Andy Warhol looks a scream, hang him on your wall ...
Why did he fall from grace close to the end of his life?
It is a weekday in the mid-1980s at Limelight nightclub on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, shortly before midnight. The 12-inch remix of Big in Japan is filtering to every stained-glass nook and cranny of the deconsecrated church, and the dance floor is full. There are the usual monied bridge-and-tunnel types in Armani who have to pay for their own drinks, and the proto-club kids wearing Gaultier and the hot labels from Bartsch boutique. Andy Warhol, in black cashmere Halston polo neck and white shock wig, is navigating his way down a staircase. The crowds above and below start to sway, push and jeer – gently at first, then aggressively, accompanied by coke-fuelled playground insults. Everyone, it seems, has it in for Andy, apart from his entourage, who bundle him back into the VIP room. Although incidents like that weren’t common, Warhol’s reputation at the end of his life is nevertheless at odds with his legacy. The artist, who died in 1987 aged 58, with an estate valued at $220m, pioneered a new kind of US art and changed the market for ever.
Born in Pittsburgh to Slovakian émigrés, he channelled his talent as a commercial illustrator into a career as the most successful pop artist of the 20th century, churning out work machine-like, incorporating painting, silkscreens, avant-garde cinema, publishing and celebrity portraiture.
While Warhol refused almost all licencing while alive, he’s now on wallpaper, teapots and half of Raf Simons’s output for Calvin Klein. A major exhibition, From A to B and Back Again, opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York this month, and a new biography by Blake Gopnik is in the works. For 30 years, the hunger for all things Warhol has been insatiable – but in the 1980s he could barely get arrested. “The critical attention on his work was incredibly harsh,” says Eric Shiner, former director of The Andy Warhol Museum. “That’s why the museum opened in Pittsburgh after he died – no institution in New York was interested.”
The most eminent art critic of Warhol’s generation was Robert Hughes, who never tired of baiting him. Writing in The New York Review of Books in 1982, he described the artist as “an abnormal figure – silent, withdrawn, eminently visible but opaque, and a bit malevolent – who praises banality … Voyeur-in-chief to the marginal and then the rich … Unloved by the world at large; that weird, remote guy in the wig.”
It was one of Hughes’s milder critical assaults. Donna de Salvo, who curated the new Whitney show, believes Warhol was seen as a sellout for blurring art and commerce. But she believes it was a deliberate tactic. “Did he lead the way for Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons?” she asks. “Yes. He challenged the way the artist functions within the culture.”
Warhol’s last significant exhibition during his lifetime was at Anthony d’Offay in London in 1986 – a group of arresting camouflage-pattern self-portraits. The show did well, relatively: two-thirds of it sold. But a canvas price of $35,000 looks risible next to what the same pictures would fetch now. “Doing that show with Andy felt like an obligation,” says d’Offay. “Shortly after I had first met him, he had a show of his Dollar Sign silk screens at Leo Castelli, in 1982. It was universally disliked. Castelli didn’t even show them in his main gallery. People thought the images were dumb.” Today, d’Offay thinks the canvases were prophetic.
“They look as though he knew China and Trump would come to power and Putin would strike fear into the heart of everyone.”
Of course, one could say Warhol forecast huge swathes of modern life, from the bankruptcy of celebrity to Instagram. And the smarter critics always knew it. “It was the high-middlebrow that didn’t like him,” says biographer Blake Gopnik. “He never lost his currency with really interesting thinkers, such as Benjamin HD Buchloh and Jean Baudrillard.”
Much of the animosity towards Warhol was specific to New York. He remained white hot in Europe, but on home turf he was too closely associated with the culture he was mirroring. That final trip to London underscores the contrast: Warhol flew Concorde, stayed at the Ritz and partied at Café Royal. Everyone wanted in.
His opening at d’Offay was thrilling. Dramatically different, then, from the incident at Limelight, which Slaves of New York author Tama Janowitz saw first-hand as part of Warhol’s entourage and recorded in her 2016 autobiography Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction. Talking today from her home in Ithaca, New York, she remembers it as “like Tennessee Williams’s Night of the Iguana. We could feel hostility, an ocean of anger. He was seen as a has-been pop artist by critics, but also despised by a lot of previous friends and acquaintances.”
While Janowitz recalls Warhol’s unpopularity, she herself has nothing but good things to say about him, and believes the work he was making towards the end of his life was some of his best. “He didn’t have a New York gallery to show his Last Supper series,” she recalls, “but they were fabulous.”
With Janowitz that night was Paige Powell, who was closer than anyone to the artist, apart from his lovers. The advertising director at Warhol’s Interview magazine, she was also a documentary photographer of the scene around him. They had even spoken about adopting a child together. “I didn’t think of him as hated by anyone,” says Powell. “New young artists loved him. He was having a renaissance and was really excited by hanging out with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He wanted to make films again, and did a show of stitched-together photographs, which was great. And he was so in love with his magazine.”
Warhol was always for hire – creating graphic art for advertisers in Interview, rarely turning down any financially viable gig. His celebrity portraits were his bread and butter, and democratic in their way. One for $25,000, $40,000 for a pair. “He was bored doing them, but they brought money in,” says Powell.
Downtown gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, who worked with Warhol through much of his career, believes they are significant. “There’s poignancy in the work that he knew was bad. He had to stoop to do those things to keep going. His artistic ambition was at the highest level and gave him the motivation to create the later work – his Shadows paintings from 1978-79 and the Rorschach series in 1984. He was trying to make the greatest art that anyone had ever made.”
Evidence suggests Warhol knew his output was inconsistent. He even started a running joke about it at The Factory. Powell had personally staged an exhibition in her private apartment of work by a then unknown Basquiat (with whom she was romantically involved) and artist-rapper Rammellzee, elevating the experience by ordering gilded invitations from Tiffany. She handed Warhol one while he was pedalling on his exercise bike at the office.
He studied it and said, without slowing: “Paige, if you leave me and Interview, you won’t get to curate The Worst of Warhol.” She says: “He was going to give me all the stuff he didn’t like – outtakes of films, the really sexual photographs of boys, all the bad paintings he never wanted to show. But he died before we could do it.”
When Warhol died of complications from gall bladder surgery in 1987, there was an almost overnight revision of his reputation.
A year later, Sotheby’s sold a large percentage of his personal effects – including his collection of cookie jars – for $25m, a world record for such a sale, which went to The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. That auction turned his reputation around. Everyone wanted a piece of him and, in 1989, Warhol finally got the Museum of Modern Art retrospective he had craved. “It was shameful they hadn’t given him a show,” says Powell. “I boycotted the museum for years. And when I went to that retrospective, everyone there felt it should have happened when he was alive. It made me sad and angry.”
Some of Warhol’s surviving inner circle believe he still hasn’t received the credit he deserves, particularly for his later work. Earlier this year, one of Warhol’s 1978 Oxidation Paintings series, created by the artist and assistants urinating on chemically treated canvases, sold for $3,375,000 at Sotheby’s in New York. Shiner was delighted. “The Baltimore Museum of Art decided to sell works of white male artists in order to buy works by women and artists of colour. What’s more phenomenal than that?”
Deitch, conversely, believes the sale is a scandal. “The establishment doesn’t fully appreciate those works,” he says. “I was very surprised to see the museum officially remove that painting. It’s shocking. The work Warhol was creating in the last stage of his career, while engaging with Basquiat, Haring, [Julian] Schnabel and [Francesco] Clemente – all of whom saw him as their most important inspiration – found him exploring new approaches to abstraction. The Rorschach, Oxidation, Camouflage and Shadows paintings are among the most brilliant works he did.”
Despite observing his support and engagement, some critics found the closeness of Warhol to New York’s young artists problematic, particularly his collaboration with Basquiat. Savage reviews of their joint show at Tony Shafrazi’s SoHo gallery in 1985 caused a permanent rift between Warhol and Basquiat. “The art world saw Andy as a vampire bat,” says Vincent Fremont, who was vice-president of Andy Warhol Enterprises. “Basquiat was called a ‘mascot’ in the New York Times review, which was really damaging.”
If Warhol’s hunger for collaboration and innovation was one stick used to beat him, his politics or lack of them was another. For a period, Interview was perceived as something of a perversely Republican citadel. Bob Colacello, who served as editor, described himself to the Toronto Star as “a contrarian”.
“If you function and live in the New York art and media world,” he told a reporter, “being a Republican is, like, more shocking than, I don’t know, being married to your aunt or uncle.” It was Colacello who put Nancy Reagan on the cover of Interview in December 1981, and Reagan’s daughter-in-law Doria worked for the magazine for a while.
Most, however, saw Warhol as placidly pro-Democrat. “He was significantly on the left in his personal politics,” says Gopnik. “Gay activists weren’t hugely fond of him, but he still stood as the first notably out gay figure in the art world. He was always contributing to an Aids fundraiser of some kind.”
While Donna de Salvo was planning this retrospective, she spent hours moving miniature versions of Warhol’s work around the walls of a model of the Whitney on her desk, including rarely seen monochrome pieces based on photocopied flyers that local characters were handing out on the subway (“Repent and Sin No More!”) and several of the 472 differently coloured sunsets he did for the bedrooms of a Philip Johnson-designed hotel in Minneapolis. On the next table was a maquette of the summer’s David Wojnarowicz show.
The juxtaposition was profound: two gay artists, both working in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s in the midst of the Aids crisis, but creating work that couldn’t be more different. Wojnarowicz – who lived in a hovel in the East Village – was all sex and fury, while Warhol was luxury and celebrity. Any association with the Reagan administration, which had done nothing to fight the devastation of Aids, was of course toxic. D’Offay’s suggestion that Warhol predicted the 21st-century political landscape is intriguing.
In a way, Warhol and Donald Trump worked to a similar business model. They both developed brands based around wealth and the individual in the same city and decade. Unsurprisingly, their paths crossed repeatedly. Warhol and Trump first met at a party for Roy Cohn (the shark-like lawyer who appears as a nefarious closeted homophobic Republican with Aids in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America). Marc Balet, who was art director at Interview for the last 10 years of Warhol’s life, was employed by Trump in 1981 to work on a “magalogue” to promote his recently completed priapic skyscraper on Fifth Avenue. After a discussion between Trump and Balet, it was agreed that Warhol would create a series of silk screens of the new building to go on display in the residential lobbies.
“Trump thought it would be groovy, and it was,” says Balet. “But the moron doing the interior design said they weren’t up to the Trump standards. Can you imagine what standards those might be? So that was it. And Andy was furious … he did work and didn’t get paid.” It’s amusing to note Trump’s monumental failure to see the work as an investment and buy it regardless. The art of the deal, indeed. But fortunes and reputations, as the world has seen, can change. One wonders what a 90-year-old Warhol would be doing today. Who knows, he might have become president.
- © The Daily Telegraph