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The World of Warhol

So when Warhol appeared in rock videos, when he painted with Jean-Michel Basquiat and starred in his own show on MTV, he was doing more than refreshing his image—he was doing research and development for his art. This strategy worked. "When people ask me what young artists I'm interested in," Julian Schnabel remarked last week, "I say,' Andy Warhol.' "

That Warhol embraced change is hardly surprising, considering his background and his childhood. His parents were Czech immigrants; his father worked in the coal-fields of western Pennsylvania. Warhol was a hypersensitive child who lost his pigment at eight and was henceforth known around the neighborhood as Spot. Later, he would claim that by ten, he had suffered three nervous breakdowns.

At fifteen, a year after his father's death, the impoverished but precocious Warhol was admitted to the Carnegie Institute. He studied painting and design, graduated, moved to New York in 1949, and set about achieving his twin ambitions—becoming as well known as a movie star and earning enough money to support his mother. That he was pale, balding, and silent was not, in his opinion, a barrier. For a year, he wrote daily letters to Truman Capote, and he even sat in the Palm Court of the Plaza hoping to be mistaken for the writer.

From the beginning, Warhol's painting blended commercial and fine art. This endeared him to Glamour magazine art director Tina Fredericks, the first to buy a drawing—of an orchestra—from him. "What else do you do?" she asked one day in 1949. "Anything," he said. So she asked Warhol to draw some women's shoes for the magazine. "A few days later, he came back with drawings of battered, worn shoes," Fredericks recalls. "They were terrific, but they wouldn't sell shoes." Warhol was eager to please; the next time he showed up, his drawings were of shiny new shoes.

Warhol soon became so sought after as a shoe illustrator that he hired assistants and started—far from the eyes of his employers—what was, in effect, the first of his factories. In 1955, Geraldine Stutz hired him as the exclusive illustrator for I. Miller; two years later, he won the Art Directors' Club Medal. Now the cold-water flats and roommates were behind him. With his name listed in the "Fashion" section of a book called A Thousand New York Names and Where to Drop Them, he and his mother moved to a four-story town-house on Lexington Avenue at 89th Street. "Andy became rich before he ever sold a painting," says filmmaker Emile de Antonio.

Though he was always polite in public, he had a childlike ability to read people.

At that time, de Antonio was an artist's agent who'd found work for Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg doing display windows. When Warhol made some paintings, he showed them first to de Antonio. These paintings were of Coke bottles, and they came in two styles. In one, the bottle had the hatch marks that were the sine qua non of Abstract Expressionism. In the other, it was stark, unadorned, and outlined in black and white.

"One of these is crap," de Antonio said. "The other is remarkable—it's our society, it's who we are, it's absolutely beautiful and naked, and you ought to destroy the first and show the second."

Ivan Karp, then working for Leo Castelli, shared de Antonio's enthusiasm. Karp wasn't able to place Warhol's work at the gallery, so Warhol's New York debut as a painter was in a Bonwit window. Irving Blum gave him a show in Los Angeles in 1962, but his soup cans didn't sell. "A gallery dealer up the road bought dozens of Campbell's soup cans at the supermarket, put them in his window, and said, 'Buy them cheaper here—60 cents for three cans,' " Blum recalls. "And so there was a lot of hilarity regarding Andy. And not a great deal of serious interest."

But with encouragement from Karp and Henry Geldzahler, then a young curatorial assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Warhol pressed on. "What should I paint?" he asked them, in his first foray into market research. Self-portraits, Karp said, and cows. Death, said Geldzahler—car crashes, disasters, electric chairs. Warhol followed every suggestion. Then he directed his question to a woman at a dinner party. "Well, what do you love most?" she shot back. And Warhol started painting money.

Warhol's first studio was a firehouse on 87th Street off Lexington Avenue. It had no heat or running water. The rent was $100 a year. No one was eager to go there, which was fine with Warhol. In 1963, he was very busy making silk-screen paintings with his first assistant, Gerard Malanga.

"I remember when Kennedy was shot," Malanga says. "We went back to the firehouse and made a silk screen of Dracula biting a girl's neck." Warhol, who had been desensitizing himself for years by playing songs over and over at top volume, never missed a stroke. "Everything was just how you decided to think about it," he said.