Remembering Andy Warhol
Wed, Apr 22, 2015
By Thom Nickels
It’s been an art-filled week for this columnist, first with a trip to the Barnes Foundation to hear Jerry Saltz, a former truck driver who became the senior art critic at New York Magazine. Saltz talked about the state of painting and sculpture in 2015. Then it was off to check out Art Unleashed at the University of the Arts, after which I was supposed to head into the Riverwards to check out Warren Muller’s new gallery show at Bahdeebahdu’s, but I never made it. Having to attend too many art events in one day is never a good idea. By the end of the week my head was spinning with multiple visual images although I found that I was mainly focusing on the work of Andy Warhol, probably because Saltz had mentioned Andy in his talk in connection with the New York Abstract Expressionists.
It’s been almost 30 years since Andy Warhol died in Manhattan’s New York Hospital on February 22, 1987. Since his death, Warhol’s star has not faded. His works still sell for unprecedented prices: In 2002, ‘Green Car Crash’ sold for 71 million; last year ‘200 One Dollar Bills’ was sold at Sotheby’s for a cool 43.7 million, and the artist’s 1963 work, ‘Eight Elvises,’ netted 100 million.
I saw Andy Warhol once on the streets of Manhattan riding his bicycle. The flash of white hair was unmistakable.
Ask anyone on the street today what he or she thinks of when they hear the name Andy Warhol, and you’re likely to get different responses. Some see him as the hedonist filmmaker of the 1960s and 70’s (Joe Dallesandro, where are you?); others see him as a mediocre artist who got lucky when he fused commercial and fine art and came up with his own artistic hybrid. Still others recall a manipulative artist who, while maintaining a rigid and highly disciplined work life, did nothing to "save" the hosts of men and women around him in the Factory who destroyed themselves with drugs in the name of "Art."
When Warhol’s diaries were published in 1989, the world saw that the most outrageous artist of the 20th century was really a very conscientious workaholic who went to Mass every Sunday. The same man who made movies entitled "Heat" and "The Chelsea Girls" didn’t believe in modern (non-monogamous) marriages, and was very nearly celibate as a gay man. If one expected to find in Warhol’s diaries an endless litany of sexcapades à la the Ned Rorem Diaries or Paul Goodman’s famous sex diary, "Five Years," they were sadly mistaken. The great artist might as well have been a Trappist monk with an occasional penchant for voyeurism. In life, Warhol only posed as a jaded debauchee. It was, as they say, a big act.
As an artist, Warhol is mostly known for the Pop phase of his work. He fused high art with low art. One of his major influences was Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of architecture. Gropius believed that a "collective" of artists was necessary, because the arts had become "isolated" in modern times. To forge this new unity among the arts, Gropius founded (and designed) the Bauhaus School in Dessau, Germany, in 1925. Much like Andy Warhol’s New York Factory, the Dessau Bauhaus School was a hydra-headed endeavor. Students and teachers alike worked together on the design of buildings, furniture, teapots, wall hangings, table lamps, photography and advertising posters. Gropius’ vision of a synthesis of the arts, just as Warhol’s marriage of the fine and commercial art worlds, gave the world something brand new.
But Warhol left the world of painting in 1965 in order to make movies. The change was perhaps predictable, given that the prince of Pop art had worked with a diversity of media and styles. By 1965, he was calling painting "old fashioned". "I don’t paint anymore," he said in 1966. "I gave it up a year ago and just do the movies now. I could do two things at the same time but movies are more exciting. Painting was just a phase I went through." Warhol’s films, although they won awards in small artistic circles, never had the popularizing effect of his art. People did not line up for a Warhol premier.
Like many famous artists, Andy eventually felt trapped by the public’s expectations of him. The public wanted him to produce more images of popular culture, but at this stage of the game he was getting sick and tired of the non-stop parade of society portrait commissions that were coming his way. He was also beginning to grow bored with his life of nightly clubbing in Manhattan.
Warhol’s future as an artist might have been different had he not met Jean-Michel Basquiat in the fall of 1982. Basquiat, originally a street artist, breathed new life into Warhol’s love of the paintbrush, and exerted enough influence that Warhol quit making movies after he made "Andy Warhol’s Bad" in 1976. The artist Keith Haring once said that "…Andy trusted Jean even to the point that he would actually let him cut and sculpt his hair." Warhol took Basquiat under his wing. Soon the two men were doing everything together, including filling the Factory with sweet smelling pot smoke.
Before Warhol came on the art scene, the New York art world was ruled by the Abstract Expressionists. The Abstract Expressionists were exclusively male (women in that art world were relegated to making coffee or becoming lovers and mistresses of the Abstractionists). The Abstractionists were also excessively macho, alcoholic, and homophobic. Warhol, who was anything but macho, did however find much to admire in the work of Jackson Pollock.
A lot has been written about the Jackson Pollock crowd. In his diaries, Warhol refers to them as "hard-driving, two-fisted types who’d grab each other and say things like ‘I’ll knock your f--king teeth out’ and ‘I’ll steal your girl.’ The toughness," Warhol added, "was part of a tradition; it went with their agonized, anguished art. They were always exploding and having fistfights about their work and their love lives."
Pollack, who was very antigay, would greet every gay person he met with a sexual insult that cannot be printed in this newspaper.
But shy little Andy couldn’t resist annoying these beefy Abstractionist thugs. Despite his soft-spoken voice, he never ran from a confrontation. Perhaps this is why his friends called him Drella, a name that was a combination of Cinderella and Dracula. "I certainly wasn’t a butch kind of guy by nature, but I must admit, I went out of my way to play up the other extreme," he wrote of his time with these guys. Rejected by the Abstract Expressionists for being gay and for his love of commercial art, Andy had no choice but to cultivate an artistic life as a contrarian.
In the 1950s and 60s, Warhol made it his mantra to keep repeating that the "snobbish distinctions between fine and commercial (so-called high and low) art were no longer valid. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good," he wrote in "The Philosophy of Andy Warhol." Later, under the influence of Pollack and painters like Ellsworth Kelly, Warhol came to paint works of art like "Red Disaster," 1985, a painting which clearly demonstrates his fondness for the so called clean machine aesthetic. His so-called urine paintings, which were influenced by Neo-Dadaist artists and Pablo Picasso, caused him to paint with a sponge mop.
Sometimes art imitates life, and vice versa. After a death threat, Warhol went into a sporting goods store to buy a camouflage hunter’s hat and proceeded to paint a series of Camouflage Paintings.
A year before his death, he painted a series of self-portraits. He also began a rash of religious paintings, such as The Last Supper, and a slew of acrylic and silkscreen works like "Heaven and Hell are Just One Breath Away," "The Mark of the Beast," and "Repent and Sin No More." These last paintings of his show the influence of his childhood experiences of going to his Pittsburgh Byzantine Catholic church with its egg tempera and gold leaf icons.