Life Was His Canvas
updated 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
Though the public saw him constantly, Warhol had always been an enigma. The man who said "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes" put the lie to his own maxim by enduring for decades as perhaps the world's most famous contemporary artist, but the reasons for his fame were never quite clear. Twenty-five years after he showed his first silk screen of a Campbell's soup can, many people were still unsure whether it represented joke or genius. Warhol's works were in the collections of major museums in this country and Europe, yet they never drew the record-breaking prices of Jasper Johns, the popular acclaim of Andrew Wyeth or the critical raves of Robert Rauschenberg.
Warhol's very presence somehow endowed an event with a certain prestige, but he rarely had much to say. The late Truman Capote once described his friend Warhol as "a sphinx without a secret." Columnist Liz Smith says, "He always went around muttering, 'Great, great, great.' It was 'great' if he saw the Duchess of Windsor before she died, it was 'great' if somebody took some of their clothes off at Studio 54. It was 'great' when he dressed up his dachshund, Archie, to look like the Pope in a white hat and white robe."
That was at night. In the day he was a prodigy, building for himself an estimable career. From the Factory (his studio in the East 40s and then on Union Square), he turned out as many as 80 multiple-image prints a day. He branched out into a bewildering variety of other activities: publisher and reporter for his celebrity magazine, Interview, host of the cable talk show Andy Warhol's TV, film producer for such cult classics as 1966's Chelsea Girls and Andy Warhol's Dracula in 1974, pitchman for computers and cars, designer for Absolut vodka ads, Jimmy Carter's presidential portraitist, model, photographer, author of quirky philosophical books. His energy seemed endless. In the months just before his death, he had three gallery shows, illustrated one book and delivered another to his publisher. "Andy worked all the time," says Lou Reed, whose band, the Velvet Underground, was greatly influenced by Warhol. "He always said, 'The whole thing is work. Everything is work.' "
Such enormous productivity also made Warhol wealthy. His estate is reported to be conservatively valued at $20 million. Although some critics castigated Warhol for satisfying himself with silly, vacuous projects, others saw in his early paintings of soup cans and sculptures of Brillo boxes a lasting statement about our time. Says Patterson Sims, an associate curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art: "He made us realize that in even the simplest of commodities and the most commonplace of subjects there was a great deal of poetry and meaning." A Warhol show last year, which featured canvases coated with bronze and then sprayed with urine to create an odd patina, put at least one critic through the old debate: Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times, "It's hard to be serious about these random, perverse creations, yet they are seriously beautiful."
Warhol's influence on culture went beyond his art. The Plastic Exploding Inevitable, a nightclub he designed in the '60s, introduced the flashing light effects featured in every modern disco. The androgynous tone of his movies gave rockers David Bowie and Mick Jagger a style for the '70s. Part of the appeal of his personality lay in his oddly diffident style: He had a way of making things happen around him while seeming to be uninvolved. Art historian Henry Geldzahler, one of Warhol's best friends in the '60s, says, "His voyeurism attracted endless exhibitionists. They needed each other." Sometimes the mutual attraction seemed fatal; several of his stars died young, including socialite Edie Sedgwick, who overdosed on barbiturates. But many who knew Warhol at the time don't blame him. "Some of the people around him had problems long before they met him," says Reed. "And Andy gave everybody a chance to do what it was they wanted to do. He wasn't there to cure people."
Warhol came close to death himself in 1968 when aspiring writer Valerie Solanis burst into the Factory and shot him twice. "He had too much control over my life," said Solanis, who was sentenced to up to three years for first degree assault. Yet Warhol's few close friends found him a thoughtful, reliable ally. "You know what Andy did?" says Liza Minnelli, who knew Warhol for more than 20 years. "When my husband and I first got our apartment, we had just lost a baby, and we were very depressed. So while we were away, Andy hung all the paintings in the apartment. That was the kind of friend he was." Once a week Warhol talked on the phone with his brother, John Warhola, a Sears clerk in Pittsburgh. "We just adored him," says John's wife, Margaret. "He was very concerned with the family, what our sons were doing. They felt that he was a great uncle."
He was a man with an odd sense of fun and a curious, sometimes surprising appreciation of common life. "Andy was not a snob," says actress-writer Maura Moynihan, daughter of New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. "He'd go to the Met and Burger King in the same night. He gave me huge paintings for Christmas, and one year I gave him a vegetable steamer. He was so thrilled. He jumped up and down like a kid. Simple things like that really got to him." Moynihan, who sometimes helped Warhol conduct interviews, says he told her that he considered evenings spent with socialites as work: "He would pick me up in a taxi and say, 'Okay, this is work.' Then he'd pull out his camera and tape recorder and put on his blank personality. Banality was one of his subjects and themes."
Compared to the glitzy nightlife he made into a career, Warhol's childhood was banal. His father, Ondrej Warhola, a Czechoslovakian immigrant and coal miner in McKeesport, Pa., died when Andrew was 14. Kept close to home by a highly protective mother, he spent hours drawing pictures, sometimes copying Maybelline ads of Hedy Lamarr. In 1949, Warhol got a degree in pictorial design from the Carnegie Institute of Technology and took a job as a window dresser in Pittsburgh. By the late '50s, after moving to New York City, he became an extremely successful commercial artist for fashion magazines and department stores. Then, in the early '60s, he started painting. He sold his first soup-can canvas for $60,000 in 1962, and made his first film two years later. More interested in images than plot, he focused a camera on the Empire State Building for eight solid hours to make 1964's Empire. The same year he made a six-hour movie of someone in bed, called Sleep.
After he was shot in 1968, Warhol withdrew temporarily from public life; he even went so far as to send a double to his speaking engagements. By 1977, the year Studio 54 opened, he had reentered the social world. He reportedly went to the club every night for years, filling an enormous archive with the photos he took there.
Warhol shared his Upper East Side town house with his mother until her death in 1973. After that he lived alone, rarely inviting friends to his home. Though he always filled the Factory with attractive young men and women, he liked to tell friends that he hadn't slept with anyone in years. Those same friends insist that they never saw him take drugs and that he drank only occasionally. He wore a body brace for the injuries resulting from the shooting and worked out daily with a private trainer. A Catholic who attended church regularly, he began carrying crystals in recent years, believing that they would ensure good health. His few known indulgences included mint tea and cookies.
References to death—half funny, half serious—fill Warhol's books. "I don't believe in it because you're not around to know that it's happened," he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. Friends say that he rarely spoke to them of death and was terrified of hospitals.
Only a few of those closest to him knew he needed an operation. His end was unthinkably abrupt—a mercurial exit that in retrospect seemed very Warhol. But there was little comfort in that. "Whenever I've had an important show opening, he's been there," Liza Minnelli says. "It's going to seem so strange when he's not." Added fellow painter James Rosenquist: "I don't know what he was about. He was a mystery. But I still miss him."