Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Andy Warhol
Since Andy Warhol’s death in 1987, I have been asked the same question at least a thousand times: Did you have any idea, when you were working for Andy in the 1970s, how important and expensive he would become? I sort of did, as did most of us who helped turn out his art, his films, his magazine, his books, his TV shows at his studio known as the Factory. But he definitely knew. Or knew that was what he wanted. Beneath Andy’s bewigged feyness and maddening nonchalance lay an iron will and limitless ambition, which he revealed only to a select few and then more as a slip of the mask than a shared confidence.
This has all become more obvious to me as time has passed, and I am able to look back on the thrilling, crazy, exhausting years documented in this book with greater clarity and detachment. As Billy Name, the photographer- in- residence at the first of Andy’s four successive
Factories (the one with the silver walls and nonstop parties), said in a 2006 PBS documentary, “He wanted it so much, to be successful. He didn’t want to be second- rate or an underling in any way. And he didn’t want to be first- class or top rank either. He wanted to be a superstar. He wanted to be a big nova that would eclipse everything. . . . That was the only thing that would satisfy Andy. And it happened.”
Now, a quarter century after his death, it has become almost a cliché to say that Andy Warhol was the most important artist of the second half of the twentieth century, just as Picasso was of the first half.
Was Andy a vampire? A prophet? A charlatan? He’s been called all three, repeatedly. Sometimes it seems a kind of transubstantiation has occurred, a commercial version of Catholic Communion, through which Warhol has become the world, and the world has become Warhol.
One cannot avoid Andy’s most prescient line—“In the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes”—probably because it rings truer every day. He seems to have predicted everything. The O.J. Simpson slow-motion car chase, the Paris Hilton sex tape, Bill Clinton’s grand jury testimony in which off- screen inquisitors ask if he achieved orgasm before or after Monica Lewinsky—straight out of, respectively, Sleep, Blue Movie, and the Chelsea Girls confession scene in which Pope Ondine torments poor Ingrid Superstar about her alleged sins. Reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Wikileaks, Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal—all pure Warhol. A society in which narcissism, exhibitionism, and voyeurism run rampant, celebrity and notoriety have merged, and fame is the ultimate goal—Andy would feel right at home.
But a gift for prophecy does not fully explain Warhol’s omnipresence, nor why massive numbers of people who know almost nothing about art relate to his. Andy always thought big, and went for big, simple, slam- bang images—Soup Cans, Dollar Signs, Torsos, Skulls.
Not for him the obscurities of Johns, the encrustations of Rauschenberg, the refinements of Lichtenstein, or the poetics of Twombly, darlings of the cognoscenti all, but not global superstars on the order of action-movie heroes. Perhaps Warhol’s greatest talent was for making art that was simultaneously simple and complex, obvious and subtle.
All the great modern American themes—individualism, capitalism, consumerism, religion, sex, addiction, death—are there, but presented so casually, even flippantly, as to make them easy to go down, to make them cool, as Gagosian would say. Andy always credited his success with being in the right place at the right time—and that he was. During the second half of the twentieth century America was the new Rome, the dominant world empire, but a very insecure one, eager to assert itself but increasingly ashamed of having done so. In Warhol it found its self-image, ready-made for idolatry and mockery. Not surprisingly, the wise old Europeans got him—got us—way before we did.
Of course, there are those who have not fallen under the Warhol spell. For them, Andy was the Chauncey Gardiner character in the 1979 movie Being There: a simpleton turned into a god for uttering pseudo profundities, such as “Life is a state of mind.” One of Warhol’s severest critics was also one of his closest collaborators. Paul Morrissey, the director of most of the feature films produced by Warhol, including Flesh, Trash, and Heat, maintains that Andy was essentially untalented and dependent on his associates for all of his ideas. “Andy’s entire vocabulary consisted of ‘gee,’ ‘wow,’ and ‘oh, really.’” Paul told my parents when we visited him in Montauk after Andy had died. “Your son and Pat Hackett put all those big words in Andy’s mouth in his so- called Philosophy book that made people think he was brilliant. The only thing Andy could think to say after he met people was ‘Are they rich?’ and ‘Are they Jewish?’ ”