Further, Warhol’s relatively recent death in 1987 enabled the author to base his “Warhol. A Life as Art” on 260 interviews with surviving friends, lovers, colleagues and acquaintances. There must have been dozens of other books written about the superstar Pop artist and pioneer transgressor of gender roles, but Gopnik takes it to the limit with a mammoth study of the “15 minutes of fame” man that tops a whopping 900 pages.

Still, it’s not all so “simple”, as the famously cryptic and otherworldly Warhol liked to muddy the historical record, offering different versions of his background for different interviewers. Asked once where he was from, he replied, “I am from nowhere”. He disowned his upbringing in Pittsburgh as quickly as he could, and when he arrived in New York in 1949 as an art-school graduate in search of work as an illustrator, he told a magazine editor who asked for a potted biography, “My life wouldn’t fill a penny postcard”.

From the beginning, then, Warhol postured and prevaricated when he was questioned, sometimes obviously but sometimes not. Blake Gopnik is the man to sort it all out, giving a detailed summary of not only Warhol but the full artistic environment of the time in which he operated.

The author is described by his publisher as one of North America’s leading arts writers who has served as art and design critic at Newsweek and as 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. Surely his Warhol biography, judging by the sheer detail and knowledge of art offered by Gopnik, must be the definitive work?

It should be noted by potential readers that Gopnik is unequivocal in his belief regarding Walhol’s talents. He talks of the man’s “lifelong genius” and says Warhol revealed himself early on “as a true rival of all the greats who had come before”. Warhol has “overtaken Picasso as the most important and influential artist of the 20th century. Or at least the two of them share a spot on the top peak of Parnassus, beside Michelangelo and Rembrandt and their fellow geniuses”.

Of course, truly innovative artists in their chosen field – be it art, music, literature or whatever – are rare beings, and often build upon what has gone before and what is around them at the time. Not everything Warhol did was totally original, and Gopnik also calls him “the world’s greatest sponge”.

The book opens with a rather grisly account of the emergency treatment at Columbus Hospital in New York that saved Warhol’s life after he had been shot by a troubled hanger-on in June 1968. Warhol was basically dead on arrival but a gifted private-practice surgeon, Giuseppe Rossi, with a lot of experience of gunshot wounds, luckily happened to be in the hospital.

He saved Warhol’s life but “For convenience and safety – and maybe because he wasn’t at all sure his patient would live to care – Rossi used huge stitches that gave Warhol’s torso a network of Frankenstein scars. He showed them off for years to come.”

Although Warhol obfuscated about his background, the fact is he was born Andrew Warhola on August 6, 1928 in a grim little two-room flat in smoke-choked industrial Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, the youngest of four children. His father Andrej, or Andrii, was a Slav born in 1886 in a hungry village named Mikova, then the remote eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today Slovakia.

Andrej married a fellow villager, Julia Zavacky, 17, in an arranged marriage in May 1909. Within a few years Andrej left for America to escape conscription into the Austro-Hungarian Army, leaving behind Julia and his four-day-old daughter, a standard practice in the region. Family lore said that Andrej, now a labourer, often tried to send money so his wife could join him but it was always stolen en route. In 1921 she finally managed the trip for herself, thanks to a loan from a village priest.

Andy Warhol’s ethnic identity, coming from this distinct group nowadays termed “Carpatho-Rusyn”, manifested in a notable folksy style that was everywhere in his early years as a commercial artist, Gopnik notes, although “one of Warhol’s more notable achievements was to push back against both signature touch and hand-painting”.

Further, to explain Warhol, the Rusyns didn’t actually have their own ethnically based state and therefore weren’t hyphenated Americans, like the Italian-Americans and Hungarian-Americans who were his childhood neighbours. Thus, this unspecified outsiderism might have been the most precious gift his forefathers handed down to him, Gopnik comments. “It let him adopt the role of American Everyman: He could explain the nation’s culture to itself as only an outside observer could, while also reshaping it from deep inside”.

Catherine Metz, his second-grade teacher at Holmes Elementary in Pittsburg, remembered 50 years after she taught him: “This little kid was very, very good at drawing. All his teachers seemed to recognise his art ability, and they would get him to come in and maybe make a border for the room or something.”

The family was poor but mother Julia kept her boys busy with art, and she particularly encouraged pictures of butterflies and angels, which became staples of his imagery in the 1950s. “He was drawing pictures of like flowers and butterflies – that’s where I noticed he was different,” recalled his brother John. Forty years later Warhol could proudly proclaim his difference: “Everybody knows I’m a queen.”

In the late 1940s, when two Pittsburgh judges had referred to homosexuals as “society’s greatest menace” and police were drawing up lists of “known perverts”, Warhol – then a window dresser in a Pittsburgh department store – favoured a pink corduroy suit, a tie dipped in paint and brightly coloured fingernails.

Regarding religion, Warhol may or may not have been a serious sort of Byzantine Catholic – again he clouded the matter – but as Gopnik notes: “Warhol certainly lived a less than holy life, made more profane art and committed more mortal sins than should have been on the conscience of any devout Catholic, as defined in his era.”

“Church is a fun place to go,” Warhol once commented.

Gopnik again: “... he came across to his contemporaries as your standard secular, gay , lefty, party-going avant-gardist, and that was the image he chose to let loose on the world.”

An unrequited romantic, throughout his life he would fall in love with a succession of younger men, usually unhappily. But he seems to have had little enthusiasm for sexual relations. One partner, the photographer Carl Willers, recalls that he was “more passionate about food and eating”.

It was a gay aesthetic, Gopnik argues, that informed what Warhol described as the “fairy style” curlicue illustrations of shoes with which he first made his name as a commercial artist in New York, and the camp taste for “lowly pop culture”, which he would elevate to the realm of fine art.

In characteristically faux-naif fashion, he traced the origins of his pop art to the time he spent working as a window dresser at Bonwits in New York, when he used comics and advertisements as a backdrop to his displays of dresses and handbags. “Then a gallery saw them and I just began taking windows and putting them in galleries.”

This would lead to what Gopnik calls Warhol’s “eureka moment – one of the greatest in the history of art”, the Campbell soup can and the notion that mass-produced commercial goods could be art – and, eventually, that art could be profitably mass-produced. His first Los Angeles exhibition in 1962 showed 32 soup cans, which were bought by the gallery owner Irving Blum for $1000. In 1996, Blum sold them to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $15 million.

As Gopnik writes: “At his best, Warhol didn’t think outside the box. He thought outside any artistic universe whose laws would allow boxes to exist. Warhol always wanted to make work for a world where x and not-x would be true at the same time.”

Warhol left a thriving career in commercial art to launch an extremist attack on establishment culture. He explored many areas outside of his Pop art including avant-garde forays into magazine editing, acting and his career as a portraitist to the wealthy and powerful. He launched Interview magazine, promoted the Velvet Underground and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable multi-media presentation and made experimental films, most of them pretty much unwatchable, such as his eight-hour observation of the Empire State Building.

Gopnik serves up fresh details about almost every aspect of Warhol’s life in an immensely informative and enjoyable book. To help the reader keep their bearings through the 900-plus pages, each chapter begins with a black-and-white photo, a short precis such as Chapter 5’s “1949, First New York Digs and Contracts / Fashion Magazines, Record Covers, Book Jackets”, and an accompanying quote, in this case: “Within a few weeks in New York, he certainly didn’t need anyone to take care of him – he did it all on his own”.

Here at The Budapest Times we have reached Page 542, so still a way to go. One frustration: we would have liked more than the 11 colour plates showing Warhol’s art. There are many things mentioned in the text that we wish we could see. More of these can no doubt be found in a lavish coffee-table book somewhere.


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