The result is Warhol (Ecco) a grand, magisterial look at the life of an artist who desperately longed for success and fame.
“The one thing that drove him more than anything else — and this is a theme in the book and I’m completely committed to it as an idea — was emotionally being the most interesting, exciting artist he could possibly be,” says Gopnik, a New York Times contributor who was formerly an art critic at the Washington Post and Newsweek. “Having said that, if he could make money being the most interesting, exciting artist, he didn’t mind that. He especially liked being famous as the most interesting, exciting artist that anyone had ever heard of.”
Born Andrew Warhola in 1928 on Orr Street, Warhol’s early interest in art was sharpened at Carnegie Tech (now CMU). The archives at CMU (and the Warhol Museum) gave Gopnik a sense that came “close to revisiting what was going on,” he says.
Gopnik also learned that the connections Warhol made at Carnegie Tech, classmates and professors including George Klauber, Philip Pearlstein, Dorothy Cantor, and Ethel and Leonard Kessler, helped Warhol tremendously.
“They were all in the right place at the right time,” Gopnik says. “Carnegie Tech was a particularly good place to study art. There was a little coterie of young professors — several of them gay, as a matter of fact — who were very interested in the avant-garde and encouraged students to be interested in the avant-garde.”
When Warhol moved to New York City after college, he worked tirelessly to find illustration work. One of his first jobs was drawing shoes for Glamour magazine. Warhol’s first pass at the assignment failed, but he promised art director Tina Fredericks that he’d get it right the second time. Fredericks is quoted as saying, “He returned the next morning with flawless renderings.”
Warhol became a sought-after illustrator who could meet his employers’ demands. But “the secret to his success in fine art is the opposite,” Gopnik says. “It’s figuring out what people don’t want and supplying it to them. Figuring out what you’re not supposed to do in art, that’s the definition of the avant-garde. It’s finding something new and radical to say that will piss people off. So he kind of flips his model circa 1960 when he goes from being a commercial illustrator to being a fine artist.”
Warhol’s sexuality is also explored throughout the biography. Far from being a frail artist — Andy actually was a weightlifter and a member of different gyms in New York — Gopnik makes the point that Warhol was not the asexual being he’s often portrayed to be. The author cites numerous interviews about Warhol’s willingness to engage in sex, as opposed to the timeworn view that he was merely an observer.
Going to New York was not only a way to advance his art career, but also one of the few places where Warhol could embrace his sexuality.
“There were no opportunities for someone who wanted to be out and gay [in Pittsburgh],” Gopnik says. “It was phenomenally dangerous. Those were certainly reasons why he chose to move. But he didn’t reject Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was central to who he became.”