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The Life, World and Films of Andy Warhol
By Stephen Koch
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Stephen Koch
All rights reserved.
After the death of Andy Warhol on February 22, 1987, almost everyone in New York agreed that life would never be the same. Wherever one went, people sighed about eras ending, and with reason, I suppose. For over 20 years this cool, greatly gifted, wonderfully ingenious imp of the perverse had been at the center of those interlocking worlds of society and art which in 1987 were passing through dark times. Something did seem to be coming to a conclusion, and doing so in tragedy.
Warhol died in New York Hospital following otherwise uneventful—albeit emergency—surgery performed the day before to remove his gall bladder. The need for such an operation had been obvious to his doctors for years, but Warhol had used all his many powers of evasion to resist the recommendation, gripped by a phobic belief that he would never survive it. Hospitals had been for him a source of terror ever since 1968, when a member of his entourage, a woman named Valerie Solanas, had attempted to shoot him to death in his studio on Union Square. Warhol had been desperately wounded. Three bullets penetrated many vital organs; on the surgical table his heart actually stopped beating until the surgeon's emergency heart massage revived him. In Warhol's sense of things, he had died and then been brought back, as if God had reconsidered and returned his life on loan. His life had been restored in a tentative amnesty, an act of grace, a revocable freebie. He would live the rest of his life feeling a precisely formulated sense of metaphysical specialness, and an accompanying metaphysical terror. He was breathing on borrowed time; his period of grace might be annulled at any moment.
As for hospitals, he was sure that if he ever returned to one, that would be it. His fear was so acute that Warhol could not bring himself even to pronounce the word "hospital": he spoke instead of "the place," as in "they are trying to send me to the place." He made it a point never to pass a hospital, and he would never under any circumstances visit a friend in a hospital. Taxi drivers were often given elaborate instructions for avoiding even driving by "the place," and if for some reason he was forced to pass one he would avert his eyes. And he would never go back. He would die there, he just knew it.
But in February 1987, Warhol's gall bladder condition was close to critical. His doctors could no longer humor his evasions, and he could no longer sidestep his agony. He was told that without the prompt removal of his gall bladder he would probably die. Emergency surgery was scheduled for a Saturday, February 21.
A cholecystectomy is a serious but not unusual form of surgery, and Warhol's went very well. When he emerged from the recovery room that afternoon, he was awake and reasonably cheerful. He spoke to friends on the telephone, he watched some television, he joked with his nurses. Then he slept.
And then, before dawn, around 5:30 the next morning, his private-duty nurse (who it appears either had left the room or fallen asleep) suddenly became aware that her patient was in severe crisis. Warhol's always-pallid skin had turned blue; his breath was faltering he was unresponsive. The room was abruptly crowded with shouting interns and nurses in full emergency, but nothing helped. Within half an hour, it was clear that he was not going to make it. The reprieve of 1968 had been rescinded.
But it was a time for dying. In August 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat, a young artist whose rapid rise took place very much under Warhol's patronage, was found in his apartment lying in his own vomit, dead of a drug overdose. Three years after Warhol's death, Keith Haring, the graffiti artist who had been among the last young artists assisted into a grand New York high-style success in fashion and finance by Warhol, was dead at the age of 31, a result of complications from AIDS.
Twenty years before, little bespectacled Keith, a smallish 10-year-old, gaped at one of Warhol's Marilyn Diptychs in the basement gallery of the Hirshhorn Museum. The boy was in Washington on a trip with a church group from his hometown in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. This was little Keith's first look at "art," his first conception of what art was, of what being an artist might mean. The moment Haring was old enough, he moved to live in the New York where Warhol was master. Inspired by what he saw as Warhol's populism, Haring began by making his mark (literally making his mark) in the New York subways. Haring would descend into the underground stations in the dead of night, supplied with chalk and black background paper. He pasted the paper over advertising spaces on the platforms. When morning came, the trudging workaday traffic would find, in the sundry outposts of underground Manhattan, graffiti drawings of the figure Haring called "Radiant Baby," a cryptic white-on-black cartoon of a crawling infant from whom chalky startled beams of joy seemed to be breaking loose. Bright in their black and white, pasted to the populist ills, and the pictures advertised nothing but new birth. They were unsellable, but it was exposure.
Three years after Warhol's death, Keith Haring would be gone too, dead at right around the same age that Warhol had become a famous man. "Warhol was the validation and most active support of what I do," Haring said when the master died, and his Radiant Baby turned out to be an image less of new life but of an age of farewells.
In a sense, Warhol died twice, and in a parallel sense he always seemed to be ending some era or other. I would argue that this was very much part of who Warhol was. There was something subtly valetudinarian about his very presence, something in the immediacy and vanguard freshness of his work that continuously foreshadowed its own end, something in the implicit pathos of his estheticized immediacy that was, with shy ingenuousness, waving a kind of perpetual goodbye.CHAPTER 2
The End of Art
Immediacy is transience. This moment is forever about to become that moment. One could hear Warhol's sense of the pathos of this truth even in his comments on his artistic "immortality." His expectations for his work after he was gone were modest: "I know my work won't last. A few years, at the most. I know that."
That admission of transience has not proved to be correct. Decades after his death, Warhol's art and myth are anything but forgotten. His work is regularly knocked down at stupendous, front-page auction prices; his reputation still orbits around Picasso's, generating perplexity over which of them is the most famous artist of the 20th century. Despite his own prediction of disappearance after death, the Warhol phenomenon has grown steadily. His posthumous presence is durable.
In 2013 the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh clinched his immortality with a bit of spectral technology. Warhol's body lies near those of his parents in the cemetery of Saint John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church in Pittsburgh. The site is often stacked with mementoes—as often Coke bottles and Campbell's soup cans as bouquets of flowers. The grave has many visitors. The stone bears the name "Warhol," rather than "Warhola" on other graves; the original Czech family name was brought to America from a wretched little one-street country town in northeastern Slovakia when his penniless Ruthenian parents emigrated before he was born.
The gravestone's engraving is generic: a medallion above the name encloses a classic Byzantine Catholic cross; below the name ANDY WARHOL and the dates of his life— August 6, 1928–February 22, 1987—a second medallion circles a set of praying hands. There is nothing remarkable about the grave except for the very famous man it holds. The spreading cemetery itself, a resting place for poor Slovak immigrants, is a touching, evocative place. But it couldn't be more banal.
Except for the theatrical masterstroke that trumps the gravestone kitsch. Protected from all weather, a video camera stares at the tombstone, streaming a live image of its finality every day—all day and all night, month after month, year after year. If you visit the site online, Warhol.org/figment, in October, you will see on the screen brown autumnal weeds waving in the breeze; in January, winter sometimes covers the stone with banks of snow; in July, the dead bake under the relentless sun.
This video stream was not Warhol's idea, but it is an innovation that is worthy of the man. Eternity as invoked here has none of the noble classicism of the "eternal flame" fluttering on the grave of President John Kennedy. Fire is old-fashioned. Here is an electronic device with its unblinking gaze fixed on death, on nothingness, on endlessness. The Stargazer's last vacant gaze.
"I'd like to be a machine. Wouldn't you?"
The sense of ending that broods over Warhol has been noted by many observers. Some see it as a last commentary on the exhaustion of options in the Western visual tradition, and as the final option within that tradition, the terminus ad quem. This argument has been advanced most impressively by the late Arthur Danto, and it was an important part of his work as an art critic and his revaluation of Hegelian esthetics.
My own view does not grant Warhol that pride of last place. I do not see him as the ghost of a defunct tradition. I see him as an artist among artists, one who in his unique fashion renewed the philosophic options on a certain aspect of the Romantic tradition. And along with many observers, I agree that the pivot of this Romantic transition into a new immediacy was Neo Dada art, most famously that of Jasper Johns, inspired in part by visual witticisms and gnomic conundrums of Marcel Duchamp (whose vastly overrated art brooded over every loft in Soho at the end of the 20th Century) and Duchamp's (somewhat underrated) American fellow wise guy John Cage, forever cracking jokes about high seriousness while attending what was supposed to be its funeral.
I see Duchamp less as the postmodern Leonardo than as a kind of smooth metaphysical wit, and an initiating opportunist in one of the most important and durable modernist myths: the end of art. The avant-garde in particular is as dependent on this myth as an addict is dependent on his smack. The exhaustion of the old is essential to its vanguard prestige. Proclaiming it yet again is an opening gambit—a means of leveling the playing field—that has been used a thousand times since the Armory Show. The end of art just goes on and on.
The end of art is a tradition, and even by Warhol's time it was already an old tradition, and almost an obligation. Marcel Duchamp helped instigate it by making himself its grand comedian. It is invariably a strategy rather than an authentic claim, and it is usually opportunistic: "Art is over; therefore you must turn to me." At its best it is a more or less penetrating historicist wisecrack, the flash of a half-truth.
The more interesting result happens when, on rare occasion, the claim about art's ending really does produce worthy and renovated vision. Of course, the connoisseurs of the claim never really want art to close up shop. (They might sometimes want the competition to close up shop, but that's different.) They are invariably playing a game of loser wins, invariably seeking to recuperate the art they claim to renounce. And remarkably enough sometimes they really do.
Even Duchamp did. Marcel Duchamp's early renunciation of art was a defensive move against the dominance of Parisian Cubism. Despite bravura performances like the Nude Descending a Staircase, Duchamp had come to realize that his own position with the movement would never be much higher than third, or at best second, rank. Realizing that he was about to become a Cubist also-ran, Duchamp renounced an art he could neither master nor endure having failed to master, and proclaimed it a dead end.
In this process Duchamp found himself. He proceeded to produce some perverse but interesting art, though admittedly his art is more interesting than it is powerful. He also produced some quite (not inexhaustibly) suggestive bric-a-brac. Finally, in both his talk and his work, Duchamp struck off a great many flinty bright ideas about art, shrewdly orchestrated visual and verbal witticisms about the End. Duchamp's real place is as a visual footnote to the tradition of Voltaire, although interminable repetition has made it difficult to remember that his acid esprit was once genuinely fresh, filled with astringent charm and insight.
Savoring his Armory Show celebrity, Duchamp took up residence in America, where his cold ego could find gratification and standing that would have been impossible in the land where Picasso reigned as king. There various gifted Americans, especially after the Second World War became impressed by Duchamp's perversities as their own possible path out from under precisely the same French dominance against which he had rebelled 40 years before. And these Americans were the ones who recovered Duchamp's self-protective claims about cultural exhaustion to validate a renewed art.
These young Americans followed Duchamp's chilly lead down two parallel paths. The first begins in Duchamp's arch obscurantism, part of his work that culminated in the Large Glass in the Philadelphia Museum. That obscurantism led them to a hermetic style, to abstracted and cryptic surfaces in which the visual struggle, the "push-pull," is an unresolved struggle over the disclosure of meaning itself. The result at its best produced a sumptuous surface on which meaning is significantly refused. In short, Duchamp's Path No. 1 led to Jasper Johns.
Duchamp's Path No. 2 starts off from Duchamp's derisive wit, from the mustachioed Mona Lisa and from his bottle rack and urinal as sculpture. It is the opposite of hermetic. It passes through absolute legibility. Instead of being a kind of visual Rubik's Cube, the picture surface discloses its meaning instantly. But it is the afterglow that matters here. For Path No. 2 leads to a special region where cynicism and naiveté cannot be distinguished, where populism and Romantic decadence merge. That is, Duchamp's second path leads straight to Warhol. Depending on which path you prefer, Warhol is Duchamp's greatest pupil. Or merely his most influential.
The afterglow of the instant: with his aestheticized surfaces and the pathos of the moment, Warhol was very much a Romantic. He was tied up in Romanticism's standard concerns, and it was through Warhol's uniquely ingenious populist recovery of late Romanticism that his work really speaks. In particular, Warhol's way of knotting up Romanticism's familiar unity between beauty and mortality was no casual part of his artistic identity. Warhol was fully conscious of that unity, and conscious of it early on. For him, the authority of the immediate and the authority of the posthumous were linked. One needs look only at the disaster series or the portraits of the grieving Jacqueline Kennedy.
An anecdote: Isabelle Dufresne, the aristocratic Factory minion known as "Ultra Violet," recalls the day Warhol suddenly embarked on the series of portraits of Marilyn Monroe that so impressed the young Keith Haring. It was the day of Monroe's suicide, and Warhol started working as soon as the news broke. But before he slipped into the workaholic absorption people came to know, he remarked to Ultra: "Timing is everything."CHAPTER 3
The Assassin's 15 Minutes
The 1960s are usually seen as Warhol's prime decade. It was then that the young commercial artist Andrew Warhola emerged as Andy Warhol—as the social and artistic phenomenon, Andy Warhol. Surviving the murder attempt not only became part of Andy Warhol's myth but also part of his private, half-magical, half-sage sense of his own absolute destiny.
Excerpted from Stargazer by Stephen Koch. Copyright © 2002 Stephen Koch. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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