Sunday, January 12, 2014

108. Andy Warhol: Genius or Fraud?

     In an auction last November 13 at Sotheby’s here in New York, a grisly Andy Warhol painting, “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster),” showing a body amid the wreckage of a car crash, was sold for $104.5 million, the highest price paid to date for one of the artist’s works.  The sale provoked much comment, some of it harshly negative, and rekindled the perennial debate as to the importance of Warhol as an artist, some seeing him as a genius and some as a fraud. 

     Recently I queried several friends, all knowledgeable New Yorkers, and got a consistently mixed reaction.  “So-so,” said one, adding that he could do without the repetitions, meaning the reduplications of celebrity portraits and other subjects.  My friend John felt that certain works, but not all, merited serious attention, citing in particular a silkscreen painting – just one, not fifty – of Marilyn Monroe, that the artist painted in 1962, soon after her suicide, and then reproduced many times; John found her expression and the vivid background coloring captivating. 

     A third friend, an artist who does landscapes and city views, saw early Warhol as defining a moment in art history but viewed the later work, always witty and entertaining, as lacking the depth of the earlier work.  When I questioned him about the “moment in art history,” he said that early Warhol in a small way recognized and visualized a decade in which American decadence had a defining influence on the course of civilization; by “decadence” he meant a materialistic view of the world, with instant gratification and idol worship (Marilyn, Elvis, Liz Taylor) thrown in.  My partner Bob, who loves abstract expressionism, is frankly scornful of Warhol, whose work he deems simplistic, commercial, and lacking in depth; “I’ve never seen a work of his that I liked,” he explains.  As for me, less knowledgeable about modern American art than any of them, I am inclined to share Bob’s reaction, opining that Warhol was indeed a genius … of self-promotion.  But maybe I’ll be moved to – just a little – change my mind.

File:Andy Warhol by Jack Mitchell.jpg
Andy with a friend.
Jack Mitchell
File:Warhol-Campbell Soup-1-screenprint-1968.jpg     No one would deny that Warhol, the Prince of Pop, probably alone of twentieth-century American artists, made his name a household word for his generation and  beyond; people who know little or nothing about art have heard of him and sometimes have opinions.  He surfaced in New York in the 1950s as a successful and very well paid commercial artist and an innovator in silkscreen painting.  In the 1960s his Pop art was widely displayed in exhibitions featuring such attention-getting creations as Campbell’s Soup Cans, 100 Coke Bottles, and 100 Dollar Bills, plus renderings of vacuum cleaners and hamburgers, and garish portraits of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, and Mohammad Ali.  He himself became a celebrity, his youthful features, with long blond hair and  glasses, becoming known to the public through photos and self-portraits. 

File:Exploding Plastic Inevitable.png
Poster for Exploding Plastic
Inevitable, a 1966 multimedia
spectacle by Warhol that featured
The Velvet Undergound.
     Warhol’s studio at 231 East 47th Street, dubbed the Factory (it was in fact an abandoned hat factory), proved a magnet for avant-garde artists, writers, musicians, and assorted drug addicts, weirdos, and crazies, all of them Warhol devotees over whom, even with his gentle demeanor, he is said to have reigned tyrannically.  Out of the Factory came quantities of Pop art, avant-garde films, multimedia happenings, and the music of The Velvet Underground, a rock band managed by him, which enjoyed phenomenal success.  At Factory parties celebrities and socialites rubbed shins with drag queens and hustlers in a unique setting where everything, from the floor to toilet handles, was painted silver, and there were drugs galore.

     Then, in June of the pivotal year 1968, just after Warhol moved to a new studio on the sixth floor of 33 Union Square West, the radical feminist Valerie Solanas, author of a tract advocating the elimination of men, shot him, inflicting a wound that was almost fatal.  I remember how this was big news, until Robert Kennedy’s assassination three days later relegated the Warhol story to the back pages.  Solanas later pleaded guilty to reckless assault, was sentenced to three years in prison and released in 1971, phoned Warhol and threatened him again, then was rearrested and subsequently institutionalized several times before fading into obscurity.  That Solanas, hating men, should pick Warhol as her victim is curious, since he never claimed to be, or wanted to be, a sterling specimen of manhood.  My take on the two of them is simple: she’s a bore; he’s interesting.  In her photos she looks like she's been force-fed on hate.  But she has been hailed – by a few – as a “girl Nietzsche,” Medusa, an anti-patriarchal avant-garde militant, and a feminist/lesbian revolutionary ahead of her time.  For that fifteen minutes of fame that Warhol says we all get, it seems that all you have to do is shoot someone.

     Following the shooting Warhol was out of commission for weeks.  He was released from the hospital in July, and on his first sortie out of his house he went to 42nd Street to see a porno movie and bought, according to a friend who went with him, the dirtiest magazines he could find.  But the Factory, now much more tightly controlled, was never the same again.  It is said that Warhol was so afraid of further attacks by Solanas that he would jump if even a good friend touched him.  He was less scandal-prone and likewise less successful in the 1970s, when critics began criticizing his celebrity portraits as superficial and overtly commercial, but reaped more critical and financial success in the 1980s.  By then his long graying hair, over a gaunt face, looked at times like a fright wig; aging was not kind.  In 1987 he died following gallbladder surgery at 58. 

     I probably first heard of Andy Warhol when his Campbell’s soup cans caused a splash in 1962, but I never met him.  We were exact contemporaries but moved in different worlds; toiling then in the glades of Academe, I would have found his entourage too bizarre, and the drug scene of the Factory repellent.  Besides, the idea of 32 Campbell’s soup cans as art, especially when exhibited in a single line like products on a shelf, turned me off, old fogey that I am, so that right from the start I was suspicious of his antics and his art.  The same goes for 100 Coke bottles, or 100 dollar bills, or however many images of captivating Marilyn Monroe he produced. 

     But my friend John has a different take on both the artist and his art.  John knew him in his early years in the 1950s and has shared his impressions with me.  An editor at Interiors magazine (see post #47), he got to know Andy Warhol when Warhol did cover art for the publication.  John remembers commissioning him for cover art and some drawings to be used inside the magazine for the princely sum of $25.00.  John’s personal impression: the artist was a gentle soul, otherworldly and precious; he describes him as “featherly.”  Easygoing and friendly, Warhol was accessible; one could readily address him as “Andy.”  Though he was beginning to show his serious art, he was not impressed with himself, not at all the ego-driven artist; above all, he was accommodating.  For a feature article by John on music, Warhol did a semiabstract cover showing a speaker with sound waves.  When the publisher saw it, he asked John to have Warhol add a small picture of an interior.  John was fearful that the artist would resent this interference with his creation, but Andy replied, in his soft fey voice, “Oh that’s okay, John.  That’s okay.”  Yes, accommodating in the extreme.

     His sexuality was enigmatic.  Certainly he was gay and on the femme side; blond and “featherly,” he may have had a rough time in high school, though to my knowledge this has not been commented on.  When he first hit the New York art scene, he says that the other gay artists kept him at a distance, deeming him too “swish.”  Homoeroticism permeates much of his work, yet when interviewed in 1980 he claimed he was still a virgin, which confirms the impression that I always had of him.  His doctor has stated that on his scrotum Warhol had prominent blood vessels like a cluster of little rubies, a condition that made him self-conscious and ashamed.  That may well explain why he seems to have preferred voyeurism to full participation.  His interest in porn, and the male nudity exhibited in some of his films, would seem to confirm this.  “Fantasy love,” he once said, “is much better than reality love.  Never doing it is very exciting.”  Furthermore, John has told me how a friend of his attended a gay party where Andy Warhol was present.  During some sort of sadomasochistic exhibition Warhol, standing next to him, kept uttering an emphatic “Wow!” 

     Whitman’s sexuality, like Warhol’s, was enigmatic; some gay lib advocates of today have assumed that every young man he befriended was a lover, but there is no hard evidence of this.  Certainly his Calamus poems are suffused with eroticism.  But a biographer once said of him, “Perhaps for his work to be complete, his life had to be incomplete.”  The same could well have been true of Warhol.

     Well reported on as Andy Warhol is, there are facts about him that many people probably don’t know.  Here are some, culled from the Internet:

·      He was born Andrej Varhola, Jr., in Pittsburgh in 1928, the son of working-class immigrants from Slovakia.  His father worked in a coal mine or did construction work, depending on the source.
·      In third grade he had St. Vitus’ Dance (Sydenham’s chorea), a nervous system disease causing involuntary movements of the limbs, and became a hypochondriac, fearing doctors and hospitals.  As a result, he probably delayed having his gallbladder problems treated, leading to his death in 1987.
·      A self-proclaimed mama’s boy, he lived with his mother in New York from 1952 to 1971; she died in 1972.
·      He praised Coca-Cola as a distinctly American and democratic phenomenon: all Cokes are the same, and everyone drinks them -- the President, Liz Taylor, and the bum on the street.
·      He is said to have phoned his press agent every morning.
·      He said that, contrary to popular opinion, movies make things look real, whereas real life is like watching television.  When he was shot, he knew that he was watching television; it was unreal.
·      He once said: “I love Los Angeles.  I love Hollywood.  They’re so beautiful.  Everything’s plastic, but I love plastic.  I want to be plastic.”
·      Another quote: “I am a deeply superficial person.”
·      Boys who came to lunch and drank too much wine were amused or even flattered, when he asked them to help him “paint” by emptying their bladder on canvases primed with copper-based paint.
·      He was a practicing Ruthenian Catholic and regularly attended Mass at the Roman Catholic church of St. Vincent Ferrer, at Lexington and East 66th Street in Manhattan.
·      The IRS audited him every year from 1972 until his death in 1987.
·      One critic called him "the Nothingness Himself."  Warhol’s comment: “I’m still obsessed with the idea of looking into the mirror and seeing no one, nothing.”
·      He and his friends are said to have bought 2,000 bottles of Dom Pérignon to be consumed at the millennium.  After his death, and long before the millennium,  the bottles disappeared. 
·      When he was buried in a suburb of Pittsburg in 1987, a copy of Interview, a gossip magazine founded by him, was dropped into the grave, along with an Interview T-shirt and a bottle of Estee Lauder perfume.
·      When Sotheby’s auctioned his estate, it took nine days and grossed more than twenty million dollars.
·      The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, with seven floors and 17 galleries harboring his art, films, and archives, is the biggest museum in the country devoted to a single artist.
     There remains my original question: Andy Warhol, genius or fraud?  So where do I come out?  Certainly, as I said earlier, he was a genius at self-promotion.  I find him, perhaps not a great artist, but a fascinating phenomenon.  Indeed, I’m much less drawn to Andy Warhol the artist than to Andy Warhol the person, whose contradictions intrigue me: a virginal voyeur who needed people around him yet seems never to have revealed himself fully to others.   And the very things so many of us deplore in American culture – crass commercialism, the cult of celebrities, the commodification of art, Hollywood, money, Coca-Cola, plastic – he embraced and glorified.  But to label him either genius or fraud is too simplistic; he may have had a bit of both in him but can’t be described so easily.  Somehow he evolved from the gentle, accommodating person my friend John knew in the 1950s into the reigning monarch of the Factory in the 1960s, ruling his court like an autocrat and reveling in the fawning admiration of his courtiers.  Obviously, they needed him, but he needed them as well.  And from the beginning to the end of his career, I think he can be fairly described in his own words: “I am a deeply superficial person.”

     Curiously, the Sizzling Sixties, that era of liberation – gay lib, women’s lib, and campus rebellions nationwide – was also characterized by autocrats: Rudolph Bing at the Met (post #84), Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio (post #41), Robert Moses at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (post #78, though by then he was on his way out), and Andy Warhol at the Factory.  But all these figures, autocrats or not, were immensely creative and produced results.

     When all is said and done, I still am amazed that some anonymous buyer forked over $104.5 million for a Warhol painting.  After all, he was buying the work not of an Old Master but a Young Phenomenon.  But who knows how Andy Warhol’s reputation as an artist will fare in the future?  These things are unpredictable.  As an example I cite the French painter Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898).  What, you never heard of him?  Or his name only rings a faint tinkle in the cave of memory?  Well, his murals and oil paintings were hot stuff back in the Third Republic, when the Impressionists were first getting known.  And today, he rates close to zero or, as my friend John has remarked, as “nineteenth-century kitsch.”   So it goes in the art world, as one taste yields to another, and that one to still another.  Will this be Andy Warhol’s fate?  I wouldn’t presume to say.  But there will be more reminiscences and biographies of him – scores, hundreds – for he is an enigmatic and fascinating subject.

File:Puvis de Chavannes - L'Esperance.jpg
Puvis de Chavannes, L'Espérance (Hope).

     If Andy Warhol still exists in some higher mode of being and is aware that a work of his sold for $104.5 million, I’m sure he’s smiling.  Unless, of course, he’s too busy silkscreening God.

File:Warhol's grave.jpg
                                                                                                        Allie Caulfield
     A sobering thought:  Bourgeois that I am, I can’t help but ask who, at the Factory in its heyday, did the floors and the bathroom.  A maid?  Volunteers?  His mother?  Andy himself??  And who cleaned up after those legendary parties?  Maybe his archives have the answer.

     A note on Judith Malina:  In post #94 I discussed the Living Theater, its propensity for nudity, and why I kept my clothes on.  From a recent article in the New York Times I have now learned that its cofounder and artistic director, Judith Malina, afflicted with emphysema and confined to a wheelchair, is still going strong at age 87.  A year ago she lost the Lower East Side home of the Living, and the commercial space above it where she had lived for six years, because she couldn’t pay the rent.  She has had vast experience in losing leases, but this was different.  “I was crying, screaming,” she says.  “They had to carry me to the car.”  She now lives in an assisted-living residence for theater people in Englewood, New Jersey, where she is writing and making plans to direct new works.  She likes her neighbors and the serenity of the grounds there, but yearns for the creativity of the Lower East Side, her home of many years.  “If there’s going to be a beautiful, nonviolent revolution,” she insists, “it’s going to start there.”  Living Theater actors visit her almost daily, and she gets into Manhattan once a week.  “I feel very exiled, abandoned,” she admits, but she continues to write in her diary, some of which has been published, and next spring hopes to direct a new play of hers in Manhattan.  Though she seems to keep her clothes on now, this woman is unchanged, unreconstructed.  Bravo, Judith!  Keep at it as long as you can.

     Congressional millionaires:  According to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, at least 268 of the 534 members of Congress had a net worth of over $1 million in 2012.  At the top of the list is Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, with $330 million or more.  At the bottom, poor David Valadao, another Republican of California, with debts of about $12.1 million from loans on a family dairy farm.  I confess that I'm surprised, since I thought that all our Congress folk, without exception, were millionaires.  How else to explain their letting unemployment benefits expire for over a million Americans?  Well, if they aren't all millionaires yet, they will be, if they play their cards right.  

     Coming soon:  Four Forgotten New York Murders (the Girl in Green, a society dentist, Old Shakespeare, and Ah Hoon); Maritime New York: the Slave Trade and the China Trade (horrors, then hong merchants, white devils, and the Son of Heaven).

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


  1. If nothing else, his phonyness--and people's willingness to play along with it-- represents something important in art history. I don't like his art (I don't think it can be 'liked' in that sense) but it certainly makes me think about the numbing aesthetic nature of my culture, and for that I respect it.

    Interesting post!

  2. Nothingness elevated to Art. Period. The man managed to be honest about his phoniness, because he knew the army of fascinated fools would be as stumped by that truth as it was by his pretense, and not be able to process it either.

    It took brains to do that then, so in that sense he was a memorable personality.