“The definitive biography of one of the most famous and influential artists the world has ever seen – the iconic Andy Warhol”.
Blake spent seven years researching Warhol for this book, with 260 interviews conducted and it shows, it’s the most intense biography I have ever read. Of all the books on Andy Warhol, this book is THE Warhol biography, it’s the only one you’ll need to gain an insight into the man, the myth and the mystery.
Warhol opens with prelude ‘Death’. Warhol almost died on June 3rd 1968, when he was 39, as a result of being shot by Valerie Solanos, a radical feminist writer. The facing page reveals a black and white portrait of Andy displaying all his scars proudly. He was very lucky to survive, he had a highly skilled surgeon that day and this section goes into detail of the operation that ensued to save his life.
The first chapter, 1928-1934, recalls his birth and early life. Andy’s parents were hard-working, working-class immigrants; originating from Slovakia. Andrew Warhola was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1928 in a “grim flat”, throughout his career, he told various tales about his upbringing, none revealed the full truth, this was a theme running through the book. During his youth, (and indeed his later life) he was beset by a multitude of health problems. He was extremely shy and possessed poor social skills to the point of being an outsider, described by one as “the saint of misfits”.
We read a great deal about Andy’s artistic talents and how they were recognised at a very early age in school and beyond. He credits his mother, Julia, for his cultured ways and his eccentricity. She was an artist in her own right and often went under the name of ‘Andy Warhol’s Mother’. The book talks about how religion played its part in his upbringing. However, the way he conducted his life and his philosophies were far removed from the Christian faith, as it claims Andy also believed in death after death, he commented, “when its over, its over”.
In his youth he held a courageous streak for the times, playing around with gender norms, effeminate in his nature and dress, although not quite out of the closet. In 1947 it was illegal to be gay and quite dangerous, as the ‘moral squad’ were out in force.
It is the first part of the book I found so fascinating, how Warhol’s formative years were played out, where he gained his influences from and his quirkiness. One early supporter of Andy said, “Andy was the one who pushed art to all conceivable limits, so there was nowhere else he could go but onto rock and roll and movies”.
Warhol moves to NYC in 1949. We discover he is a hoarder, a voyeur, has many male lovers, he loves cats, big gossipier, enjoys chatting on the phone for hours, even recording his calls. He becomes a commercial illustrator (mainly shoes and advertising) and he begins to establish a reputation as a fine artist, who soaks up ideas like a sponge.
During his life, he had collections and art with provocative titles such as ‘Nosepicker series’, ‘Death and Disaster’ ‘Thirteen Most Wanted Men’ and in 1977 he had a polaroid collection entitled ‘Torsos and Sex Parts’. He had an obsession with male appendages and would often ask at parties “Can I draw your cock?” Over time he experimented with controversial materials such as blood, semen and urine. Throughout his life, his mother Julia (who lived with him) was a constant support.
During the ’60s he started to focus on photography and making films, he created ‘The Factory’ a hangout for the young arty, rich kids, musicians, underground celebrities and dropouts. Each of the chapters are in chronological order and cover in extensive details those periods of his life. Included are never before published photos which weave themselves alongside the text.
“Our aim was to upset people, make them feel uncomfortable, make them vomit”. Warhol circa 1966
In the 70’s and 80’s he focused on being an entrepreneur. He famously said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art”. He produced polaroid portraits of many of the rich and famous including actors and actresses, musicians, politicians, fashion designers and artists of this era. Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, Jack Nicholson, Grace Jones, Jackie Onasis, Dolly Parton, Keith Haring, Audrey Hepburn to name a few which can be found in the book. Andy Warhol Polaroids 1958 – 1987.
Warhol is recognised for creating art out of everyday life – dollar bills, Brillo-pad boxes, Campbell’s soup cans, (it is said he ate a tin of soup every day for lunch for 20 years), Pop Art and his famous Marilyn Monroe silk screenprints; the founder of Interview Magazine; his wig collection; Ray-Ban shades; managing avant-garde band The Velvet Underground and creating the iconic Banana album cover; Max’s Kansas City; The silver Factory studio with its group of actors, models and artists. Andy allegedly was the first to coin the phrase ‘Superstar’; amongst the Warhol Superstars were Edie Sedwick, Candy Darling, Ultra Violet, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Nico, Eric Emerson, Joe Dallesandro (‘Little Joe never once gave it away’ – Lou Reed – Walk on the Wild Side). Andy and Paul Morrissey created underground films with trans women and drag queens, which at the time was outrageous…the list is endless.
This book is the authority on someone who led an incredible life, with all its ups and downs, been an inspiration to all who follow the arts, a creative photographer/artist/director. He was also an individualist, who paved the way for others to follow. A true one of a kind! In addition, he is probably the most quotable artist of all time, the most quotable line that most people know is that “Everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes”.
I’ve always had a fascination with everything Warhol related and finally a book which has been able to give me a full insight into his life, the bizarre and the pure eccentricity. It can be read as a biography from cover to cover, or used as a reference book. A daunting read at 960 pages, a book for the serious Warholian at £35 for the hardback edition (although cheaper at some outlets). My only criticism would be that I would have liked more photographs, and midway through the book, I became distracted and lost a bit of interest, but I soldiered on and once I got to 1964 it continued to be a riveting read.
Warhol died aged 58, on February 22, 1987, of cardiac arrhythmia after a Gallbladder operation. Ironically it is 33 years to the day I started reading this book.
And the last word goes to Andy, “The idea is not to live forever, it is to create something that will.” ― Andy Warhol. You can view Warhol’s grave 24 hours a day here as a live stream.
Photo of Andy with a camera by Italian Photographer – Oliviero Toscani
Blake Gopnik is one of North America’s leading arts writers, has served as art and design critic at Newsweek and a chief art critic at the Washington Post and Canada’s Globe and Mail. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times and has a PhD in art history from Oxford University. You can buy the book here:
Words by Melanie Smith. More work by Mel on Louder Than War can be found at her author’s archive.