By Blake Gopnik
Get this: I am a survivor of WAPS: That’s Warhol Obsession Phase Syndrome. My infection developed in my freshman year of college, sometime after I’d beaten back a strain of PPS (that’s People’s Poet Syndrome) and before the subsequent onset of BCBCW (that’s Black-Clad Burroughs/Camus Windbag Syndrome). WAPS was a common affliction for wannabe hipster teenagers from the late 1960s all the way into the mid-1990s. This subcultural virus spread from hippies, to punks, and even all the way into the grunge generation. For some reason, the pestilence of WAPS seems to have abated with the onset of “digital culture” and the subsequent erosion of subcultures themselves and, in the process, everything cool. And here we are.
Warhol is/was one of those grating icons of 20th century bohemia that everyone claimed to like – or at least begrudgingly acknowledged as influential. He drifted into my orbit around 1981 – not because he was an artist but because, well, he was famous. He was the skinny, bespectacled dude with the exploding silver hairdo that was actually a wig. He was that vaguely queer looking guy who was always pictured in the society columns of the trendy, New York magazines, wedged betwixt other jet set arrivistes like Bianca Jagger, Lee Radziwill, Brooke Shields, Truman Capote and Jackie O. Maybe it was the “hair,” or maybe it was his mien, but Warhol seemed a bit more outrageous than his peers. If Warhol showed up at an event, it became a “happening.” Yeah, Warhol was one of those artistes it was cool to like. So of course I claimed to like him.
So I was at first disappointed when I actually saw his art. Yeah, it was playful and colorful. But I’d expected shock value. And all I got was day glow celebrity portraiture and advertising. Later, it was explained to me by one of my more sophisticated, Gauloises-smoking friends that the banality of Warhol’s art was actually what made it so outrageous. I mean, this guy, Warhol, was colorfully mocking art and popular culture all the way to the bank. Rad!
Fast forward almost 40 years to 2020. These days, Warhol’s not exactly an art (super)star for “the kids,” but his presence is somehow steeped into all aspects of popular culture. Warhol, or Warhol’s influence, is everywhere. Warhol’s pop art mindset is so deeply entrenched in the lifeworld that it seems given and (taken for) granted. Everyone from Kim Kardashian to Madonna to Mark Kostabi to Lana Del Ray to (especially) Jeff Koons has stolen/appropriated a page or six from the Warhol playbook, much in the same way that Warhol nicked a page or six from Marcel Duchamp’s.
Sure, Warhol created art. At least, he created some art – in the beginning of his career. And he was at least the CEO of The Factory, where his acolytes, gacked on speed, created art under Warhol’s direction that the artiste claims to have at least signed. (There is actually still quite a bit of debate as to whether or not even the signatures on many Warhol’s works were actually penned by the artist himself. I mean, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Factory drones were such adept mimics that realistic forgeries were part of their skill set.)
At The Factory, Warhol and his band of meth elves manufactured corporate art(ifacts) that in effect ended up being the carefully branded tchotchkes that were sold at the merch table after a Warhol “show,” the show, being Warhol’s performance of the self. In other words, Warhol the prefab celebrity was really the product – and the artworks, which certainly were playful and colorful and wonderfully two dimensional, were really expensive souvenirs. Warhol, more a media manipulator than an artist, created a delightfully bewigged, leather jacketed simulacrum of himself that for some reason was appealing to the masses – or at least appealing to the upper crust aesthetes that became his patrons. And, at the same time, by happenstance and/or by design, Warhol created The ’60s™, New York Edition.
Warhol’s The ’60s™ was the other side of the proverbial coin delivered via The ’60™, California Edition. Warhol’s New York ’60s were about speed, heroin, trisexuality (“I’ll try anything”), S&M, unbridled ambition, conspicuous consumption, faux celebrity, celebrating the all-surface-no-substance of it all, and money, money, money – whereas the California ’60s was at least purportedly about flowers, LSD, peace & love, collectivism, macrobiotic foods and getting back to nature, man.
So, Warhol more or less created/personified pop art. How did he do this? Well, he drew some pictures of shoes and cats. He directed the production of silkscreened images of soup cans – and of the rich, famous and fabulous. He made a bunch of bad, boring movies. He was for all intents and purposes an out gay man in a straight era. (The ’60s wasn’t really the free-for-all lovefest it’s been cracked up to having been, FYI.) He put his name on various and sundry products – both cultural products and blah blah stuff like perfume. He got shot by one of his used-and-summarily-discarded devotees. He got famous for more than 15 minutes (sorry). He made a bunch of fancy friends – you know, people who were really famous and really rich. And in the process he himself got pretty famous and pretty rich. And then he died. And then the “original” products bearing the aura of Warhol’s imprimatur became even more sought after and a lot more expensive. In summary, this was life-as-art and art-as-commerce.
And I myself, well, my WAPS has been in remission for some 35 years – or has it? For me, Warhol is kinda like that Black Flag shirt from the 1986 In My Head tour: I don’t wear it every moment, but I do bust it out every now and again. It’s a comfortable old friend that will always remain in the wardrobe – not often donned, but always at the ready.
So, when Blake Gopnik’s monumental 909-page bio (plus intro, afterword and extensive notes that push the total page count to almost 1,000), presumably the definitive Warhol book, Warhol, hit the shelves a few months back, well, I just had to buy it, albeit begrudgingly. All those other Warhol books on my shelf – Factory Made, Holy Terror and Popism among them – were getting lonely, I suppose. But was it really in my best interest to read another tome on Warhol? Was there anything new to be known?
Warhol has seemed like a Sisyphean onus. It took me two freakin’ months to read the thing. (Granted, I was working on three or four other books at the same time. I’d get tired of Warhol and put it down for a while – so the book remained on my bedside table, taunting me. I finally finished it. Phew!) It’s really long. And the bulk of the information, well, I knew it already. But I just had to get through it. WAPS, it seems, is a treatable but incurable condition.
Gopnik’s bio is exhaustive and exhausting. The book is exceptionally well-written, but some abridgment wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad idea. Warhol certainly lived an interesting life, but do we really need to know whether or not he put mustard on that hotdog he ate on April 4, 1958? Do we really need to know the exact descriptions and price points of the 24 objets d’art (Nouveau) he purchased on an antiquing spree in 1970? Do we really need to know about the anal warts? Well, it might be said that when writing a warts and all bio, one would be remiss to elide or omit the warts. And, for Gopnik, no minutiae is too trivial.
Yeah, Warhol’s Factory crowd in the 1960s was a wild bunch of dirty, drugged-out, sleazy fuckers. And Warhol himself was kind of a perv, too. For better or for worse, Gopnik left no stone unturned while researching this book. So Warhol delivers the dirt we want – possibly more than we want, even.
Fun Facts I Didn’t Know Before Reading Warhol: 1.) Warhol wasn’t exactly the asexual, look-but-don’t-touch voyeur he portrayed himself as being. While he never found the abiding romantic love he so desired, he was always more than willing to help out a young man in need. Some of these transactions were apparently, ahem, full service. 2.) Warhol’s innards were never quite the same after he was shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968. After the shooting he wore panty hose under his clothes every day – not because he found that sexy, but to keep his guts from spilling out. 3.) Solanas actually had the audacity to ask Warhol in a letter to sponsor her legal defense and to help her get on major TV network talk shows. “I’m very happy you’re alive + well, as, for all your barbarism, you’re still the best person to make movies with, +, if you treat me fairly, I’d like to work with you.” 4.) Warhol didn’t die as a result of gall bladder surgery gone wrong, but instead died of a sudden idiopathic death (meaning nobody even knows exactly why) a couple of days after the final surgery from which he, at first, appeared to be recovering. 5.) Anal warts.
Things I Knew Already, But Were Further Confirmed by Reading Warhol: 1.) Warhol was the most influential American artist of the 20th century. 2.) Warhol was a cool ghoul who coaxed a cadre of “fabulous” hangers on into preforming bad behaviors on camera and in public – usually to their detriment. And when the fun was over and what minuscule profits there were to be had eked from the exploitative, unflattering, quasi-pornographic “art films” they starred in for free, he left them all behind and never looked back. 3.) After his shooting, the fun was over. And when The Factory scene was over, well, the cool, New York version of The ’60s™ was, like, totally deadsville, too. 4.) Like most downtown careerists, Warhol aspired to uptown status from square one. And once he acquired that status and “fame,” there was no looking back. He was never as interesting again. 5.) Andy Warhol was an odd duck and a freaky fuckin’ fucker – until he became the boring corporate hack he always desired to be. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. 6.) Nobody, no matter how interesting, is interesting enough to warrant the writing of a 909-page biography. Blake Gopnik is a really good writer and Andy Warhol was a hella interesting cat. But, well, shit. I think 500 pages would more than capably have done the trick. But I’m a “half-full” kinda guy and here’s my silver lining: The aftereffect of trudging through this gargantuan book is that my WAPS is likely going to go back into remission for a while.