvaged half his liver, and reattached his severed esophagus, a brutally scarred Warhol survived, only to die 18 years later following what seemed at first to be successful gallbladder surgery. But by that time it was common to say he really had departed on that day in ’68. Unkind but not so untrue. The Warhol of the 1960s was one of those hinges that 20th-century art turned upon. No one before him had planted the flag of art into the muck of pop culture with such abandon. But after that? The man who survived, as ubiquitous as ever and richer by far, Polaroid-toting court artist to Studio 54 and incense bearer to the stars, really was a ghost of himself.

He still had some good moves, such as the multiple Maos that turned the Great Helmsman into a Marxist soup can. But he was more often the Andy of accounts receivable, the evangel of what he actually called “Business Art.” Even before his death, there was no end of attempts to validate the late work, and the last third of Gopnik’s 900-page biography is now among them. Gopnik is the former chief art critic of Newsweek and The Washington Post, and his book is never less than smart, thorough, and immensely readable, never mind how long it is. But while even he discounts the logo-branded Last Suppers and most of the lame collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, he’s all in for the Time Capsules—612 cartons where for decades Warhol dropped news clippings and whatever else—and calls Warhol “the greatest portraitist of his era.” Tell that to David Hockney, Lucian Freud, or Alice Neel.

Left the A in Pittsburgh

Warhol came from nowhere, nowhere being the Pittsburgh slum where he was born, on August 6, 1928, to parents living in a two-room apartment with an outhouse. Both Warholas—Andy would later drop the a—were immigrants from a tiny village in what is now eastern Slovakia. At home they spoke Rusyn, a Slavic dialect. Warhol’s father, a runty, thick-set laborer, would die when Andy was 13. It was his mother, Julia, who was the key influence on his life, who encouraged his interest in art and didn’t mind that her shy boy was somehow different, though she never stopped hoping he would meet the right girl.

By 20, Warhol had a degree in “pictorial design” from Carnegie Tech and a bus ticket to New York. Gay, gifted, and wildly ambitious, in the 1950s and early 1960s he earned his living, a very good one, as a commercial illustrator, the go-to guy for women’s shoes. By 1960 he was flush enough to buy an Upper East Side town house for himself and his mother, who came to visit in 1952 and stayed.

Though he was introduced to gay circles in art school, and maybe even had his first sex, New York set Warhol a little freer. Same-sex acts were still illegal but there were gay bars anyway, plus East Side watering holes with an unannounced queer clientele like the Café Winslow, where Warhol became a regular. Young Andy was not celibate. There were one-offs and boyfriends, even if his blotchy skin and thinning hair meant he wasn’t exactly a sex bomb. He was also apparently not much in bed, though Gopnik, who leaves no stone unturned, assures us he was hung: “Photographs confirm it.”

However well illustration paid, what Warhol wanted was recognition as a fine artist. But the gossamer drawings he first showed in galleries—epicene young men were a favorite motif—got him nowhere. Not until he saw the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, art that put into play blunt fragments of the real world—flags, beer cans, a stuffed goat—did Warhol recognize the path that would eventually bring him to the soup cans, a stroke of deadpan genius, though one suggested to him by a friend. Gopnik is especially good in laying out how the Campbell’s soup cans and much that followed, like the garish heads of Liz and Marilyn, the silkscreened car crashes and purple-cow wallpaper, took the rogue insight of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal—that anything could be art, once an artist said so—and used it fearlessly to canonize supreme banality, the stuff of supermarkets, tabloids, and tacky décor.

The Warhol of the 1960s was one of those hinges that 20th-century art turned upon.

Though Gopnik thinks the quote has been misunderstood, Warhol said Pop art was about “liking things,” but his true attitude toward the mainstream was more passive-aggressive. Did he like Liz? He practically loved her to death, under that mudslide of harpy colors. His most inspired assault on all hierarchies of quality was the Brillo boxes. Near-perfect replicas of printed cardboard shipping cartons, but made of wood with silkscreened logos, they so utterly dissolved the border between art and life that for a 1968 retrospective in Stockholm the curators just ordered actual cartons direct from Brillo and showed those. Why not?

By that time, Warhol had fully constructed his 60s persona—the hipster sphinx in dark glasses and a fright wig, with a voice so fey and whispery it made Jackie Kennedy sound like a barking stevedore. Key to that schtick were his “superstars,” a rotating posse of druggy misfits like the rich and doomed Edie Sedgwick and fitfully funny gender benders like Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis. Among Andy’s many paradoxes was that he was so at one with mass culture yet so plainly on the dissolute fringe—the Norman Rockwell of Planet Freak.

For a few years Warhol would almost entirely abandon painting to make films that were cinéma vérité with a vengeance, avant-garde endurance tests such as Sleep, nearly five and a half hours of his then lover John Giorno actually sleeping, or the weirdly compelling eight-plus hours of Empire, a motionless shot of the Empire State Building. By the time Warhol moved on to sound films, like the shambolic Lonesome Cowboys, his movies were directed mostly by Paul Morrissey and “presented” by Warhol, who by then was too busy promoting psychedelic light shows and managing the Velvet Underground. His idea of management included bringing them as after-dinner entertainment at the annual banquet of the New York Society of Clinical Psychiatrists. The crowd reportedly went insane, just not in a good way.

Business Artist

Gopnik insists that Warhol was not money mad. No mere greed-head would have devoted himself to projects as avant-garde as Empire, a film so immersed in the question of pure existence it could have been made by Heidegger. But in the 1970s things changed, thanks mostly to the ascent of Fred Hughes, a hustling Texas art consultant in a bespoke suit, a guy Fran Lebowitz once described as “a social climber from an Edith Wharton novel.” Sliding into the role of business manager, Hughes streamlined and turbocharged the Warhol operation, freeing Andy to acquire a Rolls-Royce and a Montauk house grand enough to rent out to Lee Radziwill, and to trade his ragtag superstars for the emerging glitzocracy of Liza, Halston, and Truman.

The Warhol who survived the shooting, as ubiquitous as ever and richer by far, really was a ghost of himself.

In the 80s, he would also become a sort of father figure to the self-immolating Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was in awe of Warhol but too drugged-out to save. The British-American writer Anthony Haden-Guest once suggested that Warhol might have chosen to play guardian because he was so stung by Edie: An American Biography, the oral history by Jean Stein with George Plimpton, in which he came off as coolly indifferent to Sedgwick’s death at 28. Gopnik includes the familiar, though maybe apocryphal, story that Andy once asked a friend: “When do you think Edie will commit suicide? I hope she lets us know so we can film it.” Then again, as Gopnik points out, Andy was also sorry no one filmed him being shot by Solanas.

It’s in these pages that Gopnik keeps summoning Warhol’s idea of Business Art as a neo-Duchampian category in which business itself is the “found object.” By that stratagem nearly all is forgiven, even tired silkscreens of Mickey Mouse and a guest spot on the last season of The Love Boat. This might do if you’re fine with watching art slip into a terminal entropy, as bland and formulaic as The Love Boat. But if Pop really was about liking things, at this point one might ask: “What’s to like?”

It’s a question Warhol never settled. Given his anesthetizing embrace of everything, he may well have considered it irrelevant. But that’s the best part about being a sphinx. You don’t have to answer your own riddles.

Richard Lacayo is the former art critic for Time. He is currently at work on a book for Simon & Schuster on six artists in old age, from Titian to Nevelson