Who was the real Andy Warhol?

Throughout his own career, the celebrity artist tried to hide behind his work. Can the first Warhol exhibition in 20 years shed new light?
February 29, 2020

In March, Tate Modern opens its first major Andy Warhol exhibition in nearly 20 years. It follows the Whitney’s monumental show last year, the first US retrospective since the one at MoMA in 1989 organised after Warhol’s unexpected death two years earlier. Given the global ubiquity of Warhol’s image and works—whether in galleries and auction rooms, or on funky stationery and Calvin Klein swimwear—the long gap may seem hard to believe. After Picasso, Warhol is the most famous and influential artist of the 20th century.

Sotheby’s prelude to the Tate show in February, Andy Warhol: Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away!, reminded us how sought after he is. The auction house has overseen a string of record-breaking prices—from the $1.4m hammered in 1988 for his 210 Coca-Cola Bottles to the $105m taken in 2013 for his Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster). Perhaps because of his commercial success, critical respect has been harder to come by.

Yet the Tate and Whitney shows suggest there is much more to be discovered about this complex, contradictory and unquestionably great artist. Both have been stimulated by new research, including the detective work on display in Blake Gopnik’s new thousand-page biography, Warhol: A Life as Art. And both argue that new insights—particularly into his upbringing, his relationship with his mother, his sexuality and his religious faith—will transform the way we evaluate his work. The Whitney quotes Warhol himself: “Nobody really looks at anything; it’s too hard. I think someone should see my paintings in person before he says they’re vacuous.”

Of course, at other times Warhol invited casual dismissal of his work: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” But we shouldn’t take him at his word. Beyond our first thrill of recognition or pleasure in pattern—whether it is a painting of a Campbell’s soup tin or an image of Marilyn Monroe or an impassive Chairman Mao—we are drawn in by the enigmatic originality of his work to a deeper reckoning with the images’ power.

Warhol spent his career trying to disappear behind his work. He claimed, “in his public persona” (as Gopnik cautions us), that his aspiration was to become “a machine” or insisted that his work “was nothing, anyone can do it.” Yet it was both highly considered and deeply personal. Just as his wig hid his thinning hair, dark glasses and cosmetics disguised his bad skin, and a nose job and collagen implants altered his face, so Warhol cultivated an image of himself at odds with reality. As one of his early champions, the influential curator and critic Henry Geldzahler, once said: “He plays dumb just as his paintings do, but neither deceives us.”

This stance was partly the fashion of the day. It was also a way to puncture the heroic pretensions of abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. In fact, Warhol was an expert and committed image-maker. He became fluent in the languages of fine art, post-war consumer capitalism and celebrity culture, using them in his thousands of works both to probe and shape the cultural history of his age.

*** Warhol was born in 1928 into a community of Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants, who settled in Pittsburgh in the early 20th century. Bilingual in English and Ruthenian (his parents were born in what is now the far east of Slovakia), he belonged to a community that followed the distinctive Byzantine rite of their Catholic Church. This, Gopnik suggests, exacerbated Warhol’s sense of being an outsider, while also establishing a habit of Church attendance that lasted until his death. The family grew up in straitened circumstances, especially after the early death of Warhol’s father, a construction worker, in 1942. For young Andy, a tin of Campbell’s soup was an aspiration rather than a staple food.

Critical to his development as an artist was his mother, Julia Warhola. Warhol once said to a writer proposing a book about him: “The book should be about my mother. She’s so-o-o interesting.” She supplemented the family income by crafting decorative flowers out of peach tins and selling them door to door. She encouraged her son’s talent for drawing, providing colouring books, crayons and comic books, especially when a severe childhood illness kept him at home. In the 1950s, when she joined him in New York, Warhol was recruited by her son into his art production, creating the quirky, curly lettering that featured in much of his commercial work. They jointly produced a book of cat illustrations. She was even the focus of an underground film Warhol made in 1966. Such was Warhol’s fear of death—which began with the early loss of his father—he did not attend his mother’s funeral in 1972. Two years later, though, he created a portrait of her that is a powerful summoning of her missed presence.

After high school, Warhol studied art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Its Bauhaus ethos encouraged students to roam across fine art, design and commercial art. This was an unfashionable approach. Among the abstract expressionists then riding high, the thrill of paint on canvas expressed an individual’s unique vision free of commercial pressure.

Around this time, Warhol also learned both to hide and to explore his homosexuality. At the Carnegie, he took a holiday job at a prestigious department store where there was a more tolerant attitude than in other parts of the city. After Warhol graduated in 1949, he moved to New York where he hustled for commercial work while navigating the lively underground gay scene. (His mother would still ask about girlfriends.) Over 10 years, he became successful enough as an illustrator to employ several assistants—this was to become the model for his famous 1960s “Factory”—and to buy a house on Lexington Avenue.

Moving from outsider to insider, Warhol was thus the embodiment of the American dream. He understood the allure of fame and fortune. But the leap from commercial success to Pop Art stardom was not as straightforward as the legend has it. As Gopnik puts it, “he’d actually been dedicated to fine art almost since the day he arrived in New York.” His own collecting and efforts to exhibit reveal that he was watching developments within New York’s avant-garde with interest. Foremost among artists he admired were Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The pair, who were also lovers, recognised that painting needed to find a new way to reconnect with the world through figurative subject matter. They had worked as window-dressers at the upmarket department store Bonwit Teller, infiltrating their art works into the mini stage sets they created at the store.

Johns’s focus on the American flag, on targets, numbers and the alphabet—mundane visual vocabularies rendered unfamiliar through the use of collaged recycled paper and thickly dripped encaustic paint—was declared by the Manhattan dealer Leo Castelli as “new and out of the blue.” Meanwhile, Rauschenberg’s recognition of how photography was supplanting drawing in both the commercial and fine-art sphere inspired his own collages: in 1962 he incorporated screen-printed photographs into his canvases. For a while, Warhol followed their lead, incorporating chance drips and splashes into his simple depictions of everyday objects like telephones, adverts for nose jobs, Coke bottles and cartoons.

According to Gopnik, a turning point for Warhol came when he showed some art-world acquaintances two versions of a painting of a Coca-Cola bottle—one in bold black-and-white outline, one with expressive hash-marks on its side. They agreed that the image without embellishments was revelatory, confronting the audience with an entirely real, isolated cultural object. It was this insight that led to the series of Campbell’s soup can images with ultra-realistic painted labels. By demonstrating the peculiar power of repetition to drain images of meaning, he teased his audiences into thinking about images—the ways they are made and what they signify—in new ways.

The importance of the series was recognised by the dealer Irving Blum, who gave Warhol his first West Coast exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962. It would not be until 1964, however, that Castelli, the kingmaker of New York’s avant garde, would offer Warhol his first show. By the time he came to show his colourful Flowers paintings there, Warhol had become master of multiple media, mixing silkscreen, pencil, hand-painted acrylics and fluorescent Day-Glo paint. In all his great series of paintings, part of the tension comes from the fact that though the source images are the same, each copy is different. The meaning of the image changes with each new iteration and in relation to every other iteration. This creates very different emotions depending on whether the original image is a photograph of a car crash, Elizabeth Taylor or a skull.

From this point, Warhol continued with astonishing productivity. He built teams of accomplices and gathered a select group of performance artists and nonconformists—whom he dubbed “superstars”—to explore the visual, sexual and social culture of his era. He abandoned painting altogether in 1966, instead turning to film, and publishing the magazine Interview. He also managed the Velvet Underground, for whom he produced the psychedelic multimedia show Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

*** His first brush with mortality in 1968, when he was shot by Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist and paranoid schizophrenic, reinforced his many anxieties about his health. These anxieties dogged him until his death due to post-surgery complications in 1987. All this while, he had regularly attended Mass, and volunteered at a church-run soup kitchen, although the extent of his faith, and its impact on his art, is hard to determine.

In the aftermath of Solanas’s assault, Warhol returned to image-making. In 1972, spurred by news reports of President Nixon’s trip to China, he began a series of paintings, lithographs, drawings and photocopy prints of Chairman Mao. These were all based on the painting by Zhang Zhenshi that was the frontispiece for Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (known in the west as the Little Red Book), thought to be the most reproduced artwork in the world. These ostentatiously worked images are politically reticent. As Gopnik puts it, “despite the real and necessary political engagement signalled by Warhol’s choice of subject, they refused to reveal their maker’s intentions.” Warhol liked to tell interviewers that he was inspired merely by red and orange paint: “Those were the only colours I had, so I thought of someone who would look right in those colours.”

Other significant series show Warhol’s gathering capacity to explore elusive subjects: from 1975, Ladies and Gentlemen, depicting members of New York’s trans and drag community; his still-lifes and shadow paintings; his startling self-portraits and the late works, Camouflage Last Supper and Sixty Last Suppers from 1986, based on a print of an old oil copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s damaged masterpiece. While these show a sophisticated understanding of the predicaments facing “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” in the words of the German critic Walter Benjamin, they are above all personal meditations on sex, gender, identity, death, violence and faith.

Gregor Muir, a curator of the new Tate Modern show, suggests that these late works are often overlooked: “Earlier in his life he was subject to a great deal of mythology, much of it his own creation. But the 1960s Pop period was a small part of his career. We will spend half the show on works from the 1970s to his death.” Tate’s selection is guided by three biographical themes—Warhol’s immigrant background, his queer identity and his preoccupation with death and religion. Among masterpieces rarely seen here will be 25 paintings from the Ladies and Gentlemen series, while the final room will be devoted to Sixty Last Suppers.

Rather than investigating him as an artist who belongs solely to the world of ideas, Muir suggests Tate’s show will seek out the personal: “I often feel he was trying to create a mood. The Jackie series, for instance, has a mournful quality about it. This is driven by his feelings for his family and his mother. He never really left the bubble of his family.” He adds, “we hope it will be a moving exhibition, a story that might belong to a telling of Warhol in this age.”