Interview with Blake Gopnik

Author of Warhol

By Philip Auslander

Philip Auslander: What led you to decide that Warhol is a good subject for a full-scale biography at this time?

 

Blake Gopnik: It was pretty clear that a really comprehensive, documentary biography of Warhol was needed, since the major biographies that exist were all written at speed shortly after he died. And this was the moment to make the attempt, since a good number of his records at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh had been inventoried for the first time, so were more readily available, in an organized way, than ever before. (Though I didn’t know it at the time, there were also endless boxes of documents and objects that had yet to be organized, or inventoried, and those yielded some wonderful surprises.) Given the sheer number of documents that survived about Warhol, both in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, there was clearly a chance to do a really authoritative biography of this artist who clearly deserved one. This may also have been the first moment when a rebalancing of interest between early and late work would have met with a decent reception. Until recently, our image of Warhol as a Pop Artist, and not much else, was too firmly lodged in the popular imagination, and even in the scholarship.

Photo: Lucy Hogg

PA: I saw the archives at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and was amazed at their breadth and depth. I can easily imagine there are wonderful surprises to be found there. Please tell me about one such thing you discovered in the uncatalogued materials you were able to access.

 

BG: I was especially pleased to discover Warhol’s college textbooks. His art-history text, called The Arts and Man, gave him an astonishingly broad and interesting introduction to Western art and culture. The book included some idiosyncratic views on the relationship between high and low culture that seem to come into play in Warhol’s Pop Art.

 

But I have to admit that my very favorite moment came when, on a hunch, I got the then-archivist, Erin Byrne, to join me in having a pile of Warhol’s surviving sunglasses tested by a local optometrist: It turns out they all had very strong prescription lenses, meaning that their constant cool-cat presence on Warhol’s face was a way of camouflaging the fact that he needed glasses just to see. No wonder he was never in public without them, even late at night in the dark.

Photo © 1965 Lawrence Fried and © 2017 Patricia Fried and Lauren Wendle

painting courtesy Vaughn Silk Screen Factory

PA: My sense is that part of this book’s project is to challenge some of the myths and critical commonplaces concerning Warhol. Is this the case? If so, what would be some of the myths or commonplaces you find to be most egregious or distorted?

 

BG: The most important myth that I attack — although perhaps too subtly — is the idea that Warhol was a product, aficionado and purveyor of popular culture. Instead, I try to bill him as a sophisticated modern artist who happened to use popular culture as an art supply within the  complex Duchampian gambit of his Pop Art. That is, he was coming at pop culture from the heights of high art; he was in no way dissolving the boundaries between high and low. Some more straightforward myths that I was keen on demolishing have portrayed him as asexual (he was in fact plenty flesh-obsessed), as cruel and cheap (there’s lots of evidence for his kindness and generosity) and as a devout Catholic (his Catholicism was of the “Byzantine” strain, and therefore peculiar from the start, and his devotion was haphazard, occasional and entirely unorthodox.)

Photo by Steve Balkin

PA: You discuss the evolution of Warhol’s persona throughout the book, which I find fascinating. How would you describe Warhol’s persona and its utility to him? What is its relationship to his artwork: is the persona a work of art in itself, or was it primarily something that enabled him to make and disseminate artwork? I notice that the title of an interview you did for ArtNews promises that you reveal Warhol’s “true persona” in the book. Do you feel that there was an identifiable “true persona” behind all of Warhol’s self-presentations?

 

BG: It is a postmodern platitude, and truism, to insist that all selves are in fact constructed. But Warhol’s public persona was so different from the one he presented to friends — as in the phone calls I’ve listened to — that it makes particular sense to describe that public persona as a work of art, a “social sculpture” in the language of Joseph Beuys. In my book, I try to emphasize how many different public personas Warhol created over the course of his life, as he found himself in very different social settings. But I also emphasize that the classic

“Pop” Warhol, in leather jacket and shades, actually arrives in 1965, a year or two after he’s made all his most important Pop Art. As we’ve tended to forget, a desire to collapse art into life was becoming the standard avant-garde position in the mid-1960s, so the collapse achieved by Warhol, though more successful than most, kept him well within the bounds of fine art. I sometimes like to refer to my Warhol biography as a non-fiction book about a fictional creature named “Andy Warhol.” Tracking the creation of that fictional creature (or “creatures,”

I should say) mattered as much to me as getting to some “true” Warhol that lay beneath them — because the fiction, in this case, is more interesting than the truth, and more important to our current culture.

Duane Michals, Andy Warhol (c. 1974). Courtesy Duane Michals and DC Moore Gallery, New York, © 2018 Duane Michals.

PA: You argue that Warhol was as important as a film maker as he was as a visual artist. He also extended his work into other forms as well, including writing and publishing (Interview), music (through the Velvet Underground), theater (Pork), performance (The Exploding Plastic Inevitable) and perhaps others as well. How do you account for his engagement with all of these different forms? Do the works and events of these kinds in which he had a hand reflect his esthetic and sensibility, or was he primarily an impresario?

 

BG: One of the strange things about working on Warhol is the gulf that exists between the views of professional art historians and the views of the non-art public (including most professional book critics!). I can’t imagine any art historian who wouldn’t see Warhol’s films as absolutely central to his artistic achievement; it wouldn’t be absurd to give them top billing in his career. And yet the public (including book critics!) sees the films as bizarre and eccentric offshoots of a career whose real achievement ends with the Pop Art silkscreens. 

 

By the mid-1960s, artists were questioning any medium-specific practice, so once again Warhol’s vastly expanded definition of art, allowing it to include almost anything produced or organized by an artist, simply put him in the forefront of a well-established trend. By the 1970s, Warhol spent a good deal of his time as an impresario, which is precisely what makes him count as such a compelling artist. You could say that he constructed an “impresarial” esthetic that was as important as the esthetics that governed his Campbell Soups and Marilyns.

Karen Bystedt, Andy Warhol. Reproduced with the kind permission of Karen Bystedt

PA: I’d like to follow up on both things you’ve said here. As a thought experiment, what would happen if one were to think of Warhol primarily as a film maker? How would that alter our perspective on his work as a (Pop) artist?

 

BG: No need for a thought experiment: A large number of Warhol fans in the film world already view him as a great experimental filmmaker who once made Pop paintings, not as a Pop painter who happens to have made some films — and that was already a standard view in the 1960s. I think it’s important to recognize that all of Warhol’s most important work as a Pop artist got done in the space of two or three years before he had officially, and polemically, left painting behind for film. I think it’s a mistake to force comparisons between the two bodies of work; Warhol was always keen on moving into truly new territory. The classically Modernist aim to always “make it new” was the driving force behind Warhol’s career as a proto-Postmodern.

Andy in Studio—New York, Union Square 1976-Photograph by Michael Childers

PA: Am I wrong in thinking that in some ways Warhol’s films are among his most personal works? In the book, you talk about the ways the early films, especially, reflect his preoccupations, his sexuality, and directly feature his lovers, friends, and the other people around him in ways that his paintings and prints do not.

 

BG: Certainly his films, by virtue of being “underground” in a way his Pop paintings never were – those got public exposure almost at once – allowed him to explore personal issues in a more direct way. Warhol had tried to address gay sex and love in the drawings he showed in several solo exhibitions in the 1950s, none of which met with a decent reception. After a few years of making and showing Pop Art, where gay themes were deeply submerged (although distinctly present, for those in the know) Warhol’s move to film, with its insider audience, allowed him to explore his emotional and sexual realities, in movies such as Sleep (5.5 hours of his lover John Giorno in the buff) and the accurately titled Blow Job. Maybe the most touching of all his film projects, which I don’t think has ever been shown in its entirety, was meant to consist of daily footage of his live-in-lover Philip Fagan, getting older day by day over the course of six months. Unfortunately, their relationship ended before the six months were up. One title for the piece was Aging. Another was Philip Dying.

Andy in New York Studio, 1976. Photograph by Michael Childers

PA: I love the idea of an “impresarial esthetic,” which is reminiscent of the idea that film producers can be auteurs. How would you define Warhol’s impressarial esthetic, since at least some of the things he put his name on do not partake of the “ambiguity and observational poise” that you say defines his own esthetic?

 

BG: Warhol’s function as an impresario was most closely tied to the practice he called Business Art, whereby he declared his activities as a (mostly unsuccessful) purveyor of market goods to be his central activity as an artist. While the movies that he produced (rather than directed) in the 1970s have few of the trademark ambiguities of his art, his work as a Business Artist has all of them. The late movies themselves are merely the art supplies he used to make Business Art; in themselves, they are no more “Warholian” than the paints he used to make his Campbell Soups. But then, they don’t need to be.  

 

Jerry Schatzberg, Andy Warhol, Studio Portrait (1966). © Jerry Schatzberg, 1966

PA: I like that the book’s conclusion (or Postlude) is a series of bullet points rather than a narrative about Warhol’s legacy. If you could choose  one thing, what do you consider his single most important or durable legacy to be?

 

BG: I think Warhol’s most important legacy is the state of doubt he left us in about the very practice of art. Is Damien Hirst a sold-out con-man or a social critic? Is Jeff Koons a naive madman or brilliantly savvy? Those questions were born with Warhol’s first show of his Campbell Soups, in Los Angeles in 1962, and we are still asking them — about Warhol and all his descendants. Is there any postwar artist who still manages to get people as riled up as Warhol does? When I ended the Postlude to my book with the tentative suggestion  that Warhol might be set to surpass Picasso in fame and influence, I assumed that I was at risk of expressing a truism. (It was something like 4 a.m. when I wrote the line, so I was too tired to self-edit with rigor.) And yet it turns out that this was the most contentious claim in my entire book, bringing Warhol-haters out of woodwork the world over. How many haters could Picasso still manage to rouse?

Blake Gopnik, one of North America’s leading arts writers, has served as art and design critic at Newsweek, and as chief art critic at the Washington Post and Canada’s Globe and Mail. In 2017, he was a Cullman Center Fellow in residence at the New York Public Library, and in 2015 he held a fellowship at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at City University of New York. He has a PhD in art history from Oxford University and is a regular contributor to the New York Times.

Warhol was published by HarperCollins; For more information click here.

Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section. His seventh book, Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation came out in 2018 and In Concert: Performing Musical Performance will be out in 2021, both from the University of Michigan Press.