Andy Warhol (1928–1987) is a bigger star in death than he was in life. His paintings sell for sums he could have only dreamt of, and his images are licensed and reproduced all over the globe. His ascension to the pantheon of genius reveals that Warhol knew America better than we know ourselves.
Warhol transformed pop culture into high art, subverting both in the process. He took Walter Benjamin’s essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to its logical conclusion, making art out of the very act of repetition itself. In doing so, he planted the seeds for everything from celebrity worship, reality TV, personal branding, and meme culture.
Warhol set himself apart with his trademark silver wig and classic uniform—a white Brooks Brothers oxford cloth button-down, unwashed navy Levis, and a black leather Perfecto jacket—and assumed the position of an oracle. In public, he was a man of few words, saving it all for the spectacle he would unleash in his art, photography, films, books, magazines, record covers, and happenings.
“Andy is connected with quintessentially American things—he didn’t look towards Europe, and that’s why it feels contemporary,” Christopher Makos, a Warhol friend and collaborator, told VICE. “Whether it’s Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley, Coca-Cola or Campbell’s Soup, Andy always has a built-in PR machine going for him. He doesn’t even have to be around.”
More than three decades after his death at the age of 58, Warhol’s legacy is being celebrated in a major museum exhibition, Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again , the first American retrospective since 1989. Senior Curator Donna De Salvo organized more than 350 of the most influential works that illustrate Warhol’s ability to bridge the paradoxes of American life, like fame and privacy, democracy and elitism, innovation and conformity, and truth and propaganda.
The traveling show, with an accompanying catalogue from Yale University Press, just opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where it’s on view through the end of March, before heading to San Francisco and Chicago in 2019. In anticipation, VICE tracked down a handful of Warhol’s friends and collaborators to find out what Andy Warhol was really like.
Dustin Pittman has been documenting the art, music, fashion, and downtown New York scenes for 50 years. Andy Warhol described Pittman as “one of the most creative photographers in the world.”
“I went to Central Park on a Sunday back in 1969, when everyone used to walk around Bethesda Fountain and dress up peacock style. Ingrid Superstar saw me and brought me down to the Factory. Andy loved me. He invited me to cabaret clubs like Reno Sweeney’s. I started going to Max’s Kansas City with the Superstars every night. People didn’t idolize Andy. You rolled with him, you hung with him, you had dinners—but it wasn’t a big deal.
“When I hung out at the Factory late at night, Andy used to say, ‘Dustin, why don’t you go in the back and take a painting?’ But here’s the thing, the paintings were only worth between $100 and $300 dollars. Andy wanted to pay the Superstars in paintings but they all wanted the money.
“In 1972, Taylor Meade did a movie called Lonesome Cowboy with Eric Emerson and he agreed to take the paintings. Andy gave him four signed silkscreens of Mick Jagger. I was walking down Sixth Avenue in the Village and he was walking toward me, waving a $100 bill. He told me, ‘I just sold my four Jaggers to the Postermat. Let’s go to the Ninth Circle for steak and wine. I think we blew that $100 in less than 45 minutes.”
“Andy was a regular guy that we talked to and exchanged ideas with. He was very much like all of us: he saw everything around him to get inspiration. I used to go to the Factory wearing camouflage Army fatigues, and I remember him saying, ‘That would be a great idea for my painting.’ We all were inspired by each other.
He would always appropriate images from newspapers and when he met me, a photographer, he thought, ‘Great, now we can take our own pictures.’ His approach to photography was to ask, ‘What picture should I take?’ He was really insecure about that. That’s why we got him an automatic camera and in the end told him, ‘Just photograph everything.’
It was called the Factory because it was a factory. He had a lot of rent to pay. He loved producing so that he could fund another magazine, book, or film. That’s why there is so much work out there. He was a worker in his own factory.”
“Andy was the one who started the trend of being in a photograph with a celebrity. No one at Studio 54 did that—but Andy loved it! I gave a party for Matt Dillon at the second Studio; later Matt told me he remembered seeing all the photographers lined up and Andy Warhol was one of them. He just blended in and his camera was like his third eye.
“Andy seemed to be floating through space. He had this magical energy and he looked like nobody else. He always came with an entourage that respected him. It was like he was a performance artist with his cast of characters and they truly anointed Studio 54. I don’t think it would have been this pop culture phenomenon had it not been for Andy. He said of Studio 54, ‘It’s a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the dance floor.’”
Matthew Rolston is a photographer and author of Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles. He worked as an editorial photographer for Interview from 1977 to the 1980s, shooting some of the magazine’s most famous cover stories.
“Andy was someone who loved glamour, and so did I. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to the circle around Interview magazine when I was starting out. At the time I intersected with Andy, he had long graduated from a kid collecting stars’ autographed portraits to a man collecting the stars themselves.
“I was invited to a small dinner with Andy when he was visiting LA to do a guest spot on The Love Boat in 1985—a signal moment in which Andy could connect with Hollywood stars of the past. We were at a restaurant on Melrose Avenue; he arrived a little bit late.
“Andy was somewhat secretive in relation to his personal life and interests. Anyway, as he sat down at the table, his Perfecto opened up slightly and revealed the lining of the jacket, which was covered from top to bottom on both sides with vintage diamond broaches—in that brief moment, I glimpsed pieces from jewelers like David Webb, Verdura and Seaman Schepps—almost all extravagant Maltese crosses. This momentary reveal was definitely not meant to be seen, but it gave me a rush of insight into the man.”
Ron Galella is the godfather of the paparazzi, as famous for his scandals as his photographs. The author of 13 books including Warhol by Galella: That’s Great!, Galella will be publishing his memoirs this December in Shooting Stars: The Untold Stories.
“Andy and I had a lot in common because we had the same social disease: we wanted to be out every night to not miss a thing (Laughs). He called me his favorite photographer in The Andy Warhol Diaries. He said I was cast as a monster because of the two trials with Jackie O. and the bad press. He was soft spoken and shy. I think that’s another reason he liked me. He admired my aggression to get the pictures.
“My wife Betty had never been to the Bronx Zoo, so we went one Sunday: June 12, 1983. While we were going through the zoo, we saw an open-air bus with Andy on it! (Laughs) It was a total fluke. When he got off, we shook hands and I photographed him walking. I got a beautiful picture of him with the elephants. He was with his boyfriend, John Gould, and they came up to the zoo by taxi. I offered him a lift to the subway on the Grand Concourse and that’s how he went home.”
Marcia Resnick is a photographer and author of Punks, Poets & Provocateurs: New York City Bad Boys, 1977-1982 and she will be republishing her 1978 book, Re-visions with Edition Patrick Frey next year.
“In 1978, Victor Bockris brought me to the Factory where I noticed that despite the flurry of activity, Andy seemed very obliging to everyone around him. I photographed him there. The next time I saw him was at the dinner that Victor and I arranged for Mick Jagger, William Burroughs, and Andy Warhol at William's place (the Bunker). Before Mick arrived, Andy was chatting with William, mostly about attractive boys. Andy suddenly said, ‘Someone should invent a sandwich with a drink in it.’ He seemed to have a new idea every second!
“That night, I was surprised how paternal Andy was toward me. We were talking about Kenneth Anger during the early 60s, when Andy was making his name as an underground film director. It was about power. Anger thought he was king of the underground film scene, so he cast a bad spell on Andy—and Andy advised me not to go near him. He was expressing a sensitive concern for me.”
“As Andy gets more distant, and people who have never met him are writing about him, it’s developing into an increasingly unrealistic perspective. One of the most important things about Andy’s work, his response to the American Dream, comes out of an enormous amount of suffering from a very hard life as a child and even in his 20s, when he was a commercial artist. There is the veneer of a pop art smile on Warhol’s face, because Warhol created the image.
“If you look at photographs of Andy, a lot of times he looks like a sad child. To understand the depth of his work, we have to understand that it comes out of the Depression and European postwar pain. When he was young his father died, and his mother almost died when he as 13. He was terrified of death and terrified of hospitals because he had seen what they had done to his parents. There’s a great deal of depth in Warhol that he still felt until the end of his life. It was not the kind of pain you could ever completely escape from.”
Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (through March 31, 2019), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (May 15, 2019–September 2, 2019), and the Art Institute of Chicago (October 20, 2019–January 26, 2020).
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.