Andy Warhol was born three times: the first to his parents, as Andy Warhola. The second time as a commercial artist, Raggedy Andy. After a failed assassination, he was reborn the final time, as the artistic paragon and cultural revolutionary remembered worldwide as Andy Warhol.
Child number four to a poor immigrant family, raised in a tenement building during the Great Depression, the story of Andy is the story of the American dream itself- with a little extra obsession, drugs, and murder sprinkled on top, perfect for his Hollywood heart.
Bringing Modern Art to the Modern Age
It is impossible to overstate his contributions, not just to painting, but to the entire science of seeing. The idea that a mass-market object could be elevated to the status of art just by how it’s looked at is such a profound rejection of every standard which came before it that we no longer even recognize it as revolutionary, it has been internalized whole-cloth as The New Truth: The audience decides what is art..
Just as much as democracy is a rejection of the divine right of kings, Andy’s contributions to the American perspective are so ingrained that we no longer recognize them as his. Art is attention. “In the future we’ll all be famous for 15 minutes,” Warhol said that. The term “superstar” is one he coined, to describe the hippies and drag queens he used for camera fodder.
Andy understood better than any of his contemporaries that what the public wants is to be told that they matter, that the trappings of consumer culture are part of a grander narrative. Even in television and movies, every behind the scenes feature pits heroic creatives against the evil studio money-men. It’s not enough to enjoy a piece of entertainment, the work itself must be the product of this titanic struggle or it doesn’t have any weight to it. The drama gives it significance, no one would remember Firefly if it wasn’t defined by the conflict between Joss Wheadon and a bunch of nameless executives who loved blowing huge opportunities.
That’s the drama which inspired Andy to paint Liza Minelli as her career and marriage began to crumble. That’s why he painted his Death & Disaster series, one of which holds the record for Warhol’s most expensive work. America loves an underdog, and there is no bigger underdog than the victim in a fight against yourself. It’s our hunger for celebrities which drives their self-destruction, and here Andy comes along, turning a silk screened headshot into the kind of icon they build chapels around, equal parts relic and lecture on the cyclical hazard of icon worship. The same hazard which would later temporarily cost him his life.
A Pale Boy from Pittsburg
Andy grew up in the shadow of the St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, which is known for its huge and ornate wall of gold-leafed icons. With their unreadably beatific expressions and similar poses, this became the genesis for Andy’s experimentation with repeated images. The worshipful quality of his portraits, how the use of color elevates the mortal to the eternal, everything is here. You can trace every single one of his artistic motifs to this one place.
There’s a direct line between spending eight hours a week in church, staring at a gold-leafed image of Mary and then thirty years later, painting Marilyn Monroe on top of more gold leaf. The conflation of consumption and worship is rampant in Warhol’s work, because that is the language America uses to express desire and reverence. They eat what they worship, celebrity is Communion. Success in America is being incorporated into the greater whole, like how the calcium in milk becomes bone and teeth. Andy is the calcium of modernity, that’s why is hair was white.
In the third grade, he had to take a temporary leave of absence when a nerve disease named St. Vitus’ Dance plagued him with involuntary muscle spasms. He would struggle to write his name on the chalkboard and other children would bully him so much that he simply refused to return.
It’s this period of affliction and sickness in which the seeds of Warhol’s genius sprout. To keep him occupied, his mother provided him with Hollywood magazines, newsletters from fan groups, and plenty of paper for experimentation, going so far as to build a darkroom in the basement for his photography. Warhol began collecting autographed pictures, with his Shirley Temple as the jewel of the set.
To incentivize creation, his mother would provide a piece of chocolate for every completed work of art. This motivation clearly stuck with Andy, because after he recovered, he continued taking art classes through elementary and high school, pursuing a college degree at Carnegie Mellon in commercial art.
Success is a Job in New York
After graduating in 1949, Andy Warhola moved to New York City. He was always withdrawn, even before making it a central part of his public persona. A shy boy with a large nose and an inconsistent complexion, which he would later attempt to address through surgery. He was insecure about everything but his talents.
He quickly attracted respect from the art directors at magazines for his technical skills, and the unique appeal of his self-developed “blotted line technique,” a style of simple printmaking using a wet ink drawing pressed against transfer paper.
Perhaps more so even than his art, Andy developed a reputation for being, well, weird. In addition to his physical uniqueness, his clothes were tattered, his shoes broken-in, and his art was delivered in crumpled paper bags, rather than professional portfolios. In a phrase, he stuck out.
Glamour Magazine was the first to commission him to illustrate shoes for an article titled “What is Success?” Perhaps accidentally, he was credited as Warhol, and his rebirth as a commercial artist was complete.
His whimsical style soon won him contracts with Vogue, Columbia Records, and Tiffany & Co. His upwards trajectory only increased when, in 1952, his mother arrived on the stoop of his apartment to inform him that she had sold the family house. Almost immediately, they start collaborating on commercial works as well as art books for friends. She designed and hand-wrote a record label for New York busker icon Moondog which even won an award.
No matter how much Andy may have worried about his mother embarrassing him in front of his trendy friends, they lived and worked together for the next 20 years, until her death. As hardworking as her son was, her unique eye and flowing script helped refine the style that brought him so much praise and success.
However, this wasn’t enough for the ambitious young artist. More than security, he wanted to be respected for his talents, and even admired. He wanted the world to know why he mattered.
Boys & Other Headaches
It’s around this flourishing point in his career that Andy comes to grips with his same-sex attraction, even if fulfilling his ambitions proved difficult. His first kiss didn’t come until 25, and he wasn’t able to perform the rest of that night’s duties. After being rejected during a trip to Honolulu, he complained to a friend that he had “gone around the world with a boy and not even received one kiss.” Most biographers are content to say that he was gay in an era where that could get you arrested, but the truth is somewhat more convoluted.
The difficulty Warhol had with relationships and the consummation thereof, as well as his habit of incorporating voyeurism and celibacy into his creative process, has inspired much academic speculation as to his possible asexuality. He himself claimed to be a virgin in 1980, though this is contradicted by testimony from former lovers and that time he sought treatment for an STD in 1960.
It’s an extremely Andy Warhol move to saturate your life and work with sex, only to deny its ultimate power. Negating sex in an era where it had never been more ubiquitous was just another way in which he stood out from the crowd, an observer of the culture chasing his every move.
15 Rejections Based on the Friendship of Truman Capote
For those of you unfamiliar with New York’s publishing scene in the 1950s, Truman Capote was a young literary hotshot who was in the process of blowing everyone’s mind by somehow managing to succeed in writing strictly on merit alone, instead of a college alumni network and someone elses’ money. He was stylishly gay, beloved by the art world, and Andy Warhol wanted to be him.
He started leaving little illustrations in Capote’s mailbox. It eventually escalated to Warhol waiting outside his door, hoping to develop a friendship through sheer insistence. It didn’t work. Capote rejected him, later describing him as “one of those hopeless people you know nothing ever’s going to happen to” and “a hopeless, born loser.”
A rejection like that can sure make a fellow appreciate being ghosted. Undaunted, Warhol turned this rejection into fuel for his first fine art show, 15 Drawings Based on the Works of Truman Capote. Despite being masterful works of flowing, unbroken lines, none sold. This set the pattern for his early forays into fine art, on the rare occasions he managed to earn gallery space.
In the sharpest possible contrast to his continued success as a commercial illustrator, gallery owners and art dealers refused to help him sell his work. Before he dismantled it utterly, there was a fairly substantial barrier between commercial and fine artists, because people lucky enough to succeed in fine arts don’t need to work for a living. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case today…
But even moreso than that, Andy was gay and off-putting in a city that eats weakness. Granted, “too gay for the New York art scene” sounds like the setup for a joke where the punchline is Louis CK masturbating, but this was absolutely the case in the 50s. Then, the city was ruled by Jackson Pollock and his band of whiskey-soaked heterosexual abstract impressionists. That’s what art dealers and buyers wanted, when Warhol showed up with his second collection of ink drawings, Studies for a Boy Book, there was simply no market for his kind of obsession. It scared people.
But no matter how good his work was, everywhere Warhol went, he was rejected for being too swish, too camp, too weird, those same traits which would soon bring him more fame and admirers than he could handle.
Pop and Circumstance
While Warhol is the most widely known Pop artist, he hardly invented the genre. He was inspired most directly by the work of James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein, who both rose to prominence painting flat representations of advertisements and other cultural detritus. Warhol set to work immediately, painting scenes taken from Nancy cartoons and comic book wig advertisements. The work was not popular, even with Andy.
There’s a period of approximately fourteen months between Warhol’s decision to pursue fine art, and his first major success. In 1961, he painted two versions of a Coca-Cola bottle, one full of the brush strokes and human marks of creation, and the other without. Coca-Cola  was as sterile and hard-lined as a neon sign. No trace of the artist remained, nothing human.
In short, it blew the first one out of the water. His friends called it naked, savage, barren. Nothing of the painting existed between the message and the audience, no gradients or shadows for the eye to hide in. He had found his style.
Soup, There It Is!
Murial Latow is the name of the woman who inspired Andy Warhol to paint 32 cans of Campbell’s soup. When he asked her for ideas, she said simply, “you like money, you should paint pictures of money. you should paint something everyone sees every day, that everyone recognizes, like a can of soup.”
For Andy, Campbell’s soup was more than just the kind of convenient meal which didn’t interrupt his workflow, it held a deep personal significance. During his childhood, his mother suffered from colon cancer, and had to be hospitalized for six weeks. Everyday she was gone, his older brother would make him a soup and sandwich, and reassure him that his mother would be okay.
That’s what these cans represent, that’s what they’re inspired by, a sobbing child desperate to believe that his mother will be okay, taking their daily ritual of soup. Consumption becomes reverence, and through his tithe, his mother was restored to him. I was not exaggerating when I said that Andy painted religious icons, I think to him, the soup can was a symbol of resurrection.
It certainly resurrected his career, Warhol painted one portrait of each available variety of Campbell’s soup, and when they displayed in a Hollywood gallery, he brought the Pop Art movement to the west coast. Instead of waiting for the world of fine art to accept him, he battered down the doors instead.
Taming the Silver Silkscreen
August 1962 marks another revolution in his career, the incorporation of drawn and photographed silkscreens in his paintings. The inconsistencies of his blotted lines are replaced, almost overnight, with the divine accidents of an artistic method reduced to assembly line efficiency.
He focuses first on Hollywood icons from his youth, followed by stars in decline, like Liza Minnelli. Andy got started on his series of Marilyn Monroe paintings the same day she died, and eventually debuted them to huge public response.
Using a still from the 1953 movie Niagara, Andy took an image of her in the prime of her youth and joy, and through countless repeated silk screenings, eventually slowly transformed the joyful smile into a bitter grimace, the kind of rictus grin which precedes oblivion.
No piece makes this more clear than the Marilyn Diptych, a sequence of colored portraits juxtaposed next to a row of washed out and incomplete black and white images, the commentary is obvious. Not only does it resemble a film strip, but the increasingly vague monochrome transfers really capture how it feels to wear out the memory of a loved one. It’s more than just death, it’s the very public death that only the extremely famous get to live through, the slow relegation to the b-roll of history.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this is also the era he starts producing and directing his own films. Eight hours of the Empire State Building vanishing into the night sky, six hours of his boyfriend sleeping, the kind of deliberately impenetrable stuff that gets modern-day freshmen kicked out of film school. He also produced the campy and unlicensed Batman Dracula, which is exactly what you imagine.
Just two years later, Adam West’s knowingly tongue-in-cheek take on the caped crusader debuts with the POW! BAP! Batman TV and movie shows your parents remember. Though it was only ever displayed in galleries or as part of shows, these screenings were taking place in New York City and Hollywood at the height of Warhol’s fame, scenes a popular actor like Adam West would absolutely have access to. The influence is undeniable, and remains a core part of Batman to this day. Even Superheroes were not beyond the reach of Warhol.
Can’t Spell “Factory” Without U!
In 1963, Warhol hired a friend to decorate his new work and party space with mirrors and tinfoil, and the Silver Factory was born. To Warhol, Silver represented both the coming space age future, and the silver screens of Hollywood’s glamorous past. It also represented a mirror and narcissism. In short, it reflects now, it gives us what we want: Us.
His entourage immediately starts using it as the base of operations for a nearly continuous stream of artistic creation and revelry which would continue for most of the rest of the decade. It became the de-facto center of the New York art scene, Bob Dylan would go there, Mick Jagger, Salvadore Dali, Liza Minelli, William S. Burroughs, even David Bowie called themselves regulars.
In one room, people were doing speed. In another, people were filming a music video for The Velvet Underground. Warhol would be making silk screens in one corner of the workshop while at the other, drag queens vamped. It was, in every sense, bacchanalian. And just like in the stories of the Bacchantes, Warhol would find himself torn asunder by the very party he cultivated.
Never Trust a Playwright
The central irony in the assassination of Andy Warhol is that he wasn’t even the initial target, he was the understudy for his own death. Valerie Solanis stuffed the guns in her coat that day, intending to murder her publisher, Maurice Girodas. She waited outside his apartment for three hours in an unseasonably warm hat and overcoat, but lucky for him, he missed that particular appointment with Fate.
Crestfallen but unwilling to abandon her plans for the day, she headed next to Warhol’s Factory. He knew Valerie as the author of an extremely graphic anti-male play so violent that he initially suspected her to be a police informant. She believed him to be part of a conspiracy to steal this script, when instead it had been misplaced. When they arrived in his office, she drew her two automatic pistols, and wounded Warhol. She was preparing to execute an assistant when the elevator opened, and she simply fled, turning herself over to police custody several hours later.
She left behind a paper bag at the factory, containing her address, a backup gun, and a single sanitary napkin. The idea that the assassination of Andy Warhol was intended as some kind of theatrical performance or social critique has been discussed quite seriously in academic circles, Valerie’s work is obscene and confrontational, including the much-maligned SCUM Manifesto and the one-woman organization it spawned, the Society for Cutting Up Men. Shortly thereafter, many other artists, including Chris Burden and his museum-destroying sculpture Samson, would incorporate gunplay into their work.
For a certain type of New Yorker, the temporary death of Warhol marked the end of the innocent 60s. The ramifications of the shooting would linger with Warhol for the rest of his days, which is understandable considering he only survived because the doctor reached into his chest and hand-massaged his heart. No one jumps back from that without a scar.
He was required to wear a surgical girdle around the operating site, much like the silver screen darlings he so admired in his childhood. Far from being shocked out of his semi-affected malaise, Warhol seemed to retreat into the unreality of it all, remarking ““Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there—I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television—you don’t feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.”
While this brought down the gate on the open-door factory, Warhol’s reputation as a nightclub regular was just getting started. He would spend much of the 70s hobnobbing with New York royalty in the famed Studio 54, taking it all in as fuel for high-paying commissions of celebrities, socialites, and an actual Shah. He founded Interview, a celebrity interview magazine which is still being published.
For a normal person, that’s a huge amount of work. Most people never even get to paint a vizier, let alone a full Shah, but for the creator of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the orgy-cum-art show which inspired “The Rave,” it must have felt like a living retirement.
Rather than spending the final decade of his life resting on the laurels of the man who invented Today, Andy started collaborating with many young talents in the underground arts scene, including Macklemore’s personal favorite, Basquiat. For those of you who don’t recognize the name, approximately two hundred years ago, Macklemore wrote a song about thrift shops. A shop is like a real life Amazon where they only carry one type of thing, and it’s never what you need.
But I digress, Basquiat was a controversial figure in the art world for his propensity of cranking out a huge number of visually arresting but thematically opaque works which he would sell for huge amounts of money. How soon the student overtakes the master!
His final gallery showing would debut across the street from the nunnery which houses Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Fittingly enough, The Last Supper was the subject matter, something Warhol must have delighted in, because he returned to traditional brush painting for the first time in twenty years. He and Basquiat produced well over a hundred works, including Ten Punching Bags, which features the face of Jesus painted across, you guessed it, ten punching bags. Warhol still holds the record for most works displayed on a single subject.
In February of 1987, he died while recovering from what should have been routine gallbladder surgery. The public wake shut down large portions of New York and Pittsburgh, where he was buried next to his parents. He was 58.
For someone who had lived through so much, the depression, World War 2, an assassination, dying due to a moment’s accidental neglect feels anticlimactic. Unfinished, like a silk screen with too little paint.