Andy Warhol's life and work: an act of aesthetic violence?

Books

September 23, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

Since childhood, I've heard hundreds of attempts to answer the question "What is art?". The best answer for me is: Art's what changes people. Real art's defining purpose is to force sentient humans to reconsider their perceptions and the mechanisms by which they perceive. In whatever form art takes, its mission is to jolt the senses.

For the last few days, my occasional refuge from the barbaric events of Sept. 11 has been to consider art's purpose, particularly in the context of the life of Andy Warhol. The two concerns converge. Both have to do with profound changes in public awareness and attitude. Terrorism is not art, though some detractors have called Warhol an aesthetic terrorist. I am not of a mind to belabor the parallel.

There have been scores of volumes written about Warhol. I have just read the latest, Andy Warhol, by Wayne Koestenbaum (Lipper / Viking, 224 pages, $21.95). It's a brief, intense but accessible study by an extraordinarily insightful scholar of social values -- author of, among many books, the celebrated The Queen's Throat and The Milk of Inquiry. Leaping to his most distilled conclusion -- which supports my argument -- this is one of his summations of Warhol:

"As well known for his odd verbal style as for his art, he stands before us as a formalist, an abstract thinker who reformed the way we see concepts, names, species, and categories." And, "he was one of the most magnanimous producers of the twentieth century, putting art forward again and again, working to salvage work -- his favorite category -- and to teach us, in a deathless didactic act, that incarnation is hard labor, with no time left over for love."

Put aside that final point. Warhol was a lonely man. But do consider Koestenbaum's larger argument.

Warhol, of course, was the virtual father of Pop Art. His Campbell's Soup cans, Brillo boxes and other unadorned and repetitious celebrations of the familiar and commercial first brought him serious attention in the early 1960s. From that, there grew a vast output of other works that sought to raise commonplace images and symbols to something like high-culture levels.

Though a superb draftsman, Warhol made much of his work by adapting photographic images into paintings through the silk screen process -- in multiples. The labor usually was done by assistants in his atelier, which he called The Factory. Ghostwriters and assistants always surrounded Warhol, a sort of pied piper of Pop. When he did write, it was with frequent spelling errors.

Ultimately, Warhol extended his democratization of imagery to include large numbers of portraits, including Mao Tse-tung, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and many, many others.

He was a compulsive publicity seeker, but was cryptic and often inarticulate about aesthetics. Undoubtedly his best remembered, and most revealing, declaration was: "In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes." Under Warhol's force, hierarchies, exclusivities -- and pomposities -- crumbled.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1929, Warhol was the son of Czech immigrant parents who spoke broken English at best. His father died when Andy was 13. He was apparently severely dyslexic, but liked to draw. St. Vitus' dance (chorea) in childhood left him prematurely bald, scarred and convinced that he was more or less hideous.

He managed ultimately to graduate from Carnegie Tech with a degree in fine arts, rarely completing a written assignment of any note. He moved to New York in 1949, and almost immediately was successful as a commercial artist, doing advertising, record jackets and the like.

His career soared. He moved his mother to New York and lived with her until not long before her death in 1972. His personal life was highly public and often tawdry -- filled with drugs and obsessive sexuality, almost all of it involving other men.

Until the late 1960s, he made an immense number of movies. Koestenbaum makes a passionate, and I believe overdrawn, case for the importance of these films -- a huge body of work, which to most people are obscure and excruciatingly boring. He was shot and severely wounded by Valerie Solanas on June 3, 1968, and for the rest of his life had to wear corsets and belts to keep his body together. He launched Interview, a smart, flashy magazine. He continued to be powerfully productive in all his art forms till shortly before his death at 58, on Feb. 21, 1987, after gall-bladder surgery and medical staff negligence.

His legacy was, and remains, immense -- in works of art, of course, but even more importantly in influence upon culture, in having changed awarenesses. He's one of a tiny handful of the most important artists of the 20th century, I believe, though there are precious few of his works that I would be made joyful by living with, day in and day out.

Some readers may be offended by Koestenbaum's outspoken and often celebratory gay-male vantage point. Koestenbaum "outs" Warhol vigorously:

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