An icon’s icon

Death becomes all superstars
April 25, 2006 4:57:55 PM

Art? Isn't that a man's name? _WarholHe was Andrew Warhola on his birth certificate, son of Andrej and Julia, Ruthenian immigrants from Czechoslovakia who spoke Slovak at home and worshiped every Sunday at the Eastern Rite Byzantine Catholic Church in a gritty Western Pennsylvania mill and mining community of the sort portrayed in the opening scenes of The Deer Hunter.

Throughout the 1950s, he was “Raggedy Andy” to the art directors of magazines (Vogue, Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar) and posh stores (Tiffany, Bergdorf Goodman) and shoe lines (I. Miller) who commissioned his work — often blotted ink-line drawings that, when mechanically mass-produced on newsprint or on slick paper, suggested an intimate spontaneity — and, in the process, made Warhol (he had dropped the “a” by this time) affluent and (perhaps) New York’s most successful commercial artist.

During the 1960s, when Warhol turned to fine art and established the first of his three “factories” in an industrial loft in the then-fallow southern precincts of midtown, he was known as “Drella” to the assortment of street people, speed freaks, transvestites, poets, fellow artists, underground filmmakers, gallery owners, collectors, curators, socialites, and celebrities who worked in, hung around at, and passed through his studio. By then, aspects of Warhol’s chameleon-like persona had emerged sufficiently to be recognized and catalogued by his associates. He was, in turns, perversely pixie-like, passively aggressive, casually workaholic, blandly intense, promiscuously manipulative, and monumentally ambitious.

By the 1970s, he was Andy or Ahn-dy or Ahn-deeee, pronunciation depending on the speaker’s nation of origin or pretense to intimacy. Andy was an international celebrity, as famous for being himself at parties, in gossip pages, in commercials, and as the subject of magazine articles as he was for his large and still growing body of work: paintings, ready-mades, silk-screened portraits, films, books, and his magazine, Interview.

Like America’s first true pop-cultural heroes, Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Lindberg, and like the first international darling of the art world, Pablo Picasso, Warhol was more than iconic; he was and remains a brand — a medium through which one could transform one’s everyday self (if just a little) into someone more enhanced — perhaps, if the imagination was strong enough, into a superstar. The kind of superstar who gets a 15-pound book about him — Andy Warhol “Giant” Size (Phaidon) — published 19 years after his death.

Superstardom, on the surface at least, is a powerful aspect of Warhol’s art. He chose Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy as subjects at a time when those cultural touchstones were merely famous, though in transition for sure — on their ways, each in his or her own particular fashion, to becoming icons, but not yet iconic. The bold, flatly luminous technique with which Warhol represented them captured their essence and aura. By focusing and refining their immediacy, Warhol gave them timeless relevance. His transcendent achievement — measured by his multiple Elvises, Marilyns, and Jackies — owed as much to selection as execution, to thought as action, to intuition as system.

Warhol’s intelligence, and the secret of his endurance, was in his prescience. And what he saw, or sensed, was that his famous subjects’ deaths would give his portrayals of them an added energy and dimension that could be realized when their public — Warhol’s audience — knew that Elvis and Marilyn and Jackie were in their graves. Perverse? Perhaps. By the simple, natural, and inevitable act of dying, Warhol’s most prominent subjects effortlessly collaborated with the artist and the audience — his and theirs. Death = objectification = immortality. And what, if not immortality, does every great artist hope for? Anyone who doubts the centrality of death in so much of Warhol’s seemingly surface-obsessed work should survey long and hard his electric-chair works, which, even more than his disaster series of Weegee-like scenes of auto crashes and plunging bodies, testify to the power of Warhol’s darker visions.

By the time I moved to New York, in 1980, Warhol was as ubiquitous — to borrow a characterization from John Updike — as Muzak in a supermarket. In some ways overexposed in print, the power of his presence in person was as inescapable as he was unassuming — even in a celebrity-populated city. From the uptown dance club Studio 54, to the back room at Mortimer’s (the social set’s answer to the literary Elaine’s, where Andy was also a customer), to the downtown outpost of the Mudd Club, Warhol was every scene’s regular. To some, this seemed pathetic: in intellectual terms, a hyper-democratization of the essentially aristocratic position of the artist; in a more commonplace sense, the restless wandering of a lonely guy.

Warhol embodied both of these tendencies. Like Whitman, he was his own multitude. And like another highly intelligent New York–oddball artist, Joseph Cornell, Warhol’s psyche was hermetically sealed, a bubble that absorbed what he wanted and allowed it to absorb while it offered him protection and the elasticity to explore. Like Cornell, Warhol was a flâneur, a seemingly aimless walker about the city. If by night Warhol enjoyed the company of the great and the good, the hip and the outlaw, by day — when not at his desk or in his studio/factory — he trolled the streets and flea markets and antique shops and secondhand stores, searching not only for art and artifacts for his almost obscene and certainly obsessive variety of collections, but also for experience — and also, I suspect, to sublimate his loneliness in the bustle of the streets.

Cornell applied his claustrophobic sensibility to the creation of exquisite boxes of collage populated by found and everyday objects that assumed a power that was almost as literary as it was graphic and plastic. The equally — but differently — claustrophobic Warhol found more expansive expression for his multiplicity of visions in a wider variety of mediums. The glue that is New York holds together a great range of talent.

The book under review, a folio of great proportions, would no doubt please Warhol in a wry but very real way. Heavier on the life and back story than on the work itself, it nevertheless is a monument to a monumental talent.

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