Warhol: A Life as Art 
by Blake Gopnik.
Allen Lane, 931 pp., £35, March, 978 0 241 00338 1
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Andy Warhol in 1955

‘Overlooked No More’ is the title of an occasional series in the obituaries section of the New York Times that prints obituaries of those – mainly women but also African Americans and homosexuals – who were ignored by the paper at the time of their deaths. Since the Times was launched in 1851, the omissions go back a long way. They include Charlotte Brontë and stretch to Scott Joplin, Alan Turing, Sylvia Plath and Diane Arbus.

On 26 June this year, the paper ran a belated obituary of Valerie Solanas, who died in 1988 and is famous for having shot Andy Warhol twenty years earlier. The year before the shooting, Solanas published the SCUM Manifesto, which began: ‘Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.’ Solanas, the obituary tells us, also wrote a play called Up Your Ass which she wanted Andy Warhol to produce. Warhol wasn’t interested in the play, but he did want to cast Solanas in an erotic film, I, a Man. On the day she shot Warhol, Solanas rode the six floors with her victim in the elevator up to his office. ‘Solanas’s bullets,’ the Times reported, ‘punctured his stomach, liver, spleen, oesophagus and lungs. At one point, the doctors pronounced him dead.’ Warhol, who was almost forty at the time, lived for 19 more years.

He was born in Pittsburgh – ‘the worst place I have ever been in my life’ – to immigrant parents whose origins could be described as Carpatho-Rusyn, their religion Byzantine Catholic. As a child, Warhol suffered from various illnesses. When he was eight, he caught scarlet fever, which led to rheumatic fever and, in turn, to what was then called St Vitus’ Dance. ‘A perfectly normal child became a mess of writhing limbs and uncontrollable grunts,’ Blake Gopnik writes. Recent scientific studies have shown ‘a correlation between rheumatic fever in children and adult psychiatric problems such as obsessive-compulsive behaviours and the severe body-image issues of what’s now called body dysmorphia – just the symptoms Warhol displayed as an adult hoarder and hygiene freak who was fixated on the idea that he was hideous’.

This illness has another symptom, it seems: ‘an unreasonable attachment to a parent’. In Warhol’s case the parent in question was Julia, his mother, who encouraged her son’s interest in art. ‘Family lore had Warhol moving into bed with his mother while his father slept upstairs with Paul and John [Warhol’s siblings],’ Gopnik writes. When Julia moved to New York to live with her son, people ‘thought she was stupid’, a friend said, ‘but she was brilliant beyond belief … and much smarter than Andy.’

In high school, Warhol was not known for his assertive masculinity. ‘We used to refer to him as a queer,’ one of his classmates said. ‘He seemed to carry his books in a very feminine way and loaf with the other sissies.’ In art school, when asked to make a self-portrait, he depicted himself as a girl ‘with Shirley Temple ringlets’. Pittsburgh was not a good place to be gay. In 1948 the police set up a Morals Squad with a mission ‘to arrest gay men’. In 1951, ‘Pennsylvania’s maximum sentence for sodomy was increased to life.’ Gopnik quotes a local: ‘If you got caught, they had two choices, jail or shock treatments.’

But there was a gay underworld, including a gallery called Outlines, which ‘showed Warhol that there could be some quiet openness towards homosexuality: it hosted some of the first public appearances together of the composer John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham, who had only recently become partners in art and life.’ Outlines opened in 1941 and for the next six years put on work by Calder, Cornell, Berenice Abbott, Cartier-Bresson, Klee, Cocteau and Duchamp. It also had an exhibition of silkscreen prints and showed art movies.

Warhol often pretended not to know anything about anything, asking questions like ‘what was the First World War all about?’, but this may have been a game. He was the first member of his family to go to college. Normally, in the words of a neighbour, ‘you graduated from high school and you went to the mill.’ Warhol went to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh to study art. He had no natural ability as a draughtsman. ‘Andy was a good artist, but he could never draw, you know,’ an art director who knew him in the 1950s said. ‘He would never draw realistically … he would always do it in a mechanical way.’ But he had ideas, among them to make a series of paintings of people picking their noses. One began life, as Gopnik puts it, as a picture of

a normal little boy wearing shorts but was soon reworked into a full-frontal of a young man with a shock of blond hair and an adult’s chest hair, completely naked except for a pair of girlish Mary Janes on his feet. There’s no way that anyone who knew Warhol could have read the painting as anything other than a brazen self-portrait by an unrepentant homosexual, the pinky finger up his nose being a stand-in for a middle finger raised in general defiance.

After art school, Warhol moved to New York and found work as an illustrator. Among the friends he made there was Tommy Jackson, a young artist who studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Jackson sent him the first issue of the Black Mountain Review and introduced him to the work of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly and Ray Johnson.

Opinion is divided about his appearance. ‘He thought of himself as ugly,’ a boyfriend from the early 1960s said. ‘But when you saw Andy naked, he looked like a beautiful boy.’ Another lover from the same period describes him as ‘almost repulsive in the physical sense’. An art dealer who knew him in the mid-1950s agrees: ‘Andy was one of the plainest boys I’ve ever seen in my life, a pimply-faced adolescent with a deformed bulbous nose that was always inflamed.’ His thinning hair was a problem, and he began wearing a toupee in the early 1950s.

Warhol started to work for Carmel Snow at Harper’s Bazaar. He remembered ‘the humiliation of my bringing up my portfolio’ to her ‘and unzipping it only to have a roach crawl out and down the leg of the table. She felt so sorry for me that she gave me a job.’ His speciality was shoe illustrations. (He made a presentation book called À la Recherche du Shoe Perdu.) He became, as Gopnik puts it, ‘the go-to guy for footwear’, though he still had ambitions to be a serious artist. One of his commercial shoe drawings was included in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1956 that sought ‘to extend the museum’s services to members and the community’. He tried to donate it to the museum but was turned down: Alfred Barr, MoMA’s director, wrote to say ‘we feel it is not fair to accept as a gift a work which may be shown only infrequently.’

Warhol ‘tended to work for elite clients’, Gopnik writes. ‘Fashion editors, deluxe record labels, serious publishers and also big pharma’: clients who ‘couldn’t quite stomach a photographic approach but could no longer do without it either. In looking at Warhol’s work in illustration, it’s important to recognise that his success depended on how well he’d mastered a manner that appealed to the established tastes of his era.’

His mother often came over from Pittsburgh to visit. ‘I come here to take care of my Andy,’ she said, ‘and when he’s OK I go home.’ In 1952 she came and stayed for two decades. She cleaned for him and cooked for him and spoke her native Rusyn with him and used funny English with his friends. Over the 1950s Warhol’s earnings gradually increased. His tax form for 1959 declared an income of $53,000, ‘more than almost anyone around him earned’. In 1960 he could afford to spend $60,000 on a four-storey house at Lexington Avenue and 89th Street, paying half in cash.

Warhol made it clear that ‘he did not want to be known as the I. Miller show guy.’ But his work as an artist did not have the same success as his commercial work. In the early 1950s he showed some of his homoerotic work at the Tanager Gallery, a trendy co-op space, though it was decided that his pictures ‘weren’t anything we wanted the gallery to be associated with’. On the other hand, his commercial work was thriving. ‘New York’s leading department stores,’ Gopnik writes, ‘changed their windows once a week … and crowds of gawkers gathered to watch the brown paper come down to reveal the next batch of displays.’ Warhol, it was written, ‘is able to create with equal skill and imagination anything from an industrial advertisement to a fashion page to a window display’.

He also liked penises. ‘Andy had this great passion for drawing people’s cocks and he had pads and pads of drawings of people’s lower regions,’ said Nathan Gluck, his assistant as a commercial artist. ‘They’re drawings of the penis, the balls and everything, and there’d be a little heart on them or tied with a little ribbon … Every time he got to know somebody, even as a friend sometimes, he’d say: “Let me draw your cock.”’ Gopnik describes one such drawing, showing ‘a man’s dangling penis propped up on a plate, with another man’s hand prodding it with a fork’.

He became an inveterate collector. ‘His apartment,’ Gopnik writes, ‘was overflowing with ancient cast-iron machines from penny arcades … The collection also included a cigar-store sculpture, vintage store signs, carved carousel horses, seating made out of animal horns and twigs and, of course, the camp classic, a stuffed peacock.’ Two decades later, he would devote two or three hours a day to shopping. One dealer remembered him buying ‘rows and rows and rows of mercury glass vases, copper lustre pitchers, Victorian card cases … thousands of rare books, twenty or thirty at a time, dozens of 18th and 19th-century Spanish colonial crucifixes, and santos three or four at a time, and sixty boxes of semi-precious stones, all in one gulp’.

Fashions in the New York art world began changing in the late 1950s. MoMA, which had supported abstract art, put on a show in 1959 called New Images of Man, which combined, as the press release put it, ‘contemporary form with a new kind of iconography’. Leo Castelli expanded his gallery in 1958, giving solo shows to Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. ‘Warhol must have been sick with envy,’ Gopnik writes, ‘when Castelli’s sold-out Johns show – the artist’s first solo – even lucked into getting the cover of ARTnews … and also managed to move a bunch of works into the MoMA collection.’ Warhol was outside this world, looking on. ‘In a little bio published in December 1960,’ Gopnik writes, ‘the best Warhol could claim for himself was that he was doing a bookplate for Audrey Hepburn’s nursery. If he had any currency at all on the artistic vanguard it was as one of its fans, eager to make contact with its movers and shakers.’

In a piece written at the time of Warhol’s death, and collected in Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns, 1985-88 (2018), Gary Indiana describes the way the movers and shakers may have thought of him at the time:

Homophobia was one of the first reactions to Warhol, especially from the Cedar Tavern set, the Abstract Expressionists. You could be a fag back then, like Frank O’Hara, as long as you could pass, and understood you were supposed to suffer over it, lusting after those real guys painting their heroic, tortured canvases. Andy was a swish. A swish was someone who couldn’t hide it.

One contemporary noted the difference between Warhol and other gay artists. ‘Bob [Rauschenberg] and Jap [Johns] would even have women for dates and masked who they were,’ whereas Warhol ‘made a big effort to be, perhaps, much more swish than he really was’.

Swish or not, it seemed to be fashionable not to like Warhol. A gallery owner described him as ‘a terrible little man’ and ‘a very boring person’; an artist remembered him as ‘quite miserable-looking … so thin, so little, so miserable’. The art critic David Bourdon thought his art collection ‘stank’ and took the view that Warhol was nothing more than ‘a window trimmer and chichi East Side gadabout who hung around with trashy people’. In the world of commercial art, as photography began to overtake illustration, Warhol’s style was being shown up. His work ‘came off as effeminate’, as Gopnik puts it, when compared to the ‘manly, high-tech product of a lensman’. Warhol himself once referred to the ‘fairy style’ of his 1950s drawings, and in 1961 the illustrations he contributed to a corporate benefits brochure were rejected as ‘too fey’.

But​ for those at its centre the art market was booming. In 1959, Willem de Kooning had a show ‘that sold out on its first day and netted $150,000’. The artist James Rosenquist caught a glimpse of Johns around this time: ‘One winter morning I walked out of my building, and along came this four-door Jaguar sedan. At the wheel was Jasper … With his first money he’d bought a coat and a Jaguar … I was happy to see a down-and-out artist finally make a buck.’ The dealer Eleanor Ward also noticed the change: ‘Suddenly, I discovered that everyone had very good, nice, new teeth.’

The work Warhol was doing for shop windows didn’t immediately generate the same kudos. But it would, with very little adaptation. ‘What almost nobody in 1961 would have seen, had they passed the window at Bonwit Teller,’ Arthur Danto wrote, ‘is that it was full of art. They thought they were looking at women’s wear, with some vernacular images taken from the culture by some imaginative, in all likelihood gay, window dresser.’ Warhol himself said of the origins of Pop Art: ‘I did some windows for Bonwit’s and they were paintings and then a gallery saw them and I just began taking windows and putting them in galleries.’

Henry Geldzahler, a young curatorial assistant at the Metropolitan Museum, went to visit Warhol’s townhouse to find him working on his earliest Pop paintings:

I walked into the studio, we looked at each other and we both started laughing. And I saw on the shelf behind him one of Carmen Miranda’s shoes that he’d bought at an auction, and he was painting on the floor with the television set playing and he was watching television and painting. I thought: ‘That’s the most modern thing I ever saw.’ I recognised with a kind of thrill that I was in the presence of, well, let’s say a genius, or someone who epitomises the age.

When Ivan Karp from the Castelli Gallery saw the studio, he asked Warhol why he let his paint drip. ‘Well, it means you’re an artist, if you drip,’ Warhol said. ‘And of course you’re paying homage to Pollock and all the great dripsters.’ When Karp told him that he didn’t have to drip, Warhol replied: ‘That’s just wonderful that you should say that, because I don’t think I want to drip.’

Warhol himself was changing. ‘His metamorphosis into a pop persona was calculated and deliberate,’ David Bourdon remembered. ‘The foppery was left behind and he gradually evolved from a sophisticate, who held subscription tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, into a sort of gum-chewing, seemingly naive teenybopper, addicted to the lowest forms of popular culture.’ As Warhol increasingly wanted to be known as an artist, his assistant Nathan Gluck continued to work on his commercial projects. ‘It was very funny,’ Gluck said, ‘because whenever anyone would come to the house, I would have to go downstairs and vanish because he didn’t want anyone to see that he had somebody helping him with his commercial work, and that he was doing any commercial work. And after I’d got downstairs, he would put on the pop records to develop the atmosphere.’

Warhol’s first solo show was in Los Angeles in 1962. Irving Blum from the Ferus Gallery described a visit to his studio. ‘I remember not being able to make head or tails of these paintings. They were radical and I wasn’t prepared for them.’ He asked Warhol why there were three similar paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans; Warhol explained he was going to make 32 because there were 32 flavours. Blum offered him a show but Warhol hesitated. ‘Andy, movie stars come into the gallery,’ Blum says he told him. ‘That sealed the deal.’ A local critic, on seeing the show, wondered if the artist was ‘either a soft-headed fool or a hard-headed charlatan’. But the critic from Artforum ‘went all the way back to Roman culture for a model’, as Gopnik puts it: Warhol’s soup cans were ‘the household gods of modern American homes’. Duchamp weighed in: ‘If you take a Campbell’s Soup can and repeat it fifty times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is the concept that wants to put fifty Campbell’s Soup cans on a canvas.’ One of the virtues of the soup can paintings for Warhol, Gopnik writes, was that they ‘meshed nicely with the camp, 1950s aesthetic he had yet to shed … The gay curator Mario Amaya said that “East Side faggots” … instantly read the cans as a camp joke.’ Warhol, on the other hand, explained them as ‘the synthesis of nothing’.

In his contribution to the catalogue for the Warhol retrospective at the Whitney in 2018, Trevor Fairbrother considered 1962 as the breakthrough year, ‘when Warhol turned to a commercial fabricator who could reproduce a photograph as a silkscreen stencil … Though each canvas was actually a shrewd and decidedly handmade combination of visual elements that were variously photo-based, painted, and printed, the results seemed to contest the commonsensical notion that paintings are made by hand.’ ‘I find it easier to use a screen,’ Warhol said. ‘This way I don’t have to work on my objects at all. One of my assistants or anyone else, for that matter, can reproduce the design as well as I could.’ When people suggested he was making prints, he demurred: ‘No, no, not at all. It’s a painting.’ Gopnik writes: ‘The sheer fact of being printed onto canvas, one at a time and with a surface confusion that evokes brushwork, automatically elevated Warhol’s silkscreens into the realm of painting, which still held the high ground in Parnassus.’

In 1962 Warhol had two Campbell Soup canvases – one was of Beef Noodle – in a group show called The New Realists at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, a place up to then known as ‘the leading emporium of American abstract art’. When a collector threw a party for the artists on the opening night, Larry Rivers and de Kooning turned up only to be turned away by the host. ‘Gee, I have this de Kooning. I paid so much for it, and now it’s not worth very much because of Pop Art,’ Warhol told the artist Les Levine a few years later. ‘Of all the painters working today in the service – or thrall – of a popular iconography, Andy Warhol is probably the most single-minded and the most spectacular,’ Michael Fried wrote in Art International in December 1962. ‘Warhol’s beautiful, vulgar, heartbreaking icons of Marilyn Monroe … and [his] feeling for what is truly human and pathetic is one of the exemplary myths of our time.’ The architect Philip Johnson and Alfred Barr of MoMA were among his buyers. ‘Without exhibiting or even being thought of as a serious artist,’ the Artforum reviewer said, Warhol had ‘developed new work over the past two years in almost total seclusion’. As Gopnik puts it, this ‘was certainly the last time that anyone would utter “seclusion” and “Warhol” in the same breath’.

Warhol’s work, and Pop Art generally, had influential supporters. But there were also plenty of opponents. In 1963, at a symposium organised by MoMA, Hilton Kramer insisted that Pop Art ‘derives its small, feeble victories from the juxtaposition of two clichés: a cliché of form superimposed on a cliché of image’. The catalogue for an exhibition of Pop Art in Washington DC attacked the artists’ allegiance to ‘the deplorable and grotesque products of the modern commercial industrial world’. Warhol’s images of Marilyn had sold well, but there was no rush to acquire his depictions of electric chairs or car crashes. ‘Who the fuck’s going to want to look at an eight-foot picture of a hideous car crash, Andy?’ one gallerist asked him. ‘You’re going to kill your economy.’ Warhol replied: ‘Oh well, it has to be done.’ Portraits of the rich had also to be done. A friend went to lunch with Warhol and Ethel Scull, whose portrait Warhol had made, for a grid of 36 varicoloured images, and asked: ‘Andy, who is this woman? How can you stand her? Look at those awful, vulgar diamonds she’s wearing!’ Warhol replied: ‘These diamonds are going to be paintings very soon.’ When it came to install the images, Warhol left it to the man on the ladder to work out the order, telling Ethel: ‘If you ever get bored, my dear, we can always change it. You can change them yourself.’

He liked speed. ‘It’s hard to see how Warhol could have managed without some chemical help in those early days,’ Gopnik writes, ‘what with his double workload of ads and fine art plus a madcap social and cultural life.’ Warhol’s friend and lover John Giorno said: ‘If you give speed to a stupid person you get a lot of dumb ideas, and if you give speed to Andy Warhol, you get a lot of great ideas.’ One of the ideas was provided by Giorno himself, a heavy sleeper and a heavy drinker. ‘Every time Andy telephoned, morning, afternoon or night, I would be asleep.’ Andy’s idea, Gopnik says, ‘was to make an unbroken “durational” document of this impressive somnolence … Over the next few weeks, the couple would come home from their evening screenings and parties, consume their drug of choice – vodka for Giorno, Obetrol for Warhol – and then settle down for the night, one in bed and the other behind the camera.’ Giorno remembered Warhol shooting ‘for about three hours, until 5 a.m., when the sun rose, all by himself’.

‘Warhol always talked about his love of boredom,’ Gopnik writes. In Andy Warhol, a brief biography published in 2001, Wayne Koestenbaum describes him as having ‘learned to plumb boredom’s erotics’. Warhol professed to love TV commercials: ‘I think they’re among the best things on TV,’ he told a reporter. ‘And they should run much longer than they do.’ One of his collaborators noted his fascination for even the most static of his own movies: ‘He would sit and watch them for endless hours with one leg crossed over the other and his face in his hands and his elbows on his knees, with absolute fascination.’

There are many accounts of audience response. Five hundred people turned up to its first screening in LA in 1964 but only fifty stayed until the end. Some of those who left asked for their money back. ‘We’ll all come out here and lynch you, buddy,’ one told the manager. Patrons had to be prevented from attacking the screen itself, one man running up to the comatose figure of Giorno and shouting: ‘Wake up!’ Warhol followed Sleep with Blow Job, which shows, for half an hour, a young man’s face as he gets sucked off, and Empire, an eight-hour unedited single-shot portrait of the Empire State Building. He also made a film called Soap Opera in which eight television commercials from the 1950s were intercut with reels of silent footage made up ‘of nameless hipsters gyrating and touching themselves’, as well as Factory regulars, ‘sometimes in clothes, sometimes not, kissing and arguing in a vast range of haut-bourgeois settings’.

Gopnik’s​ biography is 912 pages long, accompanied by exhaustive footnotes on the publisher’s website that could make a little book themselves. He puts together with considerable skill a coherent narrative based on everything that was ever said or written by those who knew Warhol but doesn’t write well about the actual art. His analysis of the early work includes this passage: ‘Warhol’s first Pop solo in New York didn’t just bring him attention right then. Its 17 works already acted – still act – as a summary of one of the West’s finest artistic achievements. It established Warhol, about a year into his fine art career, as a true rival of all the greats who had come before.’ This sweeping judgment includes terms – ‘artistic achievements’, ‘fine art career’, ‘true rival’, ‘all the greats’, ‘the West’ – that have no real meaning at all. The films, he says, in similar superlative vein, ‘were unlike almost any film a viewer might have seen in a theatre, both in what they showed and how they showed it. Like Warhol himself and all his acolytes, a Factory film from 1966 wore its strangeness on its sleeve.’ It’s hard to take this seriously as analysis, especially if you compare it to Koestenbaum’s writing about Warhol’s films:

Any description of Blow Job will fail to express its sublimity – its seriousness, its tortured play of interrogating light and oneiric shadow … Here a face is offered for our contemplation but not for our consumption. Here, religious and profane meanings collide more keenly than in any other Warhol image … The hero’s ecstasy shows that the payoff for stoicism, in Warhol’s view, is the ability to transvalue pain into pleasure.

It was around this time that Warhol and his helpers began the Screen Tests, shooting about five hundred in all. ‘The instructions were very simple,’ one of his assistants remembered. ‘Just look into the camera for three minutes. Most of the time we’d walk away from the camera … so basically, the sitter was confronting his or herself.’ One Screen Test documented his boyfriend Philip Fagan, who adopted the same pose and expression for each sitting over a period of 96 days. When Bob Dylan came to do one, he was rewarded with a Warhol canvas of Elvis for his pains.

In 1964, Warhol rented a big studio space in Midtown, soon christened the Factory – it had been a hat factory. It became famous for the amount of fun that was had there, but the fun tended to happen after business hours. Warhol would get there ‘in the early afternoon’, Gopnik writes, ‘and then put in a solid five or six hours of aggressive production, press-ganging any other lads who happened to be hanging around’. Slowly, life became exciting after dark. One denizen in particular, Billy Name, Gopnik writes, ‘added darkness’ to the social life. Warhol worked with silkscreen prints of flowers ‘at the bright window end of the loft, amid collectors and dealers and other hangers-on from the mainstream’, while Billy – ‘another intense person, viciously intense’ – inhabited the back.

Name et al ‘were mostly nocturnal, ruling the Factory after Warhol had gone out or retired to mother and dinner and bed, when the studio became Name’s private home and hangout’. Mary Woronov, a later arrival, described this group as ‘a very tight underground network … highly complicated, extremely extreme, bizarre, sometimes brilliant, oftentimes just simply crazy’. All sorts of crazies dropped by, including a certain Dorothy Podber – ‘a marvellous, evil woman’, one member of the circle remarked. ‘You didn’t accept candy from Dorothy.’ One day, according to Name, Dorothy ‘took her gloves off and opened [her] purse, and took a pistol out, saw a stack of Marilyns leaning against the wall, shot it right between the eyes in the forehead, and then put the gun away and put her gloves back on and left’.

Among those who joined the circle was Edie Sedgwick, who became Warhol’s inseparable companion for social outings. Having come into a considerable inheritance, she moved to New York to become a model in 1964. ‘She was charming,’ Diana Vreeland remembered. ‘She suggested springtime and freshness. But if you are an honest-to-God model, you go to the gym before you come to work; you have one boyfriend who buys you dinner. You go to bed good and early. No nonsense. You’d never see one in a nightclub. That wasn’t Edie.’ Or, as one of her friends put it: ‘She was so beautiful and so helpless and so rich and so bananas.’ Warhol made a film for her called Poor Little Rich Girl, which showed her ‘at home in a posh flat, just waking up at 4 p.m. Stripping from nightie to bra and panties, she proceeds to get high on pot.’

There were often disputes over which of his entourage Warhol favoured most. Sedgwick may have been number one, but rivals were prepared to fight her for it. According to Name, one of them came in and said:

‘Fuck this, and fuck all of you. I want you to know that I was the first Girl of the Year.’ She started knocking down the sets and I had to go over and grab her and drag her to the hallway door and slap her in the face, like you see in the movies. And tell her: ‘Wake up! You aren’t the Girl of the Year.’

Gradually, Edie became Warhol and Warhol became Edie. As Henry Geldzahler put it: ‘He was really interested in the way she dressed; the way she looked; the way she put on her make-up. She was one of his ego images.’ She developed ‘a more boyish frame and ever shorter, ever more silvered hair’, while Warhol’s toupee ‘seemed to grow out to match her shorter hair; his T-shirts and jeans tightened until they mimicked her tops and tights’. They both adopted ‘a striped sailor shirt as part of their new, ungendered uniform’. Warhol insisted that he was the one copying her hair, not vice versa: ‘I wanted to look like Edie because I always wanted to be a girl,’ he said.

In April 1964 Warhol had a show at the Stable Gallery, run by Eleanor Ward. The work was handmade, but designed to look as though it had come directly from a supermarket. ‘In the gallery’s front room,’ Gopnik writes,

cartons of Campbell’s Tomato Juice sat right on the floor in rows, as though waiting for teamsters to hoist them through a loading dock. In the smaller rear space, Brillo Pad boxes were stacked head high and wall to wall … The hallway between the two galleries, once home to a phalanx of Marilyns, was now lined with a hoard of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Mott’s Apple Juice.

While Ward, as an associate put it, ‘looked tight, constipated and ungrateful on the day of the opening’, Warhol ‘fluttered among the guffaws and heehaws of collectors, fruits, art directors, and those he had left behind’. The work, depending on how you viewed it, was either cheap or expensive, but it was hard to sell. ‘Everybody who saw them liked them,’ a colleague of Warhol’s said, ‘but no one really bought them. For a while, Andy would take just about anything for the boxes, selling them for $100 or even $50 just to get rid of them.’ Interviewed by Jean Stein for Edie: An American Biography (1982), Jasper Johns said:

I liked Andy’s Brillo boxes – the dumbness of the relationship of the thought to technology – to have someone make those dumb plywood boxes and then paint them. I mean, artists have had other people make things for them, but nothing quite so simple-minded. Yet those boxes must have involved a lot of thought and decisions on his part – how they were going to be made, and certainly the colours.

Admirers and supporters abounded, but Warhol also came under attack. For the 1964 New York World’s Fair he created a massive mural of 13 wanted men. It was set to be on display for two years but was quickly tarped over after adverse comment in the press. In the same year, he was excluded from the Venice Biennale to make room for rivals such as Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine. In a survey of recent work at the Tate in London that summer, almost all the New York Pop artists were there, but not Warhol. In 1965, Richard Avedon guest-edited an issue of Harper’s Bazaar that included work by Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein and Oldenburg, but again not Warhol.

None of this spoiled the party at his first museum survey show, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Huge crowds descended for the opening, so many that work had to be removed from the walls to avoid damage. There were TV crews and loud music. Warhol and his people, including Sedgwick, signed anything they could for anyone they met. Three fans were pushed out of a window and had to be taken to hospital. ‘We want Andy,’ people shouted. ‘Get his clothing.’ To escape the scrummage, Warhol and his followers had to be rescued by firefighters. The chair of the ICA’s board, the redoubtable Mrs Horatio Gates Lloyd Jr, was delighted. Warhol suggested that she take part in one of his movies. ‘Why, Mr Warhol, nobody’s ever asked me anything like that before. What would I have to do?’ she said. ‘Would you fuck with Sam?’ Warhol asked. (Sam was one of his crew.) ‘Could I wear a blindfold?’ she replied. This is all good material, evidence of Warhol’s increasing fame. But some of it is hard to believe. Did anyone really shout ‘Get his clothing’ – clothing? – and did Mrs Horatio Gates Lloyd Jr and Warhol really have that conversation? Stories like these are mostly a sign of the noise around him: everyone associated with him was pressed for interviews and reported his antics and wrote pieces making everything seem breathtaking and exciting and alarming. And it all became more intense after 1965.

Of particular interest was the difference between Andy the image and Andy at home. One critic described the image as being of an artist who was ‘free, eccentric, cool, drug-oriented and certainly perverted’, while behind the image was a man still living with his churchgoing mother. In interviews, Warhol often denied that his mother was anywhere nearby or that he had ever gone to art college. As time went by, fewer and fewer of the Factory people were granted access to the private space he shared with his mother. Rumours were spread; those who claimed to know the real Warhol countered the rumours. Often, it was all about the parties. ‘We eat at parties a lot,’ one of his followers told a columnist. ‘We travel in a Chevrolet, four in front, six in the back … We get thrown out of a lot of parties.’ John Cale said of his social life with Warhol: ‘As we flew around the city we were never less than ten and often as many as twenty. We didn’t so much attend parties as invade them, and Andy’s coterie were not fakes. No sooner had we entered someone’s house than we would be combing the bathroom for prescription drugs and checking out the cupboards for free clothes.’

At other times, it was pure industry. Mary Woronov put Warhol’s prolific output down to the ‘peasant’ work ethic he grew up with in Pittsburgh. In the Whitney catalogue, Lynne Tillman nicely calls it ‘a Catholic’s Protestant work ethic’. Warhol once asked Lou Reed how many songs he had written that day. ‘Five,’ Reed said. ‘Five?’ Warhol replied. ‘What is wrong with you? Why are you so lazy? Nothing’s going to happen if you’re so lazy.’

Reed met Warhol in 1966, along with Cale. ‘I loved him on sight,’ Reed said. ‘He was obviously one of us. He was right. I didn’t know who he was … But he was obviously a kindred spirit if ever there was one, and so smart, with charisma to spare … He was the leader, which would be surprising for a lot of people to work out. He was in charge of us, everyone.’ And Warhol fell for the Velvet Underground. When they played in Ann Arbor, some called it New York garbage; others rolled on the floor ‘like epileptics’. (David Bowie heard a test pressing of their first album: ‘I was so excited I couldn’t move.’) Warhol is supposed to have told a student magazine: ‘If they can take it for ten minutes, then we play for fifteen. That’s our policy. Always leave them wanting less.’ Mary Woronov, who danced in the shows, remembered: ‘People on the West Coast hated the Velvet Underground. They thought we were odd, weird, dark and evil. There was a big dichotomy: they took acid and were going towards enlightenment, we took amphetamines.’ For the album, Warhol designed ‘a plain white cover whose only decoration was a yellow banana skin applied in vinyl across its entire front; buyers were supposed to peel that skin off, foreskin-wise, to reveal a phallic-pink fruit’. The band became all the rage, or a way of proving you were cool even if you weren’t. ‘We really wanted to go out there and annoy people,’ Cale said. ‘So what happened? We had Walter Cronkite and Jackie Kennedy dancing to it.’

Warhol’s association with the Velvet Underground led to the 1966 film Chelsea Girls. ‘When he was directing a film he was insane,’ Woronov remembered. ‘He wouldn’t say anything. And yet that very vacuum, of his constantly retreating, made everybody come after him. It made people act who had never acted before, because they were trying to get to him, and then all of a sudden their voice came out, and all of a sudden they were doing things.’ The newspapers were up in arms about the film, especially after it began showing in mainstream cinemas and making a profit. Time magazine decided that there was ‘definitely a place for this sort of thing and it is definitely underground. Like in a sewer.’ The New York Times felt it was time to ‘put a stout spoke in Mr Warhol’s wheel’, since he had gone too far in depicting ‘the lower level of degenerate dope pushers, lesbians and homosexuals’.

Until​ the lease ran out late in 1967, Warhol and his friends continued to have fun at the Factory. ‘He was interested in my dick, as he was in everyone’s,’ one young man remembered. A woman called Ivy Nicholson fell in love with him and, when she had no luck, retaliated by shitting behind a couch (‘so that a part of her would remain with Andy,’ one onlooker explained). When she was ejected, on her way out, she shat in the elevator too. Warhol said to her: ‘You pooped in the elevator? No one ever did that before. Please come back.’

Warhol’s habit of making work in many editions was reflected in his decision too to make another edition of himself, in the person of Allen Midgette, who impersonated him on a college lecture tour. ‘The two Andy Warhols looked at one another,’ a witness to the cloning reported. ‘The Andy with the silver hairspray can in his hand squirted the other’s Andy’s hair again … As Andy handed Andy his plane ticket, everyone in the Factory laughed and cheered.’ One said: ‘How many Andys can we make?’ Another: ‘We’ll flood the country with them.’ In Edie, Midgette describes standing in for him at a screening of one of the films: ‘I sat in a corner with my back to the audience. I decided that was the easiest thing to do. I chewed gum a lot, because Andy did. It gets your face moving quite a bit.’ The first question was: ‘Why do you wear so much make-up?’ Midgette replied: ‘You know, I don’t think about it.’ When he was found out, Warhol tried to justify his self-doubling to those who had attended an event with his clone: ‘I don’t really have that much to say. The person who went had so much more to say. He was better than I am. He has what the people expected. They liked him better than they would have me.’ But the excuses didn’t fly: he had to go and repeat the lectures. In Oregon, he had to swear that he was indeed himself before a judge, on a Bible.

By 1968, Warhol was reconsidering his self-presentation. ‘We’ve been building up this camp image for years,’ he said, ‘and now that people expect it, we’re serious.’ A journalist found him ‘a quite ordinary, conventional individual; a nice guy really’. Another wrote about his devotion to his mother: after the bars closed, he wrote, ‘Andy heads home to spend the next few hours watching ancient movies on television, eating chocolate-covered cherries and having long telephone conversations with the people he has just left. When the movies go off and the early morning exercise programmes come on, Andy goes to bed.’

Warhol now moved his business to Union Square and dumped a good number of his more unruly friends. It was in the new offices that he was shot, on 3 June 1968. After the shooting, Gopnik writes, he

lost so much weight in the hospital that, for a while at least, his face had the vampiric look of his final self-portraits … The frantic slicing that the surgeons had done in saving his life had left him with a severely weakened abdominal wall; his intestines now pressed through to his skin, eventually leaving him with a ‘football size’ hernia that ran the length of his belly and protruded by several inches. It took a surgical girdle to keep his innards in place … he had them dyed pastel colours.

Warhol liked his wounds, and liked being photographed topless. ‘Why don’t you paint me with my scars?’ he suggested to Alice Neel. Opinion was divided on whether the shooting had killed him deep inside or made him come alive. Billy Name felt he was now ‘the Cardboard Andy, not the Andy I could love and play with’, and another old colleague said: ‘He’s just someone to have at your dinner table now. Charming, but he’s the ghost of a genius.’ Leo Castelli, though, found him ‘more relaxed and sweeter than he had been before’, and another friend believed he had come back ‘kind of as an angel’. His own comment on the matter was: ‘Before I thought it would be fun to be dead. Now I know it’s fun to be alive.’

There​ was a third person in the elevator Valerie Solanas took with Warhol just before she shot him. This was Jed Johnson, then 19, who moved in with Warhol a few months later and stayed for a dozen years. He used to take Warhol’s mother to see her doctor, despite the fact that, in her senility, she thought he was trying to poison her. He painted the walls in the new place and tried to put order on Warhol’s collections. He shared Warhol’s bed.

With the help of Sony’s new TC-40 Action-Corder – he would introduce it as ‘my wife, Sony’ – Warhol recorded nearly 3500 cassettes. He also had a Polaroid camera, and would ask visiting men if they minded his taking a picture of their genitals. Later, he liked to photograph and film male bottoms, ‘presented doggy style with testicles hanging below’. In a back room, he took photographs and filmed people, mainly men, having sex. One of his assistants found suitable models in the bath houses. ‘The choreography,’ one of them said, ‘was basically strip and make yourself comfortable. Andy was a very shy, coy voyeur … And there would be guys sucking and fucking, and Andy would be taking pictures. Later they euphemised the series and called it the Torsos.’

When Warhol returned to his offices at Union Square after the shooting, things were, in general, more sober than they had been at the Factory. ‘At first the entourage consisted of amiable lunatics, charmingly damaged heiresses, beautiful street boys, miraculously loquacious speed freaks, fallen Catholics, people with a flair for “suggesting ideas”,’ Gary Indiana wrote. ‘Later the shimmering mask surrounded itself with buttoned-down professionals, social climbers, dewy millionettes. Since the new people risked nothing, and felt nothing much about anything, they provided few ideas.’ Warhol liked the idea of art as business, with colleagues and assistants producing work under his capacious umbrella. As Gopnik puts it, ‘everything this artist would do as head of Andy Warhol Enterprises Inc. – as portraitist, publisher, publicist, celebrity or salesman – counted as components in one boundless work.’ ‘The new art is really a business,’ Warhol said in 1969. ‘We want to sell shares of our company on the Wall Street stock market.’ This didn’t endear him to some. ‘You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty, and you’re even a killer of laughter,’ a drunken de Kooning told him at a party. But people still dropped by at Union Square to be part of a video or to have their pictures taken. Among the visitors was Neke Carson, ‘who used a paintbrush held in his rectum to paint a portrait of Warhol’. Warhol took Polaroids of him at work and wondered: ‘Do you ever have to go to the bathroom when you are doing this?’

In 1970 an early Campbell Soup painting sold at auction for $60,000, making Warhol the most expensive living American artist. The films his studio made were also bringing in an income: Blue Movie, a scriptless feature involving unsimulated sex and long discussions of the Vietnam War, earned $16,000 in a week, five times the amount it cost to make. As the 1970s got underway, Warhol began hunting for rich clients who would pay to have their portraits painted. Having done Mick Jagger, he pursued John Lennon and Yoko Ono, without success: Warhol was indignant that two people who made ‘a million dollars a day’ were too cheap to pay $50,000 for a portrait. Lennon told Warhol he should be paying them; Ono pointed out that Jackie Kennedy didn’t have to pay to have her picture done. Warhol produced a portrait every other week, and was just as ready to do pictures of people’s dogs, cars or houses.

At the end of 1969, Warhol had launched his own magazine, Interview, and he started offering the cover ‘to someone he was courting, either as an advertiser, a portrait painter, or a social connection’. He would have to explain: ‘I got really drunk last night and gave away at least ten covers. And I think I told them all they could be next month.’ He was busy shopping every day but was also needed at the office three or four times a week for Interview lunches that ‘mixed potential advertisers with potential interviewees with potential buyers of portraits or art’. Guests included Leni Riefenstahl, who may have helped strengthen Warhol’s stomach as he set out to woo the shah of Iran and his family. ‘The empress paid almost $200,000 for a dozen portraits of herself,’ Gopnik reports. But working with dictators and their wives didn’t always play well in the press. ‘Fascist chic’s recording angel’, a front-page article in the Village Voice declared of Warhol. He also wooed Imelda Marcos.

In​ the later 1970s, Warhol became interested in urine. He learned that if he or one of his people pissed ‘on top of paint freshly mixed up from various copper powders’, he could produce a compelling ‘series of oxidised splotches in every shade of green’. Trial and error showed that random pissers didn’t necessarily do the trick, so he and a devoted colleague would take ‘turns downing coffees and then heading to the rear studio to try their luck on the copper-coated canvas’, as Gopnik relates. ‘Warhol even had the notion that he could get bolder effects if he and [his assistant] dosed themselves with vitamin B before a spell of “painting”, but it looks as though that was just wishful thinking.’ In a diary entry Warhol wrote: ‘I think I may try brushing the piss on the Piss paintings now.’ (They also tried cum, but it didn’t work as well.)

Three of the piss paintings made it into the 1977 documenta show in Germany. The critic Benjamin Buchloh was impressed: ‘What the paintings exuded,’ he wrote in ‘A Primer for Urochrome Painting’, ‘was an unforgettable sense of rightness which they conveyed through a radicality that was as precarious as it was right in the sense of offering one of the last, if not the last, instalment of a totally credible and necessary painterly act.’ Rather more sensibly, Koestenbaum described the piss paintings as finding ‘comic, gutter sorcery in the bladder’s humdrum stream’.

And then there was Studio 54, which opened in 1977. As a VIP, Warhol would spend time in the basement of the club, where ‘special guests could do their special things – indulging in coke and Quaaludes, of course, and sex on the “disgusting” mattresses spread about on the floor.’ For Warhol, a bonus of Studio 54 was that ‘fellow guests might turn into portrait patrons. He declared one visit “a good work night” because an ageing aluminium heiress had told him that her face “would be OK” the following week for a photo session.’ It was a great place to do business: as one of his associates put it, ‘it was usually older people looking at younger people, hoping to get laid, or it was younger people looking to further their career with the older people, and hoping that you wouldn’t have to get laid. Everybody was working everybody.’

‘Studio 54,’ Gopnik writes, ‘ushered in a new level of social activity that dominated his last ten years as his earlier carousing never quite had.’ An acquaintance from Italy noticed how much he had changed since her last visit to New York: ‘I have to say that during the last days of Studio 54, I saw Andy talking to young kids and touching them, even kissing freely … A complete personality change. He behaved just like everybody else at Studio 54 … I was totally shocked when I saw him sticking his tongue in the mouth of a young boy!’ Jed Johnson, who was still Warhol’s partner, wasn’t amused by the new goings on: ‘I never liked that scene. I was never comfortable … I didn’t like the people. Andy was just wasting his time, and it was really upsetting … He just spent his time with the most ridiculous people.’

Among the people with whom Warhol associated in his final years was Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom Warhol found ‘just so nutty but cute and adorable’. Basquiat entered into the spirit of things – he wanted his own portrait to be done in piss. He painted alongside Warhol and, as Keith Haring remembered, they ‘exercised together, ate together and laughed together’. In 1983, Warhol gave over both floors of a property he owned on Great Jones Street as a live-in studio for Basquiat. ‘Jean-Michel called,’ Warhol dictated to his diary in September 1983. ‘He wanted some philosophy, he came over and we talked, and he’s afraid he’s just going to be a flash in the pan. And I told him not to worry, that he wouldn’t be. But then I got scared because he’s rented our building on Great Jones and what if he is a flash in the pan and doesn’t have the money to pay his rent?’

That year, Warhol and his associates, including the staff of Interview magazine, moved into yet another building. One moving company reckoned that ‘it would take twenty men working to load four forty-foot trucks, over four Saturdays, to get everything transferred.’ By now Warhol had become involved with Jon Gould, a young executive at Paramount Pictures. Warhol wanted ‘to impress him’, he wrote in his diary, and gave him a tour of his house soon after they met. ‘I was hinting like crazy that it could all be his, that there was a room with his name on it.’ When Gould left town to see his family, Warhol wasn’t happy: ‘Went home lonely and despondent because nobody loves me and it’s Easter, and I cried.’ He felt better after they got together: ‘I love going out with Jon because it’s like being on a real date – he’s tall and strong and I feel like he can take care of me. And it’s exciting because he acts straight and people think he is.’ It didn’t last long: early in 1984, Gould fell ill with pneumonia and spent nearly a month in hospital, with Warhol visiting every night. He died of Aids less than three years later.

Warhol himself had a fear of hospitals. He was in constant pain from his gallbladder and found a quack who insisted on the healing powers of crystals. ‘I really do believe that all this hokum-pokum helps,’ he wrote. ‘It’s positive thinking … He said I had some negative powers in me and I asked him how long I would have to come to him and he didn’t tell me. It’s so abstract. But you do feel better when you get out.’ By the time he went to see a real doctor, he was told that his gallbladder could kill him if it wasn’t removed. After much prevarication, he agreed. He died of cardiac arrest following surgery on 22 February 1987.

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