In Warhol (Ecco, Apr.), art critic Gopnik explores Andy Warhol’s eccentric life.
Andy Warhol is celebrated and scorned for his paintings of banal consumer goods. Why look at his Campbell soup cans and Brillo boxes instead of the store-bought originals?
Still-life paintings show perfectly ordinary stuff from 17th-century Dutch houses. Magic happens when it’s a work of art that does the showing; art elevates, and tells us to pay more attention to the soup cans. And they aren’t just reproductions; you can see Andy working to get soup cans just right. And the images have an irony, in between criticism and praise: Warhol could be saying that having so many soup cans in the kitchen isn’t necessarily great—or that it’s the genius of American consumption.
Warhol’s avant-garde films are notoriously long and difficult. Have you watched them all the way through?
I admit that I have watched all eight hours of Empire, his static footage of the Empire State Building, and all five-and-a-half hours of Sleep [about a man sleeping] several times. It’s like looking at a great painting, noticing the subtle details. With Empire you get into a zone, a sense of “looking at yourself looking” as much as looking at the work. Warhol’s movie portraits—people just staring into a movie camera for four minutes—are utterly captivating, among the greatest portraits of all time. They’re right up there with Rembrandts.
Warhol had a flamboyant public image as a faux-naïf hipster. Would we care as much about his art without that persona?
I think so. It was only after he was famous for pop art that he adopted the sunglasses, the black leather jacket, and that dopey ’60s cool-cat persona. Later, he dropped it. Warhol was extremely smart and well-educated, and that vapid act was a creation, like his soup cans. But we should also see that character as one of his most important and serious works of art.
Two bizarre Warhol adventures that you explore are his late-in-life gigs as a runway model and guest-starring on The Love Boat.
Warhol was a very strange person. Photographs show that he was very attractive, but he was convinced of his own hideousness. I think he started modeling because he wanted to be both beautiful and seen as beautiful. He went on Love Boat because he wanted to be in the public eye, but also because it was just an interesting and peculiar thing for an artist to do. Andy believed that doing the wrong thing was always more interesting than doing the right thing—exactly what modern art was supposed to do. The Love Boat was the ultimate example of a modern artist doing the wrong thing.