Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The World of Warhol

'He sure was famous," Paul Morrissey remarked the day after Warhol's death. In the late sixties, Paul Morrissey directed Warhol's films—and managed his business. And yet, as the articulate director talked, it was almost as if he were realizing, for the first time, that Andy Warhol was even more famous than he had always wanted to be.

Paul Morrissey wasn't the only close friend to be surprised by the torrent of good feeling that suddenly surrounds the name of the man who, for the last decade, was widely regarded as nothing more than New York's most ubiquitous partygoer. Paradoxically, it took death—for Warhol, the ultimate act of conceptual art—to focus, frame, and fix his ever-changing image.

That paradox is only the first of many surrounding Warhol. He is probably best known for his epigram "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes," yet he managed to extend his own fame by almost a quarter of a century. His name is associated with the drug taking and sexual promiscuity of the sixties—but for the last five years of his life, he worked out at least three times each week and was home most nights by eleven. He created a life for himself that was more regular than a railroad conductor's—and complained to friends that things were not fun. He was, for the last decade, the CEO of a multi-million-dollar enterprise—and he both loved that business for providing him with a family and hated the burden that it represented. And, most of all, he was a painter in the great romantic tradition who hid his real seriousness under a wig that he dyed platinum.

"If I go into a hospital," he told friends, "I won't come out. I won't survive another operation."

The creation of the persona that we know as "Andy Warhol" may not be, as some are saying, his greatest artistic achievement, but it was certainly his first priority. "If you wear a wig, everybody notices," he explained to a friend. "But if you then dye the wig, people notice the dye." That was basic Warhol—work with the surface, go for the joke, deflect attention from whatever there is about you that's unattractive.

As a result, when we think of Warhol's art, we think first of the silk-screened Campbell's soup cans; Brillo boxes; multiple images of Marilyn Monroe. The creator of that art always made his work seem easy—something that could be run off by assistants while the most widely known artist since Picasso was out becoming more famous. But Warhol was more than a prankster who, perversely, exalted the most banal images of American commerce. With Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg, Warhol created art that defines the glossy superficiality, manic denial of feelings and process, and underlying violence of the sixties. In the seventies, Warhol almost single-handedly revived portrait painting. And in this decade, he took his ubiquitous camera—which many clubgoers regarded as nothing more than a social prop—and made a triumphant debut as a photographer.

One of his achievements has seeped so deeply into American culture that it's hard to remember a time when it wasn't here: Andy Warhol connected art to fashion and to business. In the media, he simply saw no distinction between advertising art and editorial art—except to note how much better advertisements and commercials usually looked than the articles and television shows that surrounded them. At Interview, and in his own work, Warhol blurred the traditional distinctions and encouraged the young photographers and artists he hired to break boundaries, too. The result was a graphics explosion that helped revive New York as the world capital of hard-edged style.

Warhol's love of change, his willingness to experiment, and his remarkable productivity created yet another paradox—he was as influential in other fields as he was as a painter. The films he made in the sixties are, deliberately, remarkably boring. They have no story, no camera movement, and no apparent direction. They're rarely seen now, and yet they're clearly an influence on such promising new directors as Jim Jarmusch. In that same period, Warhol was the godfather of a music scene that produced the Dom, a multimedia dance club that was the model for all others. Warhol's silver-foiled "Factory," with its hangers-on, poseurs, and amphetamine addicts, also produced the Velvet Underground, the group that invented punk rock twenty years too early; when they performed in Los Angeles, with Gerard Malanga doing his whip dance in tight leather pants, a young Jim Morrison was there to watch and learn. A decade later, David Byrne went to school on Warhol's deliberately opaque image and, for both the Talking Heads and his films, devised the postmodern equivalent of Warhol's blank, flat-affect persona.

Not many artists would welcome such appropriation or applaud the fortunes that the second generation made. But Warhol was delighted to see any new talent succeed. Whenever Interview's editor, Gael Love, had trouble deciding on someone for the cover, Warhol would say, "Oh, just use any young person." Without doubt, he loved youth because the young weren't concerned with the three subjects he dreaded most: age, illness, and death. But he also loved the ideas and styles that they were creating—and that he could use.