The Endless Fifteen Minutes

Photo: Robert Mapplethorpe/Andy Warhol, 1986 © the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation/Art and Commerce

Andy’s more alive than ever. The press loves him, young artists discuss him reverently, foreigners consider him essential. The filmmaker Ric Burns recently made a two-part documentary about him. A show of his late work was one of the most discussed exhibitions last year. Phaidon just published a giant book called Andy Warhol: “Giant” Size. A trendy downtown club on Chrystie Street is dolling itself up to look like the Factory, the name of Warhol’s tinfoil-wrapped studio. (Three weeks ago, this magazine ran the cover headline WARHOL’S CHILDREN on a story about three ultrahip downtown art stars.) And Factory Girl—a movie about Edie Sedgwick, the rich young thing who hung out at the Factory and OD’d at 28—opened last week.

There’s something strange about this. Warhol (1928–1987) made his most original work 40 years ago. If the history of art is any guide, he should be settling into the past, his influence spent or transformed. But he just gets bigger and bigger. The actual art that Warhol produced—the paintings, silk-screens and films—cannot explain the obsessive attention. Warhol was an important Pop Artist who made edgy films and, in his silk-screens, found a fresh way to describe the shifting face of celebrity culture. But his images rarely possessed the visual power found in the work of the great artists of the century, such as Picasso, Matisse, or Mondrian.

Early on, of course, people recognized that Warhol represented more than the sum of his pictures. Like Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, he mattered mainly as a cultural performer: “Andy” is easily Warhol’s single greatest creation. That pale bewigged phantom spoke in brilliant deadpan—he could be extraordinarily droll—and became the high priest of celebrity culture. Today, he still seems present at the mass party, half-there behind every new craze from Paris Hilton to reality TV. But even this performance does not explain his hold on the imagination, not unless you grant Warhol what’s rarely emphasized in the right way and proportion: his spooky darkness.

Andy is a specter. A ghost—of celebrity past, present, and yet to come—who haunts us. He himself was fascinated with death. Raised in a Catholic household in Pittsburgh, he was attracted to images of car crashes; later in his life, he painted shadows. But a Catholic obsession with death is hardly unusual, and it isn’t the main source of Andy-ean darkness. Warhol embodied certain telling paradoxes that also trouble American culture. Consider what he made of sex. In the sixties, Warhol’s “Factory” became celebrated for libertinism. He was the great enabler, cultivating outrageous behavior. (Among his best-known movies is Blow Job, the Warholian joke being that viewers can see only the man’s face.) Yet, Warhol himself appeared listless, neutered, and drained of erotic vitality. With Warhol, you were forced to keep two sensations in mind at once—impotence and excess. They became a cultural pair, inextricably linked. An American relationship.

There are many shadowy—and particularly American—couplings in Warhol. He is naïve but jaded, innocent but corrupt. He can be young and old. He’s surrounded by drugs, but super-clean himself. He’s an insider and an outsider. Was Warhol a celebrity or a groupie? Both. He resembles one of those creatures that can mate with itself, equally fan and star, voyeur and an exhibitionist, the bizarre union of which yields—presto!—the perfect narcissist. Warhol, like most human mirrors, regarded the world as just a performance. Any messy real-world feelings he forced onstage; then, like any ticket-holder, he could go home after the show. Factory Girl is a mediocre movie that conveys little of Warhol’s allure—I could hear Andy sitting in the back row, saying, “It kinda sucks”—but it does try to convey, however lamely, Warhol’s aggressive passivity. (For more about the film, see David Edelstein’s review on this week.) When Edie Sedgwick stopped focusing upon the Factory, Andy dropped her and turned his back as she foundered. After her death, he didn’t shed even a crocodile tear. His narcissism was pure. Its facade would not crack. If someone died in the audience, he’d keep on performing (and watching). What integrity, of a kind.

Warhol resembles one of those creatures that can mate with itself—the perfect narcissist.

One of Warhol’s most devilish couplings—of art and money—was, characteristically, both cynical and honest. In the sixties, many crtics admired the avant-garde for ignoring material gain. Warhol made that perspective look like just another pose (as it often was) by upending the moral tables, falling so brazenly in love with glitz and money that, paradoxically, he copped the avant-garde mantle. Sneaky. No one quite believed he meant what he said. Was he satirizing what he was supporting? This tricky Warholian guise developed into a widely practiced art-world racket. Today’s artists, however, lack Warhol’s wily conviction. His invention of Andy was not just an ambitious calculation. In Andy’s gaze there was sometimes a baffled expression, as if the world were a Kafkaesque system full of levers we can’t pull and secrets we can’t know—and so we might as well just enjoy the show. There was a dread, too, that the world was transforming us (as with Warhol’s Andy or Shelley’s Frankenstein or Kafka’s Gregor Samsa) into strange, ill-fitting creatures. Andy would have acknowledged Gregor as family.

Warhol died twenty years ago this month. When, if ever, will we escape from his particular shadow? Probably no time soon: too many people find him useful. Artists can lionize him, culture warriors denounce him as decadent, gossips bedeck him with girly adjectives—delicious, marvelous—intellectuals entwine themselves in his ironies. (Warhol’s “wow” is almost too complicated to translate.) He remains elusive, yet everyone instantly calls him to mind: He’s on a first-name basis with millions. Warhol will be with us until the paradoxes upon which he depends fade, and important artists start treating the Warholian values of surface, splash, and money—and their dark emanations—as old-fashioned or, more important, not interesting enough. We’ll know the time has come when a historian, who could be either a liberal or a conservative, writes a book called The Age of Warhol.

The Endless Fifteen Minutes