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The best books on Andy Warhol

recommended by Blake Gopnik

Warhol by Blake Gopnik

Out now

by Blake Gopnik


Andy Warhol's ubiquitous soup cans – and his willingness to play the naïf – eclipse the leading Pop Art figure's depth, as Blake Gopnik reveals in his magisterial new biography. Here, Gopnik discusses five key books that offer crucial insight into Warhol the man.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Warhol by Blake Gopnik

Out now

by Blake Gopnik

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Before we get to the books, tell me: who was Andy Warhol?

I would need a thousand pages to answer that question! (Luckily, that’s what I have in my book.) After spending seven years writing this biography and living with Andy Warhol, as it were, I really did come to think that he is one of the great creative geniuses of our era, or indeed any era.

I started out by being a fan of his work, but over time I became more and more interested in him as a figure. One of the major points in my book is that he’s not at all the kind of holy fool or idiot savant that he still stands as in the popular imagination, and even to a certain extent among art historians. He was a deeply sophisticated thinker about art, as much so as other high calibre thinkers like Donald Judd or Pablo Picasso. Although he wasn’t a propositional thinker – he was an artist not an academic – he was nonetheless a genuine, old-fashioned genius, in the sense that he took on problems and worked his way through them in consistently compelling and innovative ways.

Having combed through more than 100,000 historical records and the extensive biographical record on Warhol, how did you come to settle on this particular list of Andy Warhol books?

The truth is they were the books that I used in thinking about Warhol. It’s as simple as that. It’s an eclectic list, and it may seem an unlikely list, since I could certainly have included several of the brilliant works of secondary art history about Warhol. These however were among the books that gave me deep insight into his life.

My first crack at a PhD, some decades ago, involved 10th century Italian history. For the brief time that I was a medievalist, one of the things that I loved was taking extremely recalcitrant texts and making them ‘speak’.

“Vasari is to a large extent the source of this modernist notion of art as innovation. And that, I think, is the single most important driving force for Andy Warhol”

I worked on hundreds of Latin land contracts from Lombardy in the 10th Century, and the challenge was to make those speak to the condition of people in their era. I felt the same excitement when I came to work on Warhol, once again using primary sources, the more weird and wonderful the better. That act of coming to grips with how you could know about the past is, for me, just tremendously exciting.

Let’s start with Giorgio Vasari. This Renaissance masterwork does indeed seem an unlikely place to begin a discussion about Pop Art’s most famous practitioner. We featured Vasari’s Lives of the Artists elsewhere on the site as a kind of precursor to today’s social media, a sort of Facebook for Renaissance Masters. But how does Vasari’s book help us to understand Andy Warhol? 

To begin with, I think it’s impossible to be the biographer of an artist without thinking of Vasari as your crucial precedent. That’s really where the biography of Western artists begins. With Vasari, we begin thinking that artistic biography might matter. As much as we may want to resist the notion that biography is central to understanding art, it seems as though it is just inevitable – the life of the artist is an inevitable element in considering the art itself, as Vasari realised early on.

More importantly, I think that the ideas that Vasari sets forward are vital to Warhol’s own notions about art. The idea, for example, that art progresses from one innovator to the next. Or that the competition between an artist and the Masters who came before him, as well as with the peers around him, is central to what making art is all about.

“He was self-conscious about wanting to be better than artists of the past”

These are notions that for me are absolutely essential to understanding Andy Warhol. When I argue that he’s not an idiot savant or a holy fool, one of the things I stress in my book is that he was very self-conscious—in a classically modernist way—about wanting to move art forward, whatever that might mean. He was self-conscious about wanting to be better than artists of the past, or at least very different from them. Vasari is to a large extent the source of this modernist notion of art as innovation. And that, I think, is the single most important driving force for Andy Warhol. The notion of being an innovator is absolutely what drives him again and again to do some of his most wonderful but also some of his very weirdest art.

In your book you also mention Vasari and Rubens too as CEOs of their own art-making factories. Rembrandt oversaw his workshop. Dürer was an early adopter of mechanical reproduction to advance his artistic vision. We might regard Warhol as a kind of latter-day Renaissance Master in charge of an art-making collective.

Warhol was absolutely aware of the notion of the artist with a workshop, and of its precedents. He mentions Michelangelo as a business man in an interview, and would use such notions as a defense against people who complained about him not being a master of “the hand,” as it were. It is unquestionably a tradition that Warhol was aware of being part of, and it mattered to him greatly. He wanted to be one of Vasari’s subjects – to feature in a posthumous volume of The Lives of the Artists, you might say!

Vasari also championed the model of the artist who is engaged in the world as a more or less normal person – as someone who’s interacting with the culture around them, not a freak on the margins of society. Vasari’s picture of art history, and of artists and how they inhabit the world, are all very much part of how I understand Warhol as well.

Another of the books in your selection with grand historical sweep is The Arts and Man by Raymond Stites. How do we get from a venerable tome like this to the radical modernist innovator or postmodernist maverick that is Andy Warhol? 

Well, one of the wonderful things about this textbook is that we know he actually read it. His copy of the book still exists in the Andy Warhol archive. This is one of the things that is surprising about Andy, and that I think is extremely important to understand: Lots of people who knew him well said he was smart in a fairly traditional sense. He may not have been a great academic, but he got lots of A’s in school. One of the things that his college classmates said is that he remembered everything – that he had a mind like a steel trap – even though later, when he adopted his naïve Pop persona, he always pretended to have a lousy memory.

Getting a hold of his textbook and finding things in its pages that seem resonant with who Warhol later becomes, may in fact be because he actually remembered those pages and was influenced by them. This is the textbook he used in art school around the time that he became a star student, so it’s very exciting to have this direct glimpse into where he got some of his first ideas about art.

It spans the entire history of arts, plural, not just visual art. This is a book that had the ambition of describing man’s cultural output across a full range of different media. The Arts and Man is an ambitious work with many grand claims about art as a universal language.

The situation is complicated, since I think many of the overarching arguments in this book work partly as counterpoints to what Andy Warhol was trying to achieve in the 1960s and later. I don’t believe Warhol was ever comfortable with some of the grand claims that this book makes about beauty and the sublime. He was always working against them in a sense. To my mind, he was a consummate modernist and was resistant to just those kind of humanist claims.

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Within the book, however, there are also all sorts of things that seem to resonate directly with his later art and attitudes. Among other things, The Arts and Man is incredibly ambitious, intellectually, for art. It’s impossible to imagine an introductory art history course using a book like this now, introducing students to Nietzsche and Plato as part of their early curriculum. That idea that art should have that kind of intellectual – even philosophical – ambition, I think is important to understanding Warhol’s own art.

There’s something grand, and perhaps even delusional about one individual trying to compress into a single volume an account of the uninterrupted historical development of sculpture, painting, architecture, music, drama … everything under the sun.

But then, this man who’s often caricatured as having been a fool was actually an amazing polymath who worked in almost every artistic discipline and left a lasting legacy across mediums. I do think that this textbook, and the education that it was in aid of at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, really did introduce Warhol in very important ways to the concept that an artist could be much more than just a painter. In fact, Stites specifically talks about this notion of the ‘sister arts’ and how commercial art and fine art can interact.

All these things were to become central to Warhol’s work. His expanded notions of art-making are already there in that textbook from 1940. The book goes so far as to claim that all the other arts of its day are about to find their “most satisfying synthesis in the coloured talking motion picture.” A pretty amazing statement, given that, a quarter century later, Warhol went on to reject “passé” painting for film.

“His famous moves as a businessman of the arts came in the context of someone who had already established himself as a great innovator”

The book may feel antiquated now, but it was quite radical. It actually features a discussion of whether beauty matters in art, which of course is a central problem for Warhol. Or whether form can trump meaning. Weirdly, given its date of publication, it also describes art history as “cultural and social geography.” At moments it feels very much like the New Art History of the 1980s. This is a book that really believes in art as bathing in the cultural and social worlds around it. Which of course was one of Warhol’s great innovations – bringing art back into deep contact with the everyday, after Abstract Expressionism had left that behind. Stites even talks in his book about how art should be closely in touch with popular culture: He’s a proto-Pop Art theorist.

It feels as though Warhol’s own writings – his Diaries perhaps, if not one of the other Andy Warhol books – may deserve a place on the curriculum of present-day art history courses. Let’s speak in more detail about business as art, an idea central to Warhol’s later work and one that we’ve touched on in discussions about the art market elsewhere on the site. It’s easy to see artists like Jeff Koons or Damian Hirst as Warhol’s direct disciples. As you argue in your book, you can’t be accused of ‘selling out’ if the act of selling out is itself a creative statement. 

Of course, you can only get away with that once: Warhol, as the progenitor of the idea, could get away with that better than anyone. It’s much harder for later generations of artists to make it an original gesture. While we can think of the sale of Hirst’s $100m diamond-studded skull as an interesting cultural phenomenon (if only for the artist’s own role in orchestrating its purported market value), art world events like these mostly derive from Warhol’s work, as Hirst himself admits.

Moreover, Warhol did it with more complexity than any of his peers or successors because it was much harder to read exactly what he was up to. And of course his famous moves as a businessman of the arts came in the context of someone who’d already established himself as a straightforwardly great innovator with his earlier Pop Art. So this needs to be understood within the context of his larger practice; his Business Art becomes very complicated and interesting against that backdrop.

You write in Warhol that “…if the avant-garde’s interest in self-creation added prestige to Warhol’s constructed persona, it had deeper roots in who and how he had always been: There was no way to be homosexual in post-war America without self-consciously playing a role because the culture didn’t leave you feeling that there was any natural self you could inhabit.” It’s interesting to reflect on the extent to which Warhol’s act of artistic self-creation was tied up with his homosexuality. The Gay Guides you selected give a candid and fascinating glimpse of gay life in the 1940s and 1950s. 

They were central to me in writing the Warhol biography because they were published at exactly the moment that he was coming of age as a gay man, exploring his homosexuality in an art school that actually had a small circle of out gays. All of the issues that come up in reading these Gay Guides from the 1940s were there in Warhol’s art school days. There’s this beautiful balance in these Gay Guides between an excitement about the possibilities of this particular subculture in American life, and the very real risks involved in pursuing those possibilities.

That balance I believe is central to Warhol’s entire life. To this day being gay isn’t completely straightforward and easy in the United States, but of course in the 1940s, especially in his native Pittsburgh, it was outright dangerous.

“There was probably nowhere worse to be gay in all of North America at the time than Pittsburgh”

I stress this in my book: There was probably nowhere worse to be gay in all of North America at the time than Pittsburgh. The city police had recently created a so-called moral squad whose only goal was to catch and oppress gay men – and they pursued this task very successfully. Almost 1000 gay men were arrested. So the risks of coming out as gay in Pittsburgh just when Warhol did were extraordinary.

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There were also rewards, of course, such as those featured in these Gay Guides. Take for example their list of all the known gay clubs in North America at the time, including a gay club in Pittsburgh called The Horseshoe that we know existed and can assume Warhol frequented. These Gay Guides really give you a most amazing window into what it was like to be gay at the time. The glossary of sexual practices and gay culture alone gives a window into the world which Warhol came out in.

This edition also conveys nicely the impression of handling something like the samizdat of the gay scene pre-Stonewall, originally circulated as mimeographed copies that were passed from hand to hand, and written under a cheeky pseudonym – homonymous with the French word for 69. Fascinating not just for understanding Warhol, but for anybody who is a historian of sexuality or interested in queer theory, these guides give a vivid sense participating in what was then a transgressive culture.

The notion of gay culture as transgressive culture I believe was very important for Warhol’s interest in art as transgressive behaviour – I don’t think the two things can be separated. Warhol had a very strong notion that art that was worth anything should feel deeply transgressive to its audience, and of course that comes straight out of a sense that gay culture was equally transgressive. I think the notion of transgression is maybe the most important element in Warhol’s creativity, and it comes out of those twin poles of gay culture and modernist art.

Stephen Shore’s book The Factory is similarly evocative of its era. It does a great job of conveying the look and feel of the time the Factory was humming, even in the way it is published. This book itself looks like it might have been made in the Factory, all silver foil and scintillating metal sheen. It’s a real pleasure to flip through the images in these pages, with the whole cast of characters that we associate with the Factory. As with your book, however, I found myself feeling as though I was encountering these seemingly familiar people for the first time. There’s a sense of immediacy in these pages that makes it feel very revealing among these Andy Warhol books.

There are a couple things that are special about this book. One is that sense of immediacy, of a snapshot aesthetic, which was to become a hallmark of Shore’s work as one of our great photographers. This I think emerges from this moment in the Factory and indeed out of Warhol’s own practice in recording the world around him. It conveys a sense of direct ostension—I like to use that philosopher’s word, by which I mean simply pointing at things in the world. Shore’s images are about just pointing at life in the Factory rather than trying to aestheticise it, or create a beautiful image in any way. These are not obviously formalist images, and that’s one of Shore’s great innovations, with roots in Warhol. The funny thing about the technique is that it also works to “naturalise” a kind of fiction or myth of the Factory that’s so central to our understanding of Warhol. I think he went out of his way to create a social scene to immerse himself in – but it was still a creation. Seeing the Factory isn’t necessarily to see the real Warhol.

“To a large extent he was an observer of what was going on in the Factory rather than a real protagonist”

Secondly, our vision of Warhol surrounded by these fascinating freaks, although not untrue, historically isn’t really what he was all about. I think to a large extent he was an observer of what was going on in the Factory rather than a real protagonist in it. These people arrived somewhat unbidden in his life: He didn’t send them away, but they weren’t really central to his image of himself as a working artist, which was at the core of his identity. They were useful to him as art supplies. If some of them went on to be deeply embittered, it’s because it’s no fun to be an art supply!

Nonetheless, I do think that the photographs of Stephen Shore and then also those of Billy Name, which are the other great documents of this moment, helped build the myth of Warhol in the Factory and our view of the ‘social sculpture’ that we call Andy Warhol.

There was an air of mystery about what went on within the walls of the Factory for those who were not part of the inner circle. Certainly this mystique is something that Warhol and his entourage cultivated.

Interestingly, one of the people depicted in this book is Bibbe Hansen, a teenager who came into the Factory after serving time in a girls’ prison. She has a telling line: ‘It was called the Factory not the Party, because it was a place where you got work done’. The everyday practice of making Warhol’s vast series of Flower paintings, for example, mostly gets left out of any representation of the Factory—even Shore’s. It was really a fairly dull place a lot of the time, with the partying happening relatively rarely and at night, but of course the partying is what got photographed most and then handed down to us as the image of the place.

If Shore’s Factory presents a thorough visual record, over many years Warhol actually did a consistent job of documenting much of the life of the Factory himself in the extraordinary telephone conversations that became his Diaries

No biographer can avoid using them extensively as primary source material, at least for Warhol’s life in the later 1970s and the 1980s. I also got access to some unpublished segments from the early -70s which yielded a few choice nuggets – of fact, and of insight.

The problem is that you can’t really use the Diaries to get final answers to your questions, because you can never tell the precise extent to which they are true. We assume that Andy knew that they might be published, and he may have wanted them to be published—and so would have controlled and manipulated their content. And these weren’t diaries in the normal sense. Remember, he’s always talking to someone else, since they were recorded and transcribed by his assistant Pat Hackett. He didn’t scribble these entries down in a notebook, for his own eyes only. So you never know if he’s speaking to posterity in order to falsify the record – or at least to construct a record – or whether the Diaries are actually giving you a genuine insight into the man himself, not only into his psyche but also into his actions and behaviours. There are incidents mentioned in the Diaries that his friends say are absolutely and simply untrue.

“You’d think that he’d be a biographer’s easiest subject. In fact, the opposite is true”

Throughout Warhol’s life and his art you actually can never settle on a single meaning – his life and his art are deeply indeterminate, even deliberately underdetermined. The Diaries are the ultimate example of that: Here is a document that is supposed to be something like the definitive statement of Warhol on Warhol, and you can never be sure if things are as they appear.

There’s also an evenness in tone that made me feel as though I could almost hear Warhol’s voice in my head. That slightly flat, disaffected manner in which he sometimes conducted his interviews.

I’ve listened to a lot of his interviews and conversations, and what I would observe is that you rarely glimpse his intelligence in the Diaries in the way you do in some of his recorded conversations. After all, in the Diaries he’s rarely talking with someone, he’s talking at someone. When he’s actually in conversation you get the impression of a much livelier mind.

It also is an important corrective to his other two books, POPism and The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, neither of which capture the real tone of Warhol because they’re mostly ghost-written, whereas the Diaries are not ghost-written in any full sense. The other thing about the published Diaries of course is they represent only a small percentage of the material available on the diary tapes that exist, none of which are accessible for another 20 years or so, since they are all embargoed. It’s hard not to wonder what’s on those tapes that is not in the Diaries.

If you ever want to confuse posterity just leave a lot of information about yourself! Warhol is arguably the best-documented artist in history, because of all the records and ephemera he left behind, so you’d think that he’d be a biographer’s easiest subject. In fact, the opposite is true. While drowning in material, somehow you have to translate this enormous accumulation of reportage, gossip, and incidental information into a narrative – which is of course the fun of it as well.

This was a dream project. I can’t imagine a better way to spend seven years of one’s life. It was an absolute gift to pass this time in the company of such a genius. I’m not a superstitious person in the least, but I felt Andy looking down on me with a smile. Every time I needed to find some particularly arcane document, to prove a point, what I need would miraculously appear. Every time I felt I was about to hit a brick wall, it magically disappeared and I was able to move forward with the biography. So the one person I have to thank above all is Andy Warhol himself.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

February 29, 2020

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Blake Gopnik

Blake Gopnik

Blake Gopnik is 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. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times and has a PhD in art history from Oxford University. His latest book is a magisterial biography on Andy Warhol.

Blake Gopnik

Blake Gopnik

Blake Gopnik is 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. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times and has a PhD in art history from Oxford University. His latest book is a magisterial biography on Andy Warhol.