Many Andies

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Shoes, Shoes, Shoes by Andy Warhol
    Bulfinch Press, 35 pp, $10.95, May 1997, ISBN 0 8212 2319 4
  • Style, Style, Style by Andy Warhol
    Bulfinch Press, 30 pp, $10.95, May 1997, ISBN 0 8212 2320 8
  • Who is Andy Warhol? edited by Colin MacCabe, Mark Francis and Peter Wollen
    BFI, 162 pp, £40.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 85170 588 X
  • All Tomorrow’s Parties: Billy Name’s Photographs of Andy Warhol’s Factory by Billy Name
    frieze, 144 pp, £19.95, April 1997, ISBN 0 9527414 1 5
  • The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night by Anthony Haden-Guest
    Morrow, 404 pp, $25.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 688 14151 X

All his life Andy Warhol looked like death. He came into the world that way: blank, rheumy-eyed, sick as the day was long. An unmerry child with St Vitus’ Dance, the young Warhol lay twitching in his bed under a blanket of fan magazines, the source of all his imaginary friendships – with Errol Flynn and Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper and Gary Cooper – and the only thing he craved in those Pittsburgh days was the chance to be as lovable as Shirley Temple. The adult Warhol looked as much like death and lived as much by desire. A mobile presentation of 20th-century estrangement. A man in a wig in a season in hell. ‘A sphinx without a secret,’ said Truman Capote; ‘the Ecce Homo of modern exhibitionism,’ said Stephen Spender. For his own part, Warhol was intensely reasonable: ‘I just want to be a machine,’ he said.

There were many Andies: the Andy who brought cruelty back into art; the Andy who worried about ‘boy trouble’; the Andy who saw to the heart of advertising, and who fashioned the media that fashioned him; the Andy who knew how to use the delinquent energies of those around him, but who was scared of getting close to folk in case they got ill; the Andy who was bored like an old stuffed aunt; the Andy who went to Mass at St Patrick’s every Sunday; the Andy who made new things fabulous and fashionable and more interesting than they were; the Andy who sucked up to Imelda Marcos and took tea with the Shah of Iran; the Andy who knew how the Bomb had maimed us, how television had made us, how money was everything, and everything was glorious. Warhol became a virtual-reality show starring himself: Andrew Warhola playing ‘Andy’ better than Norma Jean Baker ever played ‘Marilyn’. In 1968, while Soviet tanks prepared to roll into the Czechoslovakia of Andy’s origins, Warhol was writhing in agony on the floor of his New York studio, shot by Valerie Solanas, a funny woman who had appeared in one of his movies. By that time Warhol had come to represent what Don DeLillo has called ‘the revenge of popular culture on those who take it too seriously’.

Warhol outlined a new sort of wanting. America is there in his paintings, and the things people wanted – a Coke, a perfection, a quick end – are documented in a manner which suggests both the campness and the terror of mass production. For all his dazzling befuddlement, Warhol had a clear notion of what was happening in his time on that continent of big wishes, and he made stuff out of it – pictures and movies and boxes and versions of himself – that will always say something of what it was like to be alive in those specimen days, those bright-eyed years running to madness after the war. His weird albino mentality stands behind the notions we have today about the value of disposable objects, and the meaningfulness of celebrity, and it is Warhol’s signature that sits on the lips of that ironic smirker, the contemporary Artist-Personality, with his vast narcissism, his love of being cool, his pose of knowing nothing you couldn’t know yourself if only you weren’t so knowing. Warhol’s thinking is everywhere now: his rinky-dink voice is trapped in the general formaldehyde.

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