Friday, April 15, 2016


by Don Stradley

In an unnerving premonition of his own death, Andy Warhol devoted a few paragraphs of his memoirs to a friend who’d received poor medical care and died right in his hospital bed. To Warhol, this was a nightmarish way to go; he imagined the horror of being “taken to the wrong hospital, or if you happened to get the wrong doctor at the right hospital.” Popism: The Warhol Sixties, Warhol’s bright, absorbing look back at the Pop Art decade and his place in it, was published in 1980, seven years before his own death. Warhol would die after a simple gallbladder operation because floor nurses failed to look in on him (he’d been flooded with fluids which resulted in heart failure). Maybe Warhol jinxed himself with his fear of hospitals. He was, after all, adept at predicting how things would happen with art, film, and celebrity culture. Why not, in the manner of an amphetamine-loaded, porn-loving Nostradamus, his own demise?

Warhol chroniclers have harped on his alleged fascination with death, doting like WW2 code-breakers on his macabre silkscreens of electric chairs, and car crashes, but the Warhol who shared his memories of the 1960s was far less consumed with death than, say, parties, and specifically, the famous people who occupied couch space at these parties. “Vacant, vacuous Hollywood was everything I ever wanted to mold my life into,” he writes at one point, gushing about a modest gathering thrown by Dennis Hopper as “the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.” One would think Warhol’s unlikely jump from being a commercial illustrator to one of the top names in American art would provide him with moments of greater significance, like when six of his self-portraits were featured in the U.S. Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo, but no, Warhol was more thrilled by witnessing Judy Garland get pissed off at Tennessee Williams. Warhol’s hero, Picasso, didn’t hang with movie stars, so in that regard, Andy had Pablo pinned to the mat. 

If his fetish for fame has sometimes obscured his actual talents, Popism clears up a few things about Warhol. He was easily embarrassed and developed a quick, dismissive way to deal with the press, letting his friends pretend to be him for telephone interviews, or having Edie Sedgwick answer questions for him on talk shows. If Warhol was fascinated by the fame of others, he found his own notoriety rather ridiculous. He explains that much of modern art is a game, anyway,  less about having the right style than having the right rich people to buy your stuff, and that remaining aloof allowed other people to instill his work – and his entire existence - with meanings he’d likely never considered. In Popism, he’s not out to ascribe meaning to his paintings; he’s more concerned with what the girls were wearing in those years, how they painted their eyelashes, or how rich people spent their money. 

The strangest thing about Popism is that, while many of Warhol’s stories are amusing,  none are especially dramatic. Except for his detailed account of being shot by Valarie Solanis,  the book is surprisingly light and airy. There was a casualness to Warhol – if a painting of his was accidently destroyed, he’d simply create another one - and this breezy attitude is what makes the book so readable. He offers some interesting insights about art, but doesn’t dwell on any theories, keeping his views as streamlined as one of his Coke bottle paintings. The closest he comes to revealing any emotion is when he addresses the accusation that he was somehow responsible for the number of people in his circle who died young. The death of dancer Freddie Herko, who pirouetted out “his window with a leap so huge that he was carried halfway down the block onto Cornelia Street five stories below,” seems to have affected Warhol the most. Still, Warhol suggests the people around him who ended badly were damaged when he met them. “It wasn’t like someone was issuing me newborn babies with good chemicals and letting me raise them,” he writes. But he also admits that he thrived in the company of whack jobs, and proudly states, “we were all odds-and-ends misfits, somehow misfitting together.” He recalls Viva and Candy and the rest of the Factory regulars with what seems like real affection, and appears legitimately disappointed that none became mainstream film stars, though their spirit appears to live on in this current era of “YouTube sensations” and “reality TV celebrities,” minus the Factory crowd’s sense of melancholy and danger. Late in the book, Warhol suggests that many of his friends had probably lied about their pasts to make themselves more attractive to him; the cocktail of lies, drugs, and general mental unbalance created a kind of living theater that could only end tragically, despite the fun had by all. 

Today, of course, no artist could write a nearly 400 page memoir and expect it to sell five copies, not when most contemporary artwork ends up in dull corporate offices,  hanging innocuously in conference rooms like the visual equivalent of piped in “muzak.”  Warhol would be nearly 90 now, and probably bored by the culture he’d helped shape. Not only are contemporary celebs badly dressed and void of glamor, but the art world suffers from neglect, with no one looking in on it.



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