August 6, 1928– Andy Warhol. I remember quite well, my parents shaking their heads & saying: “that is not art… it is a painting of a soup can!” when I expressed my appreciation for the work of Andy Warhol. The point of the matter was, I really “got him” even at 8 years old, or especially at age 8. Warhol was the subject of much scorn & derision from the critics, the public & my parents, but he is arguably the most important artist of the 20th century.
Andrew Warhola, was born to Polish parents in Pittsburgh. He grew up to be the “Pope Of Pop,” & at a young age he was fascinated with the commercialism of popular icons in advertising & in everyday life.
Warhol helped to shape pop culture & was able to portend society’s fascination with the media & a world where everything is accessible on your phone at the touch of the button, 24/7. Warhol famously claimed that each individual would have his or her “15 minutes of fame,” & he certainly wouldn’t be surprised by the popularity of YouTube, MP3s, Twitter, America’s Got Talent, The Facebook, Duggars or Kardashians.
A master of multiple creative forms of expression, Warhol was a painter, writer, music producer, avant-garde filmmaker, magazine creator, sculptor, & photographer. Focusing on diverse & contrasting interests all at once, he was fascinated with all forms of media, blurring of gender identities, & the contrast between a sense of celebrity & privacy.
He was a ground-breaker in the notion of self as product. He even set up his studio as “The Factory”, overseeing a staff that turned out prints, silkscreens & products of his work. He was still a remarkable, transcendent artist & a commanding craftsman.
Warhol was an ardent, practicing Catholic of the Eastern Byzantine strain, going to mass every day, but also a secular artist, champion of gay culture & all things hip. Warhol was openly & undeniably gay, amazing for his era. Yet, he never actually spoke openly about his gayness or his private life even though being a public figure was the essence of who he was.
He painted, filmed, & photographed the obscene, the homoerotic, the trashy & the lewd, but never really engaged in it. Warhol:
“After 25 you should look but never touch.”
“The most exciting thing is not doing it. If you fall in love with someone and never do it, it’s much more exciting.”
Warhol always seemed to me to be other worldly, amazingly untainted by the speed freaks, leather boys, & drag queens that moved in his circle. He projected a kind of naiveté & humility. The Factory was a center for the NYC avant-garde eager to engage in debauchery, staying up all night, but Warhol was noted for leaving by 10pm to go home & go to bed. His longtime lover was the remarkable interior designer Jed Johnson who kept his own place.
“Everybody winds up kissing the wrong person good night.”
I would certainly place Warhol as an ultimate Gay Icon although there is still plenty of speculation about his sex life. His friend, poet, editor, artist & legendary cultural catalyst Charles Henri Ford wrote:
“Everything is sexual to Andy without the sex act actually taking place.”
Warhol documented the newly blossoming LGBT community of NYC in those pioneering 1970s, chronicling the cultural underground, including discos, parties at Fire Island & the tragic beginnings of the plague. Much of his most famous works: portraits of Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland & Elizabeth Taylor; films like Blow Job (1964), My Hustler (1965) & Lonesome Cowboys (1968) were inspired by gay underground culture & openly looked at the complexity of gay desire. His films often had their premieres in gay porn theaters.
The Husband & I once saw an enchanting exhibit of his commercial drawings from the early 1950s, mostly ladies shoes & flowers, produced for advertising. These works predated his huge fame, but the essence of what he was about to bring was already there. I have a lot of material by & about him, including the very readable Andy Warhol’s Diaries (1989) where he writes about his relationships with men.
I saw him at Studio One in the summer of 1976. I didn’t dare approach him, even as I was fortified by Quaaludes, but I slipped him a mash note written on a cocktail napkin via a bartender. Around that time, Warhol began saving ephemera from his daily life: correspondence, newspapers, souvenirs, childhood objects, used plane tickets & food which was sealed in plain cardboard boxes dubbed: Time Capsules. By the time of his death, the collection grew to include 600 individually dated capsules. The boxes are now housed at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. I would like to think my note is included in a box marked September 1976.
“When I got my first television set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships.”
Warhol has been portrayed on screen by Crispen Glover, Jared Harris, Guy Pearce, & most effetely by David Bowie in Julian Schnabel‘s film Basquiat (1996). My friend Gus Van Sant was planning a version of Warhol’s life with River Phoenix in the lead role just before Phoenix’s death in 1993.
Warhol unexpectedly expired after successful gall bladder surgery in 1987. Johnson died in the TWA flight 800 explosion off the coast of Long Island in 1996. Neither of them left me anything in their estates, even though they were both, like me, world-class collectors of American Art Pottery. Still, Warhol remains one of my favorite people ever.
“An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.”