Blake Gopnik’s Warhol

The Daily — May 4, 2020
Andy Warhol in 1968

In 2006, David Cronenberg curated an exhibition of work by Andy Warhol for the Art Gallery of Ontario. During a Q&A, he told a story about Jonas Mekas persuading Stan Brakhage to watch Warhol’s films. Brakhage watched them—and hated them. When Mekas asked if he’d watched them projected at twenty-four frames per second, Brakhage said that he had. Mekas insisted that he go back and rewatch them at sixteen frames per second. “Being the hardcore guy that he was,” said Cronenberg, “he went back, and he sat there for, you know, twenty hours, came out, he said: ‘He’s a genius.’ True story.”

Warhol was active as a filmmaker for only about five years, from 1963, when he filmed his lover, the poet John Giorno, sleeping—Sleep runs nearly six hours—through hundreds of Screen Tests and his one true underground hit, the split-screen Chelsea Girls (1966), to 1968, the year that he was shot by the radical feminist writer Valerie Solanas. “I’d hesitate to call Warhol the most important American filmmaker of the twentieth century—‘media artist’ might make more sense—but he is certainly the one with the most philosophical resonance,” wrote J. Hoberman in the London Review of Books in 2006. “Marginal though Warhol’s film production may have been, he occupies a central place in motion picture discourse. It’s impossible to consider practitioners of cinéma vérité like Frederick Wiseman or provocateurs like Lars von Trier, the entirety of home video, porn, surveillance, webcams and reality TV, or the nature of camera-induced celebrity, without reference to Warhol’s work.”

“Marginal” pretty well describes the way reviews of Blake Gopnick’s new biography, Warhol, have treated the films. That’s somewhat understandable, given the impact of 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), all the Marilyns and Maos, the Brillo Boxes and Silver Clouds, the adoption of the Velvet Underground, the Polaroids, the nightclubbing at Max’s Kansas City and Studio 54, the launch of Interview magazine, the “Business Art,” the on-and-off flirtation with television that led to a cameo on The Love Boat, and the absurdity of his death in 1987 at the age of fifty-eight while recovering from gallbladder surgery. All this is ground well covered, of course, in biographies both long (Victor Bockris’s, for example) and short (Wayne Koestenbaum’s), in the personal reckonings (Bob Colacello’s Holy Terror) and critical studies (such as Arthur C. Danto’s).

What sets Gopnick’s book apart, the reviewers are telling us, is the fresh research—Gopnik claims to have pored over roughly 100,000 documents and to have interviewed more than 260 friends and lovers, acquaintances and collaborators—and the sheer comprehensiveness. “Even at 976 pages, the book rarely leaves you wanting less,” writes Stephen Metcalf in the Los Angeles Times. The endnotes, by the way, are only available online and run well over 700 pages. “It turns out this life, so often discussed in grandiose or mythic terms,” writes Metcalf, “is quite intricate, even beautiful, in extreme close-up.”

Warhol, “born into poverty in Pittsburgh in 1928,” writes FT at 4Columns, “had a work ethic driven both by an obsession with money and by a deep need for artistic acclaim. The through line of Gopnik’s book is Warhol’s constant, brilliant, and often ridiculous effort to satisfy these hungers.” FT adds that “to anyone interested in the material and financial history of the art world, or in the sausage-making details of the postwar art school–to-gallery pipeline, Warhol will be invaluable.”

So far, the least positive review of Warhol has appeared in the New York Times, and it comes from Luc Sante, who finds that “Gopnik gives the reader all the pertinent facts of Warhol’s life, yet his ever-present lecturer’s whiteboard obscures all but the occasional fugitive glimpse of Warhol’s soul.” But that soul would be out of reach to anyone, and that’s at least half the point of the work, argues the Telegraph’s Mick Brown. “Gopnik’s rollicking book is a formidable achievement,” he writes, “but for all its dense accumulation of detail, scholarship and unabashed gossip, Warhol remains, as he doubtless would have wished, essentially, brilliantly, unknowable.”

Reviewers especially appreciate Gopnik’s emphasis on Warhol’s intelligence and the fact that what FT calls “his oh-uh-isn’t it fabulous? persona” was just that, a put-on, as well as Gopnik’s illumination of gay life in the New York of the 1950s and ’60s. “I have no doubt in my mind at all that understanding [his] formation as a gay man is essential to understanding almost everything he did,” Gopnik tells Alex Greenberger in ARTnews. Greenberger’s interview has us circling back to the films. “One person slammed the door in my face,” says Gopnik. “Warhol’s collaborator in film, Paul Morrissey, screamed at me so loudly on the telephone that I actually had to end up putting down the receiver.”

Morrissey directed the films that were made after the shooting—Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Heat (1972), for example, all starring Joe Dallesandro—and were then stamped “Andy Warhol Presents.” In an excerpt from the book at ARTnews, Gopnik points out that Warhol “knew that the late movies became true ‘Warhols’—that’s how they were almost always described in the press—only as instances of his new Business Art, which meant that his CEO persona gave him yet another chance to play with normal notions of authorship, and to undermine them. All this drove Morrissey just about mad, since he felt he was the only real ‘author’ of the movies he directed and could never understand the more complex, avant-garde games Warhol was playing in accepting a role as a new kind of corporate creator.”

Andy Warhol “appeals in a very, very direct way to people who know absolutely nothing about art,” Gopnik tells Conor Williams in Interview. “And yet people who know a vast amount about art can spend hundreds and hundreds of pages digging into him. I think he’s one of the hardest artists to pin down. I’ve spent seven years trying to do it, and I can’t say that I’ve done it at all.”

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