Artist, philosopher, impresario. He changed American culture. You can worship him for that. Or blame him.
In becoming an icon, it is useful to die young, and Andy Warhol managed this in the nick of time, at the age of fifty-eight, with the help of lifelong frailty and some negligent postoperative care at New York Hospital. Celebrities notoriously get distracted care, but in this case the nurse supposedly watching over him was reading the Bible and did not know her patient was a famous artist. Warhol, who coined the classic epigraph on modern fame — "In the future everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes" — became nothing if not famous; for a time he loomed like a Manhattan Elvis, and he donned a silver wig the way Mark Twain wore a white suit. Having risen from the abject obscurity of an immigrant coal miner's sickly, timorous youngest son, he elevated the lowliest, most obscure printed matter — nose-job ads, dance diagrams, tabloid photographs — into the glamour of museum art. His fifteen minutes are still stretching; there is an uncanny, unearthly beauty and rightness to his work, especially the gaudy silk-screens done from 1960 to 1964, of Marilyn Monroe, Campbell's Soup cans, green stamps, dollar bills, Coke bottles. He was a paradox: a painter who rarely touched paint to canvas and relied increasingly on the work of associates; an avant-garde painter who extolled money and boasted of his "business art"; an ill-educated dyslexic who was the wittiest image-maker since Duchamp and the wittiest voice in American art since Whistler.
After his premature death, the Museum of Modern Art — a reluctant convert to his magic — gave him a retrospective exhibition, in 1989. At the back of the sumptuous catalog, we find these self-definitive aphorisms:
If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface....There's nothing behind it.
The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine.
I like boring things. I like things to be exactly the same over and over again....Because the more you look at the same thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.
Never so empty, though, that he stopped working, as Duchamp did, in a final gesture of Dada subversion. Warhol's was a protest-free Dada; the machine, organized into a Factory, kept churning out product. A certain deadpan jubilation lurked in such productivity, though the later devices — camouflage blobs, coloring-book outlines, Rorschach blots, Catholic imagery with its kitsch value doubled — seemed clunky compared with the concentrated innocence of the early-Sixties breakthrough, when he so serenely demonstrated the rhetoric of action painting to be uncool.
Warhol's movies, his books (like those of Gertrude Stein) need audiences with the patience of saints; the wall art conveys a funerary stillness and glitz in one electric glance, and the only saint needed in the room is St. Andy — St. Andy, the benign, wan apostle of surface and nullity, reconciling us to a cluttered world emptied of more than superficial content. His heritage is all around us, wherever reality feels like television and art like a silk-screened Weegee.