Andy Warhol was an extremely complex figure, with a lot depth in his work and personality, despite his own assertion that all that he was, was on the surface. The creation of the persona and brand ‘Andy Warhol’ was probably his most successful work of art, at least commercially. It is hard to know how much of this was real and how much was constructed. What we can gather about Warhol was that he was an incredibly hard worker and was (at least during his first decade of production) redefining what was possible in a number of different artistic modes.
Born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Warhol quickly developed an interest in visual art. He became a promising magazine and advertising illustrator and by the early 1960’s had began working as a fine artist. His early famous works: hand-painted Campbell soup cans, screen-printed Coca-Cola bottles and Marilyn Monroes among other classics were shocking at the time along with his darker images of car crashes, civil rights demonstrations, and electric chairs.
This new Pop Art by artists like Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg, James Rosenquist and others was seen as anathema to the art establishment of critics and dealers at the time. This was the tail-end of the New York renaissance of Abstract Expressionism when totally abstract painting was king and artists like Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, and Willem De Kooning were still in favor. The idea that paintings and sculptures of consumer goods, advertisements, and celebrities could be considered art was very challenging at the time. Andy was one of the main catalysts for what would become an art establishment acceptance of Pop Art.
Pop Art would make Warhol famous. He raised consumer goods and celebrities to the level of high art, of icons. At the same time, he liked the way commercial goods and celebrities were products of a kind of manufactured process and imitated this proliferation of images through repetition in his own. His art was very democratic unlike the conscious elitism of the Abstract Experssionists.
Warhol once said,
You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
Warhol played into the very fame and banality that he depicted in his paintings. He was a media darling. In taking a cue from his hero, Salvador Dali, he developed a persona that would allow him to become famous himself. Instead of fighting against his natural shyness and strange appearance, normally bad qualities for acquiring fame, he heightened them and made them larger than life. He became deadpan and impossibly cool in interviews.
The air of superficiality Warhol demonstrated led to a sense that he was hiding something, to an air of mystery which drew people to him. They would project their idea of ‘Andy Warhol’ onto him and he was all but too happy to allow them to do so. He said he wanted to be a machine, to like everything and everyone. This turned many people off but others found it intoxicating and wanted nothing more than to be around him however they could.
Warhol liked big personalities. He loved rich socialites but he also loved drug addicts, hustlers, drag queens, and other extreme personalities from the fringes of society. They found a haven at Warhol’s Factory and many of them participated sexual and drug-fueled excess, to which Warhol preferred to observe and not participate. The studio came to be the place where misfits and celebrity wannabees felt not only accepted but that they were in charge. It became a haven from the outside world that was cold and hostile to them.
Warhol began to extend his influence into aspects of popular culture. He became interested in creating events and happenings including the famous Exploding Plastic Inevitable in 1966. He discovered and managed the Velvet Underground, an iconic sixties rock band featuring the late Lou Reed, John Cale, and later Nico, a German actress, model, and singer.
A film depicting The Exploding Plastic Inevitable with music by The Velvet Underground, 1966:
Despite his love of crazy antics, Warhol had an incredibly strong work ethic. Even at the height of the the Silver Factory, he continued to work feverishly. The only reason he rarely took drugs, specifically Speed, was so that he could stay up all night and keep working. He maintained a strict routine of phone calls, planning, and meetings into the seventies and eighties.
Warhol’s process was related directly to his considerably affected personality. He said he wanted to be a machine and made much of his early series in a kind of assembly line process, which is how the term the Factory was coined. He would lay out the areas that he wanted to be painted and then would apply the silkscreen. Often assistants did much of the work. He would pick the image to be used in the silkscreen, somebody else would do it, and another person might actually sign the work. Many accused him of stealing ideas and taking the credit for others, including Paul Morissey, who directed his later films. Others laughed it off as they did with much of Warhol’s less amiable qualities.
Clip of Warhol working and interview by the CBC:
Andy often said he was giving up painting in order to try something new (although he always came back). In 1964, he began working with film, claiming that he was doing so because it was easier than painting. His early films are seen by many as his most important and are by far the most experimental. Warhol’s early filmmaking process consisted of eliminating the role of the director (because he claimed he couldn’t do it and didn’t seem that interested in learning either). Instead, he turned on the camera, leaving it on until the film ran out.
He filmed John Giorno, poet and sometimes boyfriend of Warhol, as he slept for eight hours. He filmed the Empire State Building for six hours straight. He filmed many of the Factory regulars and guests in six minute “screen tests” which acted as portraits of an era. He even revolutionized film projection with Chelsea Girls, a black and white and color double-projection depicting the excitement and excesses of his downtown circle which was the first to achieve some commercial success.
The early films were part and parcel of Warhol’s almost Zen-like love of everything from the most seemingly boring to the most extreme. He flattened out these extremes treating them as equally interesting. At the same time, he saw the films as part of the furniture. He would project them at parties and you could pay attention to them or just see them as background, as part of the atmosphere. It didn’t matter to him. He had no real skill for narrative but understood visuals intently. His early films are impactful and stay logged in the viewer’s memory long after seeing them.
Excerpt from Sleep:
Excerpt from Empire:
Excerpts From Warhol’s Screen Tests:
Excerpt from Chelsea Girls:
Warhol’s personality included some very dark aspects. He had strange coldness and indifference towards the deaths of others, even his friends. Various members of the factory, including most famously Edie Sedgwick, would fall pray to their lifestyle and die from excesses. Sedgwick was Warhol’s darling during the 1960’s but she became addicted to the drugs and alcohol that would eventually contribute to her accidental death. Warhol lost interest in her, did nothing to stop her downward spiral, and showed very little in the way of sympathy when she died. Many found his coldness to her and other deceased members of the Factory troubling, a more regrettable aspect of his over-the-top persona.
When Warhol nearly died himself, due an assassination attempt in 1968, he was annoyed that Bobby Kennedy’s assassination the next day meant he would not get the cover of Time Magazine. He was nearly killed by a crazed woman in his circle, Valerie Solanas who had been obsessed with getting him to produce her play. That near death experience would change him and his world forever.
Warhol would never again trust the kinds of people he had let into his world during the height of the Factory. The new Factory was run like a business. It’s later incarnations became office spaces and his assistants wore suits. Drugs disappeared from the Factory entirely and sex became a less frequent (although not completely absent) quality. Andy lamented to his employees that they were boring, that he missed the old Factory. However, he would never go back to that kind of environment fearing those elements which had led to his shooting.
Many critics began to think Andy was played out by the seventies and eighties. His art (with a few exceptions) became rather predictable and repetitive and he was mostly known as a portraitist of socialites, movie stars, and pop stars. His later films (really directed by Paul Morissey) became exploitative and unimaginative B-movie tripe. Gone was the experimentation and spontaneity of the early films. Nonetheless, Andy rose to the height of fame during this time. He was on TV and in magazines often, in advertisements and appearances, although he was still reticent about being interviewed and when he was, he rarely said anything of substance.
Warhol being interviewed for a World Wrestling Federation (WWF) promo:
Warhol became a magazine publisher with Interview Magazine and claimed that he now was working in the highest form of art: the art of business. Being a sellout never bothered him as it did other artists. He had come full circle in a way, back to his commercial art roots. Nonetheless, he never totally gave up his mantle as the king of a certain kind of New York avant-garde artistic circle.By the eighties, that circle included the likes of graffiti artists and painters Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and other members the MTV generation.
Warhol hadn’t totally lost its edge. He was still interested in dark and sexual themes and some of his most explicitly gay images date from this time. Warhol would die in 1987, ostensibly from medical malpractice while recovering from a routine surgery. Both extremes of his circle throughout the years, the high and the low, would mourn together during his funeral.
To me, the superficiality, coldness, and passivity he exhibited throughout his life was a carefully constructed distraction from the real Warhol (Andrew Warhola if you like) who was capable of real depth and profundity while at the same time being an admirably hard worker and man of action. Many people forget that Warhol was a very religious person; a devout catholic throughout his life and someone who loved his mother dearly and lived and cared for her through the last years of her life. He was a real and an intelligent person despite his (and others’) assertions to the contrary.
Warhol pushed the boundaries of what was possible in art and created a whole environment around him which, besides being interesting for historical reasons, helped him create revolutionary and important work. When that world disappeared, so did much of the excitement and inventiveness of the early years as well as the quality of his work replaced for a lust for business and celebrity. Luckily, it is his better and more important work that he is mostly remembered for and that will endure.