Andy Warhol, Pioneer of Pop Art, Dies After Heart Attack
By Richard Pearson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 23, 1987
Andy Warhol, 58, a writer, philosopher, film-maker and artist whose portraits of soup cans, celebrities and the social scene made him perhaps the best-known figure in what has come to be known as pop art, died yesterday at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York City after a heart attack.
A hospital spokesman said Warhol was admitted to the hospital Friday and underwent gallbladder surgery Saturday. The spokesman said that "his postoperative condition was stable" and that his death was "clearly unexpected."
Warhol became famous in the early 1960s for his now-legendary artworks featuring Campbell Soup cans. Later works, using photography and silk-screening techniques, included portraits of everyday objects and such celebrities as Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. When critics attacked his work as boringly unoriginal, he would reply that he was not a "creator" of art but a "recreator."
Critics questioned whether he wanted his work, representing such everyday items as Brillo pads, to satirize commercial vulgarity or whether he wanted to glorify commercial America. Were those soup cans lampooning success, or were they symbols of an affluent society? To some, Warhol used soup cans as Cezanne used apples. At least to Warhol, soup was good art.
He referred to his New York art studio as "the factory" and turned out pictures, often a huge number of prints, all with tiny variations. He championed the mechanics of his art, saying that by working with photographs he mechanically reproduced what was "real."
By the early 1960s, he was a recognized leader of the art avant-garde, hailed by some as an opponent of abstract expressionism and a man who used some of the tools of Dadaism for a new art form.
"Andy Warhol was a serious artist whose posture was unseriousness," said William Rubin, director of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "He was a pioneer of image-appropriating pop art, and the implications of his work proved essential to the subsequent postmodernist movement."
Last year, one of his works, a painting of 200 one-dollar bills, sold for $385,000 at an auction in New York City. He once said that he often drew works featuring money because an art teacher had once told him to draw what he liked best in the world. Warhol used the same advice when it came to soup: He claimed that before he drew his first soup can, he had lunched on soup for 20 years.
His life, if it did not imitate his art, at least mirrored it. He appeared shy, often spoke in a near-whisper with a hand over his mouth, seemingly hiding behind a blond wig and large glasses. Yet he sought publicity, courted attention and basked his pale form in an entourage of admirers and social figures. He had managed an electronic rock band called the Velvet Underground, made unique forays into the world of print, danced the night away at discos and made cameo appearances in movies. At the time of his death, he was host of an MTV cable program called "Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes" -- a reference to his famous comment that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes.
After achieving fame and fortune in the fickle world of art, he began meeting other challenges. He had always been fascinated with home movies and began to devote the bulk of his time to making the kind of movies that big Hollywood studios were not making anymore, if they ever had. These included "Sleep," a six-hour epic in which an unmoving camera watched a man sleep, "Empire," in which his camera focused on a facade of the Empire State Building for eight hours, and "Eat," which showed a man eating a mushroom.
Some of Warhol's acting troupe achieved stardom of a sort. They included Baby Jane Holzer, who appeared in Warhol's 1964 film "Wee Love of Life," in which he introduced plot and some action. It also was his first film with sound. Holzer also appeared in his "13 Most Beautiful Girls," which actually had 14 girls, but who was counting? Warhol remarked that he found the finished product so dull that he thought nobody would notice the error.
Another of his actresses, the socialite Edie Sedgwick, portrayed herself spending a day at her East Side apartment. Warhol allowed that he found this work dull also. His worst luck with actresses was undoubtedly with Valerie Solanis. In 1968, she shot Warhol at his office with a .32-caliber revolver, puncturing his lungs, spleen, liver and stomach.
Another of his films "Blue Movie," was a 140-minute film that involved 130 minutes of philosophical discussion followed by 10 minutes of action that justified the movie's title. "The Chelsea Girls," a 1966 movie, has been referred to as "The Sound of Music" of the underground. In a pseudo-documentary style, it examines the mores of the sexually inventive and the lives of drug addicts. It was screened for the Cannes Film Festival.
Yet criticism seldom seemed to bother Warhol. However controversial his work, whether in film or art, it gained success. The Whitney Museum filled an entire floor with his work in a 1979 exhibit. He had one-man art shows on at least three continents, and his films were eventually shown in some mainstream theaters.
His publishing ventures included Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and "Andy Warhol's Philosophy," a 451-page book of transcribed interview in which he is questioned by "Ondine," a friend of Warhol's who was under the influence of amphetamines during the interview.
Warhol has said that the meaning of his work is that he does not care about anything.
He was born Andrew Warhola near Pittsburgh to Czech immigrant parents. In interviews, Warhol variously cited 1927 and 1928 as his year of birth, with Reuter and United Press International reporting that 1927 was the year. His father, who died when Warhol was a child, had worked as a coal miner. After graduating from what is now Carnegie-Mellon University, Warhol worked at odd jobs before moving to New York City in his twenties.
As an illustrator for advertisements, he won the 1957 Art Director's Club Medal for a giant shoe ad. He also is remembered for a 1961 Lord & Taylor department store window display he did using blown-up paintings of the Dick Tracy comic strip. By 1959, his first serious work was being exhibited at the Bodley Gallery in New York.
His work has been described as "banality endowed with an air of mystery." Portions of his life story were no less mysterious and, perhaps, beneath a veneer of artistic individuality and hedonism, perhaps no less banal. He used to baffle reporters with contradictory accounts of his birth, education and early life. But in the mid-1960s, his mother gave a reporter an interview, revealing not only that he shared his Lexington Avenue apartment with her, but also that he attended mass every Sunday.
Back to top