Book Review

Biography 'Warhol: A Life As Art' separates man from myth - or does it?

Blake Gopnik's Andy Warhol biography systematically demolishes the reputation that the iconic artist himself studiously cultivated, writes Andrew Donaldson

15 March 2020 - 00:03 By andrew donaldson
American artist Andy Warhol sits in front of several paintings in his 'Endangered Species' series at his New York studio, the Factory, on April 12 1983.
American artist Andy Warhol sits in front of several paintings in his 'Endangered Species' series at his New York studio, the Factory, on April 12 1983.
Image: Brownie Harris/Corbis via Getty Images

Wading through the reviews and extracts of Blake Gopnik's eagerly anticipated Andy Warhol biography, I began to suspect that Waldemar Januszczak of the London Sunday Times may just have the measure of this exhaustive work. "For all its weight and length," Januszczak wrote, "Warhol: A Life As Art (Allen Lane) feels a tad premature. The next Warhol biographer hasn't a hope of bringing more detail to the task, that's been done. What they might bring is a truer perspective."

Interesting point. Gopnik's book is certainly stuffed with detail. It's a book that, like the giant multi-volume biographies of Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne and any number of other artists, progresses in a painstakingly forensic manner, year by year, period by period, piece by piece. Along the way, Warhol's reputation, or at least the one he studiously cultivated, is systematically demolished. Perhaps the greatest fabrication to have emerged from the vague fog of the Warhol mythology concerns the artist's supposed asexuality.

Perhaps the greatest fabrication to have emerged from the vague fog of the Warhol mythology concerns the artist's supposed asexuality

Earlier biographers have always noted that, though gay, Warhol largely eschewed sex as being too messy and antithetical to the mantle of ennui and manufactured diffidence at the heart of the dispassionate "philosophical" regard that shaped his world view.

Well, all that is given short shrift by Gopnik. Warhol was a sexual adventurer with an enormous penis and a string of younger "workplace conquests". "Because his touch was so light," Januszczak writes, "he was really good at blow jobs." He also suffered from anal warts and succumbed to a number of venereal diseases. He was also quite the pillhead, Quaaludes and amphetamines being his drugs of choice.

This much detail, we're told, is important not only for "gossipy Warholian reasons", but because it gets to the heart of Warhol's artistic impulse. Apparently. "A gay man," Januszczak writes, "with a fierce gay agenda, Warhol's sexuality was powerfully impactful. It influenced his choice of styles and opportunities and made him a modernist." And we all thought it was that stuff he did with soup cans, Brillo pads and portraits of Elvis and Marilyn.

'Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol and Entourage' shot in 1965 by photographer Steve Schapiro in New York.
'Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol and Entourage' shot in 1965 by photographer Steve Schapiro in New York.
Image: Getty Images

Perhaps one of Warhol's greatest creations, Gopnik argues, was the crowd of eccentrics and outsiders he assembled in the mid-1960s as part of his Factory scene. The brightest and "most famous", according to Gopnik, of this coterie was the tragic, ill-fated model and heiress Edie Sedgwick. She ticked all the boxes for Warhol: she had social status, she was rich, unhinged and drug-addled.

"During her deeply troubled adolescence," Gopnik writes, "Sedgwick was in and out of institutions, where she got treated for bulimia and all kinds of mad, bad behaviour. In her 20s, she got out and spent time in Boston, taking private art classes with a cousin and turning out skilled but outdated, and frankly adolescent, renderings of horses and mice. (A bunch ended up in Warhol's collection, where they were strange bedfellows with his works by Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp.) Sedgwick became part of a fancy, brainy Harvard set who were also hard partiers. In the summer of 1964, after coming into an inheritance that was supposed to have paid $10,000 a month, she moved to New York and began a desultory career as a model."

Twinning himself with Sedgwick was one way for Warhol to ensure that it wouldn't be easy to ignore him again

Her arrival on the scene could not have come at a better time for Warhol, who'd just suffered a setback in his lifelong quest for recognition: photographer Richard Avedon, guest editing the April 1965 edition of society magazine Harper's Bazaar, had deliberately omitted to include Warhol in an issue that was devoted to Manhattan's other pop artists. "Twinning himself with Sedgwick was one way for Warhol to ensure that it wouldn't be easy to ignore him again. Journalists started to bill the two as inseparable, inveterate partygoers."

For more on Sedgwick, read the extraordinary 1982 biography Edie: American Girl by Jean Stein and edited by George Plimpton (Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press). There's also Edie: Girl on Fire by Melissa Painter and David Weisman (Chronicle Books, 2007) and Edie: Factory Girl by David Dalton (powerHouse), but Stein's book is unbeatable.

As for Warhol, a new critical assessment of the artist will be published this month, shortly after Gopnik's biography has hit the bookstores. Gregor Muir and Yilmaz Dziewior's Andy Warhol (Tate Publishing) is timed to coincide with the major exhibition at London's Tate Modern this week. Warhol's own writings - The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, Fame and The Andy Warhol Diaries, edited by Pat Hackett (all Penguin Modern Classics) - are all widely available.

The last, admittedly caustic word on the Gopnik book should go to Times critic Roger Lewis, who for all the claims that Warhol was a genius, considers him merely a "creepy commercial artist who got lucky". In his review, he mentions how Valerie Solanas, "a troubled hanger-on" at the Factory, shot Warhol at point blank range in 1968, nearly killing him, because he had misplaced the manuscript of her play, Up Your Ass. Lewis writes, "Asked why she shot Warhol, Solanas said: 'He's a piece of garbage.' His work mostly was."