Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Time-Ghost: Art After Andy – The Biography of Andy Warhol by Blake Gopnik

Last Photo of Andy Warhol Alive (1987) by Peter Bellamy: “I was walking down Central Park West when I saw Andy Warhol being visited by the angel of death. She opened the door and got into the limo and they drove off, and the next day I read that he died.”

“Images, our great and primitive passion . . .”   

“The dream has grown gray. The gray coating of dust on things is its best part. Dreams are now a shortcut to banality. Technology consigns the outer image of things to a long farewell, like banknotes that are bound to lose their value. It is then that the hand retrieves the outer cast in dreams and, even as they are slipping away, makes contact with familiar contours. Which side does an object turn toward dreams? What point is its most decrepit? It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims. The side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.”
                                                                           – Dream Kitsch, Walter Benjamin ca. 1930.
Some artists loom so large on our cultural landscape that their shadow covers everyone who comes after them, and indeed, some heavyweights even obscure the very aesthetic horizon that they themselves helped to construct. The artists of the 20th century who can be said to be so influential and impactful, so important to the vernacular we use to even discuss art now, that their presence made possible the clearings in which whole clusters of others congregate stylistically can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. Naturally enough, which fingers depends on which hand, but after much consideration it seems plausible that a scant few were so gargantuan in their production of new visual values that one can literally trace the branches of the artistic family trees they planted.

On my own hand there are five such titans: Cézanne, Picasso, Duchamp, Giacometti and Warhol. I realize they all happen to be white male artists, but I can’t help that, even though I can with absolute confidence also proffer Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller, Louise Nevelson, Eva Hesse and Judy Chicago as exemplary exponents of a feminist ethos of nearly equivalent prowess. But they, like many other practitioners in either gender, tend to work in fields originally germinated by those first five I mentioned. So I apologize in advance to all my many feminist friends and accept full responsibility for the personal biases of my own critical judgments. We do what we can within the limited scope of our own frail faculties and hope to be forgiven for unintended oversights.

When closed tight together, however, I believe these five fingers I proposed form a powerful fist that pounded out the pretty crust of all visual art before them, influenced all the art that came after them, and created a lexicon with which we can begin to appreciate how truly radical was the century prior to the rather tame and misguided one we currently occupy. As a matter of fact, and readily recognizing the prescience of another critic who has contributed greatly to my overall thinking on this matter, Thierry de Duve, I now quite firmly believe that some artists not only affect all of the art made after them but are so stylistically stellar and creatively meteoric in their shocking arrival amongst us that they even also alter all the art made before them as well. Such as my five candidates.

Or at least they have mutated the way we look at all earlier art, with eyes altered forever in the backward glance we cast across the centuries, eyes coated with the conceptual and emotional saturation produced by these titans in question. Such artists require, need, even demand, a special industry of critics, thinkers and biographers in order to do them proper justice. Such biographies have been delivered to us by Alex Danchev in the case of Cézanne, John Richardson for Picasso, James Lord for Giacometti, Calvin Tompkins for Duchamp, and now, after what feels like a small eternity of trying to come to terms with his greatness, by Blake Gopnik in the case of Andy Warhol. I’m fully prepared to admit that it took me at least twenty years to get over my romantic fixations with Picasso, Duchamp, and Pollock and finally surrender to the fact that Warhol may have exceeded them all when it came to the sheer audacity of his visionary insights into the impact of media, technology and consumer society upon the ritual making of art objects.

Warhol, the new Warhol biography by Blake Gopnik from Ecco Press/Harper Collins, is not only the personal and critical chronicle that a towering figure like Warhol deserves; it will also rest very comfortably leaning on shelves containing those other tomes on Cézanne, Picasso, Duchamp and Giacometti. Just as comfortably, in fact, given Gopnik’s ideally tuned authorial voice, as the uniquely weird artist/subject/celebrity motor of Warhol himself will confidently idle for decades to come adjacent to those gigantic precursors who informed his own ethos much as he has now inspired the sensibility of every artist who came after Andy.

Perhaps befitting so mammoth a cultural presence, Warhol appears to have died twice, and Gopnik’s astute opening to his personal clearing in the forest of art history bookends these two deaths with considerable charm and compassion:
Andy Warhol died for the first time at 4:51 pm on the third of June 1968. Or at least that was the grim verdict of the interns and residents in the emergency room of Columbus Hospital in New York. Some twenty minutes earlier, the artist had been shot by Valerie Solanas, a troubled hanger-on at his famous studio, the Factory. During the time it took for the ambulance to arrive, Warhol slowly bled to death. Once the patient was dropped at the hospital, the doctors couldn’t find a pulse. There was no blood pressure to speak of. The patient’s color was newsprint tinged with blue. By any normal measure, this thirty-nine-year-old Caucasian, five foot eight, 145 pounds, was D.O.A.
Naturally enough it’s hard not to think of another later infamous celebrity assassination, also carried out by a mentally unstable former fan, in the case of then ex-Beatle John Lennon. Alas, the gifted pop music revolutionary’s death was a permanent one, while for some unknown karmic reasons perhaps, Warhol’s was a temporary condition. His surgeons were told by top doctors that the life they had to save was that of the superstar artist Andy Warhol – the very man who had made the term superstar famous  – and that a crowd of reporters and groupies was waiting downstairs. “He cannot die,” said the visitors.

The master of all media, mid-80’s, in his celebrity portrait phase (Getty).

And indeed he didn’t. His surgeon, one Giuseppe Rossi, appeared to summon supernatural skills in obeying that admonition: “Exhausted from a long and tense operation, Rossi closed up the body whose innards he had gotten to know. For convenience and safety – and maybe because he wasn’t at all sure his patient would live to care – Rossi used huge stitches that gave Warhol’s torso a network of Frankenstein scars. He showed them off for years to come.” For almost twenty years, in fact, until it was time for his second death to occur.

On a Friday morning on February 21, 1987, after attempting to reach Dr. Rossi again in the hopes that he would perform similar magic on his time-wracked frame but being disappointed to learn he was out of town, Warhol was admitted to New York Hospital: “In typical fashion, he asked the clerk at admissions if any big stars were patients that day and received the happy news that he was the biggest.” The next day, at 6:31 am, and subsequent to an earlier gall bladder operation which should have been routine but wasn’t, he crashed into what doctors call an idiomatic emergency that left him just as newsprint-grey and blue as his first brush with mortality two decades before. This time the remarkable luck, stamina and grit that had accompanied him through his supercharged yet anemic lifestyle, one tainted by longtime addictions to various pharmaceutical crutches, had apparently run out and “Andy Warhol died, for the second and last time.”

He had once confided to his equally decadent, gifted and troubled friend, the author Truman Capote, “The best way to go is fast. It’s like going to sleep,” almost as if he had become just as much of an expert in how to die as he had become a specialist in how to live, in his case: fast, creatively, ironically, mysteriously, alluringly, obscurely, hilariously, campy, talented and above all, shockingly honest. But of course, he didn’t go fast. It took him twenty years to die. He was a 59-year-old genius. His life took place during one of the most tumultuous historical periods in American history, especially its radical social, political and experimental artistic stages, and Gopnik’s skill is in rendering this gargantuan figure immediately accessible and so human that even readers far outside the art world will be comfortable benefiting from his saga.

It’s a big book, befitting an outrageous large-liver and myth-maker, and in its 912 compelling pages one encounters not just the inside nitty-gritty of his own insecure but canny brilliance, as he leaps from gifted advertising and fashion illustrator to image-rupturing fine art rebel in (almost) a single bound, but also the lives and tales of practically every notable figure in the high- and low-society circles he occupied for the last half of the last century. A far more interesting century than the one we currently occupy, when many of the customary tropes and archetypes, what today’s youth call memes, were already being concocted in his feverish amphetamine-soaked brain at the outset.

For one thing, I believe he practically invented reality television (that’s what his amazing films were, really) as well as a vivid version of living theatre, long before any of us knew what the hell this shrinking-violent oddball surreality technician was actually up to. He didn’t exactly invent pop art; that was something the Brit artist Richard Hamilton did in 1956 and Roy Lichtenstein, a fellow Yank artist looking for a way out of the romantic cul de sac of abstract expressionism, accomplished almost simultaneously with Warhol in 1961. But he made pop art matter, he made it mean something significant as a semiotic device, practically out of the sheer power of his perplexing reverse personality. And Roy was making art about pop, media and mass culture, whereas Andy was making it from these same ingredients. The results were explosive. Especially in the realm of cinema.

(left) Studio publicity shot from Niagara (1953); (right) Warhol’s Marilyn silkscreen (1962) (MOMA)

I’m not here. I’m a machine. That was his deceptively simple ploy, a strategy he used in order to seemingly disappear behind both the still camera and the movie camera, and later his silk-screen technology. The mind reels at what he might have done with the internet and social media. Yet he already was an internet, and his life was an organic and actualized form of social media.  In his own eccentric way, he was a post-structuralist visionary along the lines of both the great German culture critic Walter Benjamin and the French myth-deconstructor Roland Barthes. And as Gopnik’s great book clearly depicts, I’m pretty sure he was the very first postmodern artist.

In addition to writing about visual art, as a film critic and curator who also believes that photography and its evolutionary leap into cinema were pivotal moments in the history of fine art and belong aesthetically and critically adjacent to great painting or sculpture (since photographs, prints and films are inherently painting with time and light), I often emphasize the underappreciated importance of Warhol’s unique contributions to cinema as a secret passageway into his entire oeuvre. In many ways, his prescient contribution to the art of cinema, as challenging and demanding as it was, is at least as important as his revolutionary delivery system for archetypal images in painting.

Indeed, I even have a personal family connection to one of Warhol’s seminal and iconic works, his 1962 portrait of Marilyn Monroe, a work which has always drawn me deeper into his intimate love of the magic that movies and their stars represent in our cultural ethos. My grandfather’s cousin on the American side of our family was Charles Brackett, a vital writer-producer during Hollywood’s golden age perhaps best known for his multiple creative collaborations with Billy Wilder, culminating in their masterpiece Sunset Boulevard, in 1950. Subsequent to the divorce of their partnership after winning the Oscar for Best Story and Screenplay for that film, Charles went on to write and produce many other films in his long career, including a 1953 film noir classic (even though it was in Technicolor) called Niagara, starring Marilyn alongside Joseph Cotten.

It was the smiling publicity shot for this film that Andy borrowed and enhanced in the making of his famous Marilyn silkscreen image nine years later. At the age of eleven, when I first saw it, I somehow strangely felt that this image secretly belonged to me, having also seen the Niagara Falls stone wall where it was taken by my relative’s movie crew. And Andy didn’t just love movies, Andy was a movie: he made himself into one of the ironic superstars he idolized, and by so doing he challenged us all to reflect on what an idol is.

Andy inventing reality television in his 1963 Factory studio (Getty)

Warhol’s quirky, hermetic, solipsistic and reality-based films, which Gopnik examines astutely and carefully, also seem to share some of all our collective family history, at least in their creative plundering and transgressive elongating of core Hollywood conventions. Warhol was among the first artists, if not the very first, to bring our full attention to the continuum of visual images that unifies drawing, painting, photographs and films, and he did it in his usual brilliantly understated and often misunderstood manner. We all need a careful anasylosis of his ruins.

And I am delighted to say that Gopnik’s new masterful biography of this titan of 20th-century art positions photography and film at the very heart of what made Andy such an innovator in so many parallel mediums, the borders between which he drastically dissolved with a gifted and garish aplomb. So Gopnik’s focus on photography and films as the gateway to the heart of Warhol is especially gratifying, since it also emphasizes another seemingly shared obsession of mine: the transformation of the aesthetic aura as an outcome of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as explored exhaustively by Benjamin, in both the famous essay of that title and especially in his masterful and unfinished opus The Arcades Project.

An appropriate amount of time is spent in this intricate biography on his childhood growing up in bleak industrial America, 1928-1934, on his Russian-Ukrainian  immigrant origins, and his crucial relationships with his brother Paul and his mother Julia. She was a huge influence on his life as a source not only of limitless love but also of inspirational support for his work. Even once Warhol’s career as an artist had reached its peak in New York, she was still a major player on his private stage, going so far as to cook homemade chicken soup for all the motley crew of exotic beings floating around her talented son in the home away from home he called his Factory. His second childhood would consist of growing up and into the role of sought-after illustrator of fashion, magazine and promotional imagery, especially the delicate feeling he had for footwear, which some have compared to the intricate stylings on both Ukrainian Easter eggs and Fabergé sculpture designs. Gopnik’s insightful book, in fact, has precisely the same literary vibe as a Fabergé egg.

His third and fourth childhoods were played out on a world stage that swiftly absorbed all of us as astonished viewers of his ongoing project to document first what it meant to be alive and second what it meant to be Andy Warhol. In all of them, especially what I call his adult childhoods, Gopnik manages to make us not only to care about this consummate outsider but also to greatly admire his gift for reinventing himself and eventually even to love him as a cherished media pet. Who can ever forget coming home from school and finding Andy being interviewed on the most suburban talk shows of the era, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop or the more thought-provoking Dick Cavett. In many of these interviews he confounded the host by bringing along a spokesperson/interpreter who would answer the questions, while he remained a mute and smiling cipher. He would rapidly replace Salvador Dali as a master media manipulator and also as the clown prince of camp.

Andy with his real family, mid-40's.

But as Gopnik clarifies so well, at least by my admittedly biased cinematic reading, it was in the realms of mediated imagery that Warhol truly revealed a genius that might be less well-known by the average reader: his truly iconoclastic (in the original sense of the term) work as a photographic dreamer and filmmaking artist par excellence. All the more reason to brew up a lot of espresso with sides of cognac and patiently plunge into this life story, while also having YouTube handy to jump into the extraordinary footage and time signatures found simmering in his nearly 150 (!) films. Among them are many gems: Sleep (1963), his first “anti-film” using looped footage, five hours-plus of the poet John Giorno sleeping;   Blow Job (1963), shot at 24 frames a second and screened at 16 frames, focusing only on the face of the acting recipient; Kiss (1963).  Also the mesmerizing Screen Tests (1964); Eat (1964); the mind-blowing Empire (1964), at 8 hours 5 minutes; his turning point in style, Camp (1965). And the procession of later almost-narrative flicks: Lonesome Cowboys, Flesh, Blue Movie (all 1968) and the towering Trash, from 1970. I think it’s fair to say that there would probably be no John Waters without an inscrutable precursor such as Andy.

As Justin Remes pointed out in his essay “Motion(less) Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis,” for The Oxford Journal in 2012, “While some film theorists and philosophers have seen motion as a necessary element of cinema, this view is challenged by a body of avant-garde films which offer little or no movement. These experiments, by filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, challenge essentialist definitions of film, while simultaneously foregrounding the crucial role played by duration in cinema’s ontology. As Gisele Freund put it in Concerning the Photographic, ‘The more we consume moving images, the more the single still image rises above the rest, substituting itself for our reality.’ ”  That’s the primary gift that Warhol gave to us, and which Gopnik comprehensively explores while unwrapping the gift: we have all taken up residence in the simulacrum, the simulated domain of images, and we mistake the imagined for the real, or the other way around, or perhaps we just can longer tell the difference (if there ever was one).

This observation, I believe, runs parallel to what Gopnik unearths for us in his deft archaeological dig of the historic architectural site called Warhol. And the relics he digs up are especially notable as embodiments of Gopnik’s appreciation for the importance of mechanical reproduction and its profound impact on image-making as a delivery system via photography, films and prints. It is an appreciation shared by institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, which has preserved some fifty of his films in an archive designated as international cultural heritage. It’s also why I totally concur with Gopnik’s contention that Warhol is a kind of future relic, one whose personal as well as artistic artifacts will be treasured in ways we can’t even imagine today.

Blake Gopnik prepared well for this long-term labor of biographical love. One of North America’s leading arts writers, he has served as art and design critic at Newsweek and as chief art critic at The Washington Post and Canada’s Globe and Mail, where I first encountered him and his work decades ago. He has a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Oxford and is a regular contributor to The New York Times. In addition to the bold-type moments in this artist’s life, he also focuses gently on the smaller, more intimate but crucial moments as well.

Andy with his adopted family, mid-60’s.

His roadmap covers growing up in Pittsburgh (“The worst place I have ever been in my life”); living in a community of Carpatho-Rusyns; the powerful and surprising role of the Church in his paradoxical personality; studying at Carnegie Tech and succeeding in window dressing; the challenges of the gay life during difficult social periods; his arrival and ascent in New York while turning out charmingly brilliant fashion-magazine work, record covers and book jackets; commercial and artistic success; the birth of his silkscreen technique and launching of what came to be known as pop art; his long history as a household name, icon, celebrity and publisher; and his friendships along the way with everyone who was anyone. In his assessment of Andy’s afterlife, Gopnik reports that shortly after his death his estate was mistakenly evaluated at an “absurdly” low $15 million, two years later, a fuller accounting set its value at $215 million: “Today, the art he left would be worth billions. Warhol directed that the rest of his estate be used to set up a foundation ‘for the advancement of the visual arts’, with no instructions on what that might be.”

While I still cherish a fondness for the haptic and psychic romance inherent in the magnificence of Cezanne, Picasso, Duchamp, and Giacometti, I have come to fully appreciate just how prescient Warhol really was, and as a now avowed Andy admirer I applaud Blake Gopnik’s unequivocal celebration of several of Warhol’s primary visions. From my perspective, this author clearly designates some prophetic elements actively engaged by Warhol’s work and even embodied in his life story: our arrival into what I call the Iconosphere, a realm of absolute images, simulation and reproduction, of copies without an original, which inaugurates a kind of pleasure dome of cybercamp then still ten years away when he passed.

And this biographer also skillfully shows us the deep importance in Warhol’s work and life of three key signifiers in his passion for images: aura, the emotional distance we remain from an art work no matter how close we get to it; affect, the enormous power of active emotion or its apparent absence; and agency, the will to take action or remain aloof from commitment. Geniuses of his order, as Gopnik illustrates so methodically, don’t only nourish the future, they also continue to nourish the past, thus altering the landscape of everything before Andy as well as after. Even Giotto and Caravaggio look different after Andy.

Considering the fact that it took me more than twenty years to fully appreciate his importance and realize the grandeur of his stature, I can openly attest to the fact that Gopnik’s marvelous evocation of a wondrous, if complicated, human being has convinced me of the most dramatic claim in his book: “The critical skepticism that Warhol lived with has evaporated in the years since his death. It’s looking more and more like Warhol has overtaken Picasso as the most important and influential artist of the twentieth century. Or at least the two of them share a spot on the top peak of Parnassus, beside Michelangelo and Rembrandt and their fellow geniuses.”

If that seemingly wild claim surprises you, then you definitely should read Gopnik’s biography, because it might just change your mind. Of course, it may still be a challenge today, when we’re still so close to giants like Picasso and Duchamp, and indeed to the twentieth century as a whole. But when we’re as far away from them as we are now from Michelangelo and Rembrandt, I believe we’ll clearly see what makes Andy’s greatness comparable to theirs.

The reason is the simple but complex fact that the greatest artists are those who most fully comprehend and embody the core meaning of the tumultuous times in which they lived and which they mirrored in their visual messages to us. And that is precisely why I call Andy Warhol a time-ghost. Not only because he was obviously ahead of his time, but, as the literal German meaning suggests, just as a poltergeist is a noise-ghost who disturbs our dreams, so too a time-ghost is one who disrupts our waking hours, the literal meaning of zeitgeist. That’s what Andy was in the end, and that’s what all the most significant art after Andy owes to his emblematic and enigmatic presence. He was the actual zeitgeist personified in a strangely pale little man in a wig with outlandish dreams.

And yes, as weird as it may seem, and as Blake Gopnik’s wonderful book makes clear, in the future it will become totally obvious that he actually was our own Michelangelo.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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