He was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh in 1928, one of three sons of Slavic immigrants Andrej, a laborer, and Julia, a housekeeper. He was a frail boy after a bout of St. Vitus’ Dance, a neurological disorder, so he became a creature of his imagination, devouring novels and magazines and dreaming of Hollywood.
A gift for art landed him at Carnegie Institute of Technology. He nearly flunked out after his first year but won a reprieve: “I created a big scene and cried.”
After college, ambition drove him to New York. Tina Fredericks at Glamour magazine gave him his break, an opportunity he did not squander. Gigs at companies like Noonday Press, Bonwit Teller and I. Miller (for which he produced shoe drawings celebrated in the advertising industry) made him “piles of money,” Gopnik notes. He got his own place, eventually purchasing a Lexington Avenue townhouse.
As his commercial art business flourished, Warhol took up fine art, experimenting with the concrete image and the silk-screening process. Among his initial attempts was a series of paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans, which Henry Geldzahler, the art curator, called “the Nude Descending a Staircase of the Pop movement.” When Dennis Hopper, the actor and photographer, first saw one, he immediately understood the potential: “I started jumping up and down, saying, ‘That’s it! that’s it!’” he said. “That’s a return to reality.” Pop Art was born.
A Stable Gallery show featuring silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Troy Donohue “established Warhol,” Gopnik argues, “as a true rival of all the greats who had come before.”
“Death and Disaster,” a masterwork, was followed by “Flowers” (paintings) and “Brillo Boxes” (sculpture), all produced in a new studio space, known as the Factory, the walls of which were covered in aluminum foil by Billy Name, the first of many Warhol acolytes.
Then, in 1965, Warhol announced his “retirement” from art to focus on movies. He had shot experimental films already, including “Sleep,” “Kiss” and “Empire,” an eight-hour black-and-white shot of the Empire State Building. Now he made “Poor Little Rich Girl” with Edie Sedgwick, his first “superstar.” Others followed: Brigid Berlin, Paul America and Viva, among others, appearing in films like “My Hustler,” “The Nude Restaurant” and the cult classic “The Chelsea Girls.”
Warhol managed the Velvet Underground, pairing the group with Nico to make a landmark rock album. He pioneered performance art with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia event. Then, on June 3, 1968, he was shot by Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist and Factory hanger-on, in the throes of a psychotic breakdown. Gopnik’s account of the attempted murder is gripping: “The slug pierced Andy Warhol’s right side just under his arm and he began to bleed out.” Warhol flatlined at Columbus Hospital before doctors revived him.
He was never the same. “Andy died when Valerie Solanas shot him,” Gopnik quotes Taylor Mead, a Warhol superstar, as saying. “He’s just somebody to have at your dinner table now. Charming, but he’s the ghost of a genius.” Maybe, but during the 1970s — under the guidance of Fred Hughes, who ended up managing Warhol’s business life for more than 25 years — he built an empire.
Warhol made movies including “Flesh,” “Blue Movie” and “Lonesome Cowboys.” He returned to art, producing a series of paintings of the Chinese Communist Party chairman, Mao Zedong, and the masterwork “Shadows.” He also turned portraiture into a lucrative enterprise, starting with Happy Rockefeller and proceeding to an array of figures like Halston and Liza Minnelli. He founded Interview Magazine and bought a Montauk, N.Y., estate and a Rolls-Royce.
He also enjoyed his most successful personal relationship. Just before the shooting, he had hired Jed Johnson as an assistant; after the shooting, the two moved in together. “Over the next dozen years,” Gopnik writes, Johnson “came to fill the traditional role of devoted young spouse.” He decorated Warhol’s new townhouse on East 66th Street. Their eventual breakup left Warhol devastated, though few knew it. He was loath to express emotion. After his mother died in 1972, he neither attended her funeral nor announced her death. Anyone inquiring about her was told that she was shopping at Bloomingdale’s.
The 1980s were also productive — more art, collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, ventures into television, a new Factory — until he went to the hospital for gallbladder surgery and died of complications Feb. 22, 1987.
“The critical skepticism that Warhol lived with has evaporated in the years since his death,” Gopnik concludes. That clarity has afforded observers the chance to appraise Warhol objectively. He was America’s Picasso.
Paul Alexander has published eight books, including “Death and Disaster: The Rise of the Warhol Empire and the Race for Andy’s Millions.” He teaches at Fordham University and Hunter College.
By Blake Gopnik
Ecco. 976 pp. $45