It is a testimony to Blake Gopnik’s skill that he is able to acknowledge how silly these provocations sound while simultaneously insisting on their enduring art historical significance. Dressing up as a box of Brillo may count as a stunt, but Gopnik, a veteran critic and contributor to the New York Times, sees it as the logical extension of Marcel Duchamp’s gesture 50 years earlier when he exhibited a porcelain pissoir as art. Responding to someone’s standard greeting with a detailed report on your bowel movements may be childish but it also pointedly disrupts the genteel discourse of a rapidly capitalising art market.
opnik’s biography is 912 pages long, accompanied by exhaustive footnotes on the publisher’s website that could make a little book themselves. He puts together with considerable skill a coherent narrative based on everything that was ever said or written by those who knew Warhol but doesn’t write well about the actual art. His analysis of the early work includes this passage: ‘Warhol’s first Pop solo in New York didn’t just bring him attention right then. Its 17 works already acted – still act – as a summary of one of the West’s finest artistic achievements. It established Warhol, about a year into his fine art career, as a true rival of all the greats who had come before.’ This sweeping judgment includes terms – ‘artistic achievements’, ‘fine art career’, ‘true rival’, ‘all the greats’, ‘the West’ – that have no real meaning at all. The films, he says, in similar superlative vein, ‘were unlike almost any film a viewer might have seen in a theatre, both in what they showed and how they showed it. Like Warhol himself and all his acolytes, a Factory film from 1966 wore its strangeness on its sleeve.’
There is plenty of gossip, sleaze and desperation for Gopnik to feast on, and even some art. But the real pleasure of the book is how he tracks Warhol’s constant dance between art and commerce, between Warhol’s often daffy creations and his scrupulous score-keeping when it came to business and his public image.
Gopnik, an indefatigable researcher, has collected and collated trivia as earnestly as the shopaholic Warhol, whose ‘vast archive’ includes ‘610 Time Capsules and hundreds of other boxes of vital and fascinating records – and junk’. Because he sees Warhol as a conceptualist, Gopnik’s critical task mostly consists of identifying the ‘larger cultural’ phenomena that are ‘the only thing’ that he was ‘any good at painting’. When he has the chance to make aesthetic judgements about Warhol’s ‘anti-aesthetic’ output, he does so with lyrical empathy.
Gopnik doesn’t love Warhol. He’s always seeming to be giving him marks out of ten, one minute comparing him with Picasso or Leonardo (fine by me), the next putting him down. For example, he presents him as fey and indecisive about religion; but I asked Warhol outright: ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘Yeah, I do.’ ‘Do you believe in life after death?’ ‘In an abstract way.’ Very clear answers. Gopnik makes much of the ‘camp’ in Warhol; but for me, camp does not characterise his art at all, which was, in the first instance, bewildering and shocking: he was the greatest taboo-breaker of the 20th century. And where Gopnik sees detachment or ruthlessness, I see generosity: Warhol gave many people the space (and money) to explore themselves.
But big-picture conclusions are not what this book does best. Its diary format, its division into years, is great for detail, but less great for overviews. When it comes to Warhol’s films, each of which gets a slab of book to itself, we are definitely in the realm of too much information. Having sat through the entire eight hours of Empire (1964) — a single shot of the Empire State Building — I cannot share Gopnik’s detailed Manhattan enthusiasm for Warhol’s films. Everything that any Warhol junkie should ever wish to investigate is here: the operation that saved him when he was shot by Valerie Solanas; how he came to paint his Marilyns and Elvises; how Edie Sedgwick came into his life. Every member of the infamous Factory citizenry gets a detailed mini-biography to themselves. You probably need to be a New Yorker to fully enjoy this relentless name-dropping. I found it wearisome.
A large part of the Warhol mystique was his personal manner, which overcame his looks. “Andy was one of the plainest boys I’ve ever seen in my life,” said an art dealer from the mid-Fifties, “a pimply faced adolescent with a deformed, bulbous nose that was always inflamed.” Yet despite this unprepossessing head topped by a silver wig — he got his toupee in the early Fifties to cover his thinning hair — he became an indispensable celebrity, owing more to Quentin Crisp than Henri Matisse. He cultivated a creepy, vampiric manner — Richard Burton called him “a horror film gentleman” — and affected to be blank and moronic, speaking in monosyllables. Underneath the “surface diffidence”, however, Gopnik assures us that Warhol was widely read and knowledgeable, well versed in everyone from Cocteau to Fred Astaire.
Gopnik’s rollicking book is a formidable achievement, but for all its dense accumulation of detail, scholarship and unabashed gossip, Warhol remains, as he doubtless would have wished, essentially, brilliantly, unknowable.