It’s a little off the beaten path, but I felt like writing about Andy Warhol today.
Born in 1928, he was a sick child and was diagnosed with something called St. Vitus’ Dance disease in third grade which affects the nervous system causing involuntary movements (perhaps a complication of scarlet fever). He was painfully shy, but loved to practice drawing and to experiment with photography. Andy was the only member of his family to go college and in 1945 he went to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, declaring a major in pictorial design.
Later, he moved to New York, where he coined a hyper-exaggerated style of drawing and painting, based on the belief that everything is beautiful. He expanded his creative genius into the areas of printmaking, photography, silk screening, sculpture, film, and music. Throughout the 1950s, he became a greatly successful illustrator, winning numerous awards for his work from the Art Directors Club and the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Andy’s clients included Tiffany & Co., The New York Times, I. Miller Shoes, Bonwit Teller, Columbia Records, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Fleming-Joffe, NBC, and others. A bulk of his commercial work was based on photographs and other source images, a process he would use for the rest of his life. He often employed the delightfully quirky handwriting of his mother Julia in many of his works in this period.
Andy had an intellectual brilliance with the ability to communicate the workings of his mind distinctly. An example:
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” -Warhol
In 1962, Warhol was criticized for being a commercial “sell-out”, But, the criticism barely fazed Warhol as he seemed to seize opportunities to interject his talent into mainstream media. Later, he became respected for his rigorous commitment towards his own preferences and disregard for others who wanted to dictate his direction in life. (This is inspiring to me). But alas, Andy recognized what he considered the error of his ways as he grew tired of the whole commercial scene. He was noted as saying:
I’ve decided something: Commercial things really do stink. As soon as it becomes commercial for a mass market it really stinks.
Perhaps my recent interest in Andy stems from my slight fetish for The Velvet Underground. Andy became The Velvet Underground’s manager in 1965 and suggested they feature the German-born singer, Nico, on several songs. Warhol’s reputation gave The Velvets a higher profile and Warhol helped the band secure a major record contract with MGM’s Verve Records. As manager, he gave The Velvets free rein over the sound they created. With the band providing the music, Andy became part of a multimedia roadshow called Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
During 1965 and 1966, Andy became enamored with Edie Sedgwick, an American actress, socialite, fashion model and heiress. Sedgwick became known as “The Girl of the Year” in 1965 after starring in several of Warhol’s short films in the 1960s.
Ciao! Manhattan is a 1972 American avant garde film which centers around Sedgwick’s character and deals with the pain of addiction and the lure of fame. Warhol is featured in the film at times. Here is a clip of the offbeat semi-biographical tale:
It appears that Edie may have inspired Warhol to step up his focus on style during the years of 1965 and 1966, as he suddenly had a new energy in his appearance and selection of clothing and spent many outings with Sedgwick, in the public eye.
Although during this phase of Andy’s life, Andy could have considered Edie to be his muse, Warhol was known to be a homosexual. In the Warhol Diaries, he writes about his relationships with several men, although he implied to the press he had girlfriend, including one possibly fictitious girl he called “Taxi” who allegedly went for long periods without bathing.
Warhol was gay in an era when America was much less informed about homosexual culture and gay themes in Warhol’s work were often overlooked by a public oblivious to the symbolism of drag queens, cowboys and the other icons and clichés of gay culture. He claimed to have little libido, and those who knew him have said that being hugged or touched excessively made him uncomfortable.
Warhol’s original New York City studio, The Factory, was in operation from 1962 to 1968 (subsequent studios were also named The Factory). The original Factory, which no longer exists, was located on the fifth floor at 231 East 47th Street in Midtown Manhattan and rent was only about $100 a year.
In 1968, Valerie Solanas, a marginal Factory employee, attempted to murder Warhol with a gun. She said she felt Andy had too much control over her life. She fired a bullet that entered his right side and exited from behind. Apparently, Solanas’ excuse for the shooting was that Warhol did not return a script she authored because he had lost it.
Andy’s life was never the same after the shooting partly because of physical problems and also because his perception of daily life shifted to a place where he felt he was watching himself live as though he was viewing his life on television.
In the 1970s, Warhol rounded up new rich and famous patrons for portrait commissions — including the Shah of Iran Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, John Lennon, Diana Ross, Brigitte Bardot and of course, his famous portrait of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong in 1973.
Throughout the ’80s, Warhol was again criticized for being a commercial sell-out, but in retrospective, as author Michal Lando put it, Warhol’s superficiality and commerciality could actually be “the most brilliant mirror of our times,” contending that “Warhol had captured something irresistible about the zeitgeist of American culture in the 1970s.”
Although not a lot is known about the friendship between John Lennon, Yoko and Andy, apparently the three maintained a closeness over the years, and Yoko spoke at Andy’s funeral in 1987. These photos are some of the best known, with one mocking touching each other inappropriately with playful debauchery.
Perhaps surprising to many, especially later in his life, Warhol was a practicing Ruthenian Rite Catholic, and grew up attending a Byzantine style orthodox church. He attended mass at times almost daily in the 1980s. He regularly volunteered at homeless shelters in New York and described himself as religious, although he was secretive about his faith and said he was self-conscious about being seen in a Latin rite church, crossing himself in an orthodox way.
Perhaps Andy had a premonition of his untimely death, as he had a deep-seated fear of hospitals and did not like to see doctors. Warhol died in New York City at 6:32 a.m. on February 22, 1987. According to news reports, he had been making good recovery from a routine gallbladder surgery at New York Hospital before dying in his sleep from a sudden post-operative cardiac arrhythmia.
Warhol dictated that practically his entire estate would go to create a foundation dedicated to the “advancement of the visual arts”. The NY Times reported on July 21, 1993 that Warhol’s estate was valued at $220 million, much of which goes to the quite spectacular Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts.