“Warhol” by Blake Gopnik
In his lifetime Andy Warhol took an inventive approach to the facts of his biography. At different times he claimed to have been born in 1929, 1930 and 1933; he even lied about his age to his doctor; and he changed his place of birth from Philadelphia to Newport, Rhode Island, and to Cleveland. “I never give my background,” he admitted to an interviewer, “and anyway, I make it all up different every time I’m asked.” All this information is included in a single paragraph in the first chapter of Blake Gopnik’s monumental biography of the artist, simply called Warhol. That chapter is 16 utterly readable pages long and there are 49 more chapters that operate the same way. In 1949 when Warhol had just arrived in New York, a magazine editor asked him for a potted biography. It’s as if his response—“My life wouldn’t fill a penny postcard”—acted as a provocation to Gopnik, who has managed to fill some 962 pages with richly fascinating details about that impoverished penny postcard life.
In those 50 chapters, as well as an opening prelude and a postlude, he supplies us with an astonishing amount of information and insight into the life and art of an artist whose name is arguably the most recognizable in the world. In that category, the titans are Picasso and Warhol. What this indispensable biography of the American artist and filmmaker makes clear is how complicated was the life through which he achieved that status and the constant repositioning that was necessary to sustain it. In January 1987, Warhol was very ill, but he still went to Milan to attend an exhibition of his work on the subject of The Last Supper. He made the paintings to fill a 6,500-square-foot space in an orphanage-turned-bank across the street from the building that housed Leonardo’s original. Warhol shipped four large canvases and 21 smaller ones from the hundred he painted. The organizers expected 500 people to attend the opening. Five thousand came. What the huge turnout indicated was the scale and persistence of Warhol’s reputation. His “Last Supper” exhibition was his last; he died less than a month later. The effect of Gopnik’s admirable feat of scholarship will be to refocus our attention on why the art that Warhol made continues to be so important and why the artist who made it continues to be so elusive. Gopnik himself accepts the equivocating nature of his subject. At various times he calls him a “wordless enigma, an international man of mystery” and “the great contrarian of American culture.”
Any book about Andy Warhol unavoidably has to deal with the artist as much as the art, and Gopnik’s biography is no exception. He seems to have read everything that has been written about Warhol. It is worth noting that the depth and range of his research are so substantial that the 7,300 endnotes will form an e-book version to which readers will have web access. Publishing these notes would have required a 400-page-long second volume. Over the seven years Gopnik took to write the biography, he also conducted 275 interviews of his own.
Everyone who knew Warhol had an opinion about his personality and the role it played in his art production. His trademark reticence was a quality he pushed to the point of performing a kind of dumbness. For many people, including art critics, all he didn’t say was evidence that he actually had nothing to say. This consideration of the Warhol phenomenon regards him as a version of an idiot savant, a naïve who, in revolutionizing the making of art and film in the 20th century, had little idea what he was doing, let alone what influence his work would have. In 1966, Edie Sedgwick meant to praise Warhol when she said, “Andy is just as simple as the things he says,” and Warhol himself added some combustibles to the trickster fire when he told audiences at lectures, “We don’t like to lecture. We don’t have anything to say.” Until the scam was discovered, Warhol was even sending a bad look-alike named Allen Midgette as his lecture-circuit surrogate. My guess is that the best job to take on, if you’re an impersonator, is someone who doesn’t talk.
The other read on Warhol’s character is only slightly less generous. In the words of one of the Factory hangers-on, he was “a sphinx and a con man,” a man fully aware of his deceptions and completely unconcerned with their effect on the people around him. The reaction he provoked could get nasty, even from the members of the Silver Factory. Joe Dallesandro, the film actor and Warhol superstar, was especially critical. His opinion could be general—“The motherfucker’s got absolutely no talent. No original idea in his head”—or it could be more particular. His comment on the work that Warhol did in a 1969 television commercial for the Schrafft’s ice cream sundae was that the 60-second piece “was the most boring piece of shit, but he was paid a lot of money to do it.”
Dallesandro’s hostility was not uncommon; Warhol created an atmosphere at the Factory in which competitiveness for his attention, approval and salaries was a constant problem. There is plenty of evidence in the book that he was manipulative, petty, unreasonable, parsimonious, cruel and disloyal. We are given a prodigious amount of information, and much of it makes him unlikeable; some of it makes him despicable. What Gopnik presents is material from which we can determine the size of the gap between art and life. What becomes apparent is that the life is considerably more messy than the art.
Along with the people who were critical of Warhol, there were also many individuals who were convinced of Warhol’s unique qualities and who had no difficulty reconciling the art and the life. Henry Geldzahler, the influential critic and curator, and Warhol’s friend, said, “Andy only plays dumb. It’s his style. He’s incredibly analytical and perceptive”; after working with him on a retrospective at the Moderna Musset in Stockholm, Pontus Hultén, the museum’s director, described him as “one of the most penetrating and analyzing sensitivities I have come across”; and Barbara Rose, in comparing his social portraits with Goya, called Warhol “not only our greatest realist, but our greatest moralist as well.”
As his fame, or notoriety, grew, it became increasingly difficult for him to go anywhere and not be the focus of attention. Gopnik’s description of the mob scene at the opening of an exhibition in Philadelphia in 1965 is revealing in this regard. This inaugural survey exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art was not without irony. At a private opening the night before, a few pieces of art had been damaged, so the museum authorities decided to remove all the work to avoid any further damage. The absence of art didn’t affect the size of the crowd—some 1,600 people had entered the gallery in the first hour, after which time the staff stopped counting—since the presence of Warhol and his entourage of superstars was the real attraction. They arrived late and, in working their way through the crowd, climbed a staircase, only to find themselves trapped at the top, where they spent the rest of the evening looking down on the rowdy crowd and signing the assortment of commuter tickets and Campbell’s soup cans that the crowd had brought along to be autographed. Warhol and his retinue were eventually rescued by firefighters who uncovered a trap door, which they opened with crowbars, and pushed through to another floor, down an exterior fire escape, and from there were able to escort the rattled entourage into police cars for their getaway.
Gopnik’s telling of this story is captivating. At one point in response to the crowd yelling, “We want Andy” and “Get his clothing,” Warhol handed over his wraparound yellow sunglasses to a fan, “maybe the way a salamander abandons its tail to a hawk.” Gopnik’s comparison is a delight, as is the follow-up. Apparently, in a moment when things had sufficiently calmed down, Warhol sent Edie Sedgwick to retrieve the sunglasses. A salamander who never really gave his tail away, he got by with a little help from his superfriends.
The recounting of the mania at the ICA indicates what a fine storyteller Gopnik is. He has an admirable sense of narrative flow and a subtle understanding of which incidents and details advance the story. Rarely are books of this length a page-turner, but every page of Warhol contains something of genuine interest or insight. The book is a world and, given its momentum, no less a whirled.
Gopnik frames the biography in a smartly dramatic way; it begins with a prelude describing Warhol’s first death in 1968 after he was shot by Valerie Solanas, and ends with his second, and final, death from complications following a gall bladder operation in 1987. It is an explosive frame within which the plenitude of Warhol’s life can be contained. One of the devices he uses throughout the biography is an unattributed quote at the beginning of each chapter—things like “Our aim was to upset people, make them feel uncomfortable, make them vomit” (chapter 27); or “A sort of gum-chewing, seemingly naïve teenybopper, addicted to the lowest forms of popular culture” (chapter 14); or “It’s gonna be Internal Revenue that gets him, not a gun” (chapter 41). The chapter headings are punchy, provocative and sometimes bewildering, and they are part of the book’s strategy to keep the reader engaged.
Chapter 13, as an example, opens with “The nation’s favorite beverage? Is it beer? corn liker? Soda pop? No sir, it’s soup.” The chapter gives Gopnik an opportunity to discuss cartoons, window dressing for Bonwit Teller’s, Mad magazine, Susan Sontag’s views on camp, and figures like Yves Klein, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein and their place in the ascending pop art firmament in 1961. But it is only inside the chapter that you find out the source of the leading epigraph. It is taken from a comic newspaper column written by Bennett Cerf in which, on the basis of the 10 billion bowlfuls of soup purchased by America’s housewives in 1959, he is able to conclude that soup is decidedly the nation’s favourite beverage. Andy and his Campbell’s soup cans are not far behind that consumable piece of information.
Blake Gopnik has had a distinguished career as an art writer. At different times he was the chief art critic for the Globe and Mail and the Washington Post, he is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, and in those positions he has shown himself to be a discerning and opinionated critic. There are countless places in the biography where that experience provides him with perspectives on the art and events that are an integral part of the Warhol story. He isn’t just documenting the events and describing the art; he is commenting on their aesthetic and cultural significance. In the majority of cases his reflections are insightful and add to the story, but there are occasions when taking off his biographical hat to put on his critical one is not altogether welcome. These comments are often parenthetical; he wants us to regard them as distractions from the main story, but they can also read as quippery. In his explanation of Warhol’s shift to regarding business as art, he calls Warhol the CEO of an artmaking factory, “much in the tradition of past art-world CEOs such as Vasari or Rubens.” The connection is facile and unnecessary in a book that is overflowing with real insight and enlightening observations. Still, his labouring in the trenches of popular writing invariably hits the right tone. Here is his description of Gerard Malanga, a one-night lover who worked with Warhol, in various degrees of compatibility, for 50 years: “He was a Neapolitan beauty with a Bronx accent and a rocker’s pompadour that gave him a whiff of rough trade.” It doesn’t get better and more popular than that.
As goes that sentence, so goes the book. Blake Gopnik’s Warhol is easily the most important book on Warhol’s art and life yet to be published. Warhol, the biography, is a must-read because Warhol, the artist, remains a must-see. ❚
Warhol by Blake Gopnik, Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins, 962 pages, 2020.