Christopher Hitchens

The intriguing thing about the opening night of the Andy Warhol retrospective in Manhattan was its tameness. MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) can seldom have looked so respectable while being at the same time, in a faintly macabre way, en fête. I could have got in without a black tie, but would have looked wildly conspicuous in mufti and was glad to have observed the protocol of the invitation. The event had the feel of a fundraiser for the Republicans (or, admittedly, in these days of high-tab politics, the Democrats). Since Warhol had in his time – then just drawn to an end – been sounded out for the post of Jimmy Carter’s official photographer, and gone on to grace the glitz-infested dinner table of Ronnie and Nancy, this didn’t seem inapposite. The pictures on the walls looked as familiar and predictable as the people. Surely that’s Marilyn. And look – there’s Jackie. There, reassuringly, is the Campbell’s soup can. In fact, there it is again – and again. It’s barely even a shock to see the late Andy Warhol himself, holding a small crowd in the angle of the staircase and sporting that unmistakable silver wig. Those who cluster round are careful to betray no sign of excitement, engagement or curiosity. Could this impersonator be the renowned Alan Midgette, who in 1967 ‘stood in’ for Andy at the University of Utah, of all places, and had the students demanding their thousand-dollar fee back? Warhol’s hope had been, ‘Maybe they’ll like him better than me,’ but surely there was some faint private relief on his part that this particular con didn’t work.

It’s a warm evening and MOMA has thrown open her garden. No sweet scent of the exotic cheroot taints the air; there are scarcely even any smokers and no one seems to be employing the men’s room either to take on fuel or to make a brisk exchange of spermatozoa. It was in MOMA’s hitherto demure garden in March I960 that the Swiss ‘happening’ artist Jean Tinguely exposed his Homage to New York. The exhibit consisted of a vast Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg device, fashioned from old bike parts, player-pianos, fans, balloons and other detritus. In the presence of Governor Nelson Rockefeller and many other big bananas, Tinguely threw a switch and set the heap on course to clanging, twanging self-destruction. All three networks solemnly recorded the event, which for many people inaugurated the period of ‘non-judgmental’ art criticism. Marcel Duchamp, Warhol’s original Pop guru, commented approvingly that there was merit in the movement to ‘destroy art before it’s too late’. Warhol’s biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles[1] remarks elsewhere that his subject’s Pop creations ‘were more Duchampian than anybody’s. If a machine could have created silkscreen paintings of coke bottles, soup cans and dollar bills, Andy would have paid its inventor to set the thing up in his studio.’ But, back where we started 29 years ago in MOMA’s garden, art seems lifeless but by no means dead. On the contrary, it is revered, fetishised, taxonomised – and valued on a scale that Nelson Rockefeller would have gruffly appreciated.

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[1] Loner at the Ball: The Life of Andy Warhol by Fred Lawrence Guiles (Bantam, 402 pp., £16.95, 12 October, 0 593 01540 1).

[2] The Andy Warhol Diaries, edited by Pat Hackett (Simon and Schuster, 807 pp., £17.95, 19 June, 0 671 69697 1).

[3] Famous for Fifteen Minutes: My Years With Andy Warhol by Ultra Violet (Methuen, 274 pp., £12.99, 25 May, 0 413 61530 8).