The wizard that was Warhol
Blake Gopnik’s monumental biography is a welcome forerunner to Tate Modern’s major Warhol retrospective, opening next month
by Duncan Fallowell
In 1983 I was sent to New York to interview Johnny Rotten and I took the opportunity to call on Andy Warhol. The Factory was in the phonebook; and the receptionist, Brigid Berlin, said that Andy was in Milan but would be back the following afternoon. ‘You better give him half an hour. Why don’t you come over at 2.30 p.m.?’ So I did.
I’d never been part of that New York scene, but wanted to meet someone who had helped me develop my own freedoms almost 20 years earlier. According to Blake Gopnik’s book, I should have found a studio that was triple-locked, with an anxious artist hiding inside. But it wasn’t remotely like that. I just rang up, turned up and started talking to Warhol, and grasped immediately the key to his greatness — an alert but gentle largeness of soul which freed up everything around him: all was work, all was art, yet all was artlessness. He was the only person I met in New York who was completely natural and not pushing an angle.
Warhol was the first truly American artist, the first who didn’t need validation from Europe, the first of consumerism, the media and technology. He revolutionised subject matter, technique, colour, photography. He also invented slow cinema, happenings, installations; pulled rock music into the avant garde via the Velvet Underground and created modern lifestyle journalism with Interview magazine. He made being straight and sober a bore from which it never recovered. He recorded everything and kept everything. He died before the digital age, but he’d already sussed its behaviour. We all live in Andy’s world now.There are many conflicting views of Warhol’s character: he was cold, kind, witty, dumb, knowing and naive
Gopnik’s long biography is much needed — and it’s not long enough. The text is quite a roller-coaster, as the author attempts to resolve what he sees as the artist’s contradictions, something which Warhol himself never bothered about. At his revolutionary height in the 1960s, when he ruptured art and society through the astonishing liberties taken by his paintings, films and superstars at the Silver Factory, Warhol went home at night to be looked after by his mother. Gopnik sees this as an example of Warhol’s irony, but that is wrong. It’s not his irony, it’s ours.
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