It’s no small chore to keep a reader’s attention for more than nine hundred pages. In choosing Andy Warhol as his subject, author Blake Gopnik’s task became all the more daunting: Warhol was well-known for his obstinance, and the rotating cast of characters in Warhol’s rogue’s gallery of superstars sometimes threatens to supersede the founder of the Factory with their outsize personalities. Don’t let the seeming challenge dissuade you: Gopnik’s biography is a slow-burn marvel, carefully connecting sections of Warhol’s complicated life which at first glance don’t seem to interlink. The result is a revealing, cohesive whole.
Warhol’s artistic talent manifested during his poor upbringing in Pittsburgh. He received a scholarship to the nearby Carneigie Institute of Technology, where he studied art. Gopnik points out that in an early class, Warhol “got a proto-postmodern education” at the institute through an immersive study in film, music and art, including “whether form could ever trump meaning,” a thread that would spool out into his later life. Before setting out to complete the fine art he’s known for today, Warhol first moved to New York City and made a good living through commercial illustration, perfecting a blotted line style of drawing that lent itself to illustrations of shoes.
As Warhol transitioned to the acclaimed images we know him for today – screens of Marilyn Monore, of soup cans, one after another – he began to consider the way commerce had changed. Suburbs started in earnest when soldiers returned from World War II. Their homecoming marked a need for more houses, and more food to feed them. The advent of the modern supermarket provided shelf space, which in turn provided more mass-produced artwork for mass-produced packaged food. Gopnik states “it’s often said that Warhol’s silkscreening let him adopt the methods of mass reproductions, but that’s wrong. Silkscreening let him paint a picture of the mass reproduction that was already out there in photo-saturated postwar America, using the visibly artisanal means of messy high art.” The way that culture was being printed and sold in quantities previously unknown became part of Warhol’s ongoing art project.
Contemporaries like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had already begun experimenting with pop’s bold colors and reproductions of known objects, but “Warhol’s eureka moment – one of the greatest in the history of art – came when he realized he could take the tastes for lowly pop culture that he knew from camp and from elite commerce and transplant them, almost unchanged, into the ‘rare’ realm of fine art.” This line was further blurred by the advent of television, whose advertising beamed images directly into homes.
You can’t spell Campbell’s Soup without ‘camp.’ In addition to this sight joke, Gopnik establishes throughout the biography the ways Warhol blazed a trail for the gay community to recognize and celebrate each other during a time when being out might lead to bodily harm, or worse. “Straights could and….did read pop art as campy,” Gopnik says, seeing the garishness of a Marilyn Monroe portrait, say, in day-glo colors. Camp lauded – and lauds – the tacky, the garish, imbuing power on both viewer and focal point, a flag to those in the know, both plainly visible and under the radar at the same time. Warhol saw his camp art as a signifier, for “where else to find the bizarre, the unnatural, artificial and outrageous than among gays, who American culture saw as inevitably copping to all these descriptors?”
Warhol upped the ante as mainstream America incrementally and often begrudgingly began to accept the gay community. With Studio 54 and the disco era bringing the gay community into a closer orbit with mainstream culture, Warhol’s media presence expanded, often based more on his presence than his art; he was a prototype of any number of twenty-first century viral stars who are famous for being famous. In the early days of his pop art, Warhol “understood that he could upstage his closest peers by inhabiting Pop’s themes instead of just portraying them.” This occupation was a sly form of camp, in which “Warhol was starting to present himself as a curious mix of sphinx and fool, passive almost to the point of catatonia.”
Since mainstream America was unfamiliar with gay culture, they often took Warhol at face value, not realizing he was presenting a persona. Gopnik says “Like some of the classic fools in literature, he also seemed to know that his role actually gave him a certain power over those who couldn’t see what he was playing at, and thus a sense of his own superiority over them,” making Warhol’s public image a kind of performance art. Indeed, “all but the smartest observers were taken in by the dumb play of Warhol and his art; many people still are.”
Andy Warhol’s pivot to film is a well-known vehicle for his “superstars”: names like Edie Sedgwick, Ultra Violet and Ingrid Superstar appear, sometimes briefly, before the next star comes to prominence. Warhol’s shift towards film coincided with the Factory, the tinfoil-lined warehouse studio where he and his assistants silkscreened copies of Warhol’s fine art work. It’s initially alarming to see how quickly Warhol’s stars come and go – even SCUM Manifesto author Valerie Solanis, who tried to shoot and kill Warhol, is given relatively little space in the biography. The way that these stars come and go, Gopnik explains, is very much in line with Warhol’s artistic philosophy, in which he “added the category of ‘found person’ to the old Dada notion of the found object and the ready-made, meaning that any Warhol superstar had something in common with (Marcel) Duchamp’s urinal.” This idea of the ‘found person’ made every day at the Factory a new collaboration – as well as an ethereal new piece of art, a one-time-only performance.
Blake Gopnik’s Warhol is an engrossing, comprehensive look at the twentieth century’s most famous artist, who “always wanted to make work for a world where x and not-x could be true at the same time.” In Gopnik’s expert hands, we’re able to see the contradictions and possibilities in Warhol’s work.
By Blake Gopnik
Published April 28, 2020