An icon’s icon

By PETER KADZIS  |  April 25, 2006

Warhol’s intelligence, and the secret of his endurance, was in his prescience. And what he saw, or sensed, was that his famous subjects’ deaths would give his portrayals of them an added energy and dimension that could be realized when their public — Warhol’s audience — knew that Elvis and Marilyn and Jackie were in their graves. Perverse? Perhaps. By the simple, natural, and inevitable act of dying, Warhol’s most prominent subjects effortlessly collaborated with the artist and the audience — his and theirs. Death = objectification = immortality. And what, if not immortality, does every great artist hope for? Anyone who doubts the centrality of death in so much of Warhol’s seemingly surface-obsessed work should survey long and hard his electric-chair works, which, even more than his disaster series of Weegee-like scenes of auto crashes and plunging bodies, testify to the power of Warhol’s darker visions.

By the time I moved to New York, in 1980, Warhol was as ubiquitous — to borrow a characterization from John Updike — as Muzak in a supermarket. In some ways overexposed in print, the power of his presence in person was as inescapable as he was unassuming — even in a celebrity-populated city. From the uptown dance club Studio 54, to the back room at Mortimer’s (the social set’s answer to the literary Elaine’s, where Andy was also a customer), to the downtown outpost of the Mudd Club, Warhol was every scene’s regular. To some, this seemed pathetic: in intellectual terms, a hyper-democratization of the essentially aristocratic position of the artist; in a more commonplace sense, the restless wandering of a lonely guy.

Warhol embodied both of these tendencies. Like Whitman, he was his own multitude. And like another highly intelligent New York–oddball artist, Joseph Cornell, Warhol’s psyche was hermetically sealed, a bubble that absorbed what he wanted and allowed it to absorb while it offered him protection and the elasticity to explore. Like Cornell, Warhol was a flâneur, a seemingly aimless walker about the city. If by night Warhol enjoyed the company of the great and the good, the hip and the outlaw, by day — when not at his desk or in his studio/factory — he trolled the streets and flea markets and antique shops and secondhand stores, searching not only for art and artifacts for his almost obscene and certainly obsessive variety of collections, but also for experience — and also, I suspect, to sublimate his loneliness in the bustle of the streets.

Cornell applied his claustrophobic sensibility to the creation of exquisite boxes of collage populated by found and everyday objects that assumed a power that was almost as literary as it was graphic and plastic. The equally — but differently — claustrophobic Warhol found more expansive expression for his multiplicity of visions in a wider variety of mediums. The glue that is New York holds together a great range of talent.

The book under review, a folio of great proportions, would no doubt please Warhol in a wry but very real way. Heavier on the life and back story than on the work itself, it nevertheless is a monument to a monumental talent.
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