In 1983 I was sent to New York to interview Johnny Rotten and I took the opportunity to call on Andy Warhol. The Factory was in the phonebook; and the receptionist, Brigid Berlin, said that Andy was in Milan but would be back the following afternoon. ‘You better give him half an hour. Why don’t you come over at 2.30 p.m.?’ So I did.
I’d never been part of that New York scene, but wanted to meet someone who had helped me develop my own freedoms almost 20 years earlier. According to Blake Gopnik’s book, I should have found a studio that was triple-locked, with an anxious artist hiding inside. But it wasn’t remotely like that. I just rang up, turned up and started talking to Warhol, and grasped immediately the key to his greatness — an alert but gentle largeness of soul which freed up everything around him: all was work, all was art, yet all was artlessness. He was the only person I met in New York who was completely natural and not pushing an angle.
Warhol was the first truly American artist, the first who didn’t need validation from Europe, the first of consumerism, the media and technology. He revolutionised subject matter, technique, colour, photography. He also invented slow cinema, happenings, installations; pulled rock music into the avant garde via the Velvet Underground and created modern lifestyle journalism with Interview magazine. He made being straight and sober a bore from which it never recovered. He recorded everything and kept everything. He died before the digital age, but he’d already sussed its behaviour. We all live in Andy’s world now.
Gopnik’s long biography is much needed — and it’s not long enough. The text is quite a roller-coaster, as the author attempts to resolve what he sees as the artist’s contradictions, something which Warhol himself never bothered about. At his revolutionary height in the 1960s, when he ruptured art and society through the astonishing liberties taken by his paintings, films and superstars at the Silver Factory, Warhol went home at night to be looked after by his mother. Gopnik sees this as an example of Warhol’s irony, but that is wrong. It’s not his irony, it’s ours.
Among Gopnik’s sources too there are numerous conflicting views on Warhol’s character: he was cold, he was kind, he was bad at sex, good at sex, witty, dumb, knowing, naive. Many sources are quoted directly at length without being identified by name, only by phrases such as ‘said one art-critic friend’ or ‘an upper-crust British architect’ or ‘a hot-shot young writer’ or ‘one posh collector’. This is unforgivable, and casts a shadow over the whole enterprise.
It seems that Gopnik never met Warhol. His task might have been easier if he had. He would have ‘got it’ at once and experienced Warhol whole. Instead of viewing these contradictions as varieties of moral failure, he would have understood that they were precipitated by Warhol’s straight-forwardness. Only a less courageous, more considered person could be consistent. Like all great originals, Warhol did not need permission to act. He could be dishonest but never deceitful.
Gopnik doesn’t love Warhol. He always seems to be giving him marks out of ten, one minute comparing him with Picasso or Leonardo (fine by me), the next putting him down. For example, he presents him as fey and indecisive about religion; but I asked Warhol outright: ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘Yeah, I do.’ ‘Do you believe in life after death?’ ‘In an abstract way.’ Very clear answers. Gopnik makes much of the ‘camp’ in Warhol; but for me, camp does not characterise his art at all, which was, in the first instance, bewildering and shocking: he was the greatest taboo-breaker of the 20th century. And where Gopnik sees detachment or ruthlessness, I see generosity: Warhol gave many people the space (and money) to explore themselves.
Gopnik’s task has been enormous and, despite my reservations, all this hard work is immensely valuable. But the result cannot be definitive. I missed, for instance, Andy’s remark: ‘Once you stop wanting something, you get it’; and any mention of that sombre Sunday at home in the 1980s when the impossible happened — Andy’s phone didn’t once ring. People today forget that by 1983 Warhol was unfashionable. When I wrote up my meeting at the Factory, nobody in London wanted the piece. It was only published after his death four years later, when interest in him started to revive.
Looking again at Warhol’s pictures, I notice that works which once seemed so explosive now strike me as creations of classical self-possession and elegance. What an amazing man.
Andy Warhol, a major retrospective at Tate Modern, will run from 12 March to 6 September.