The Strange Death of the Surprising Mr Warhol ; Rear Window ++ Andy Warhol 1979

Article excerpt

Andy Warhol made a career, art and a fortune out of the unexpected, and 20 years ago this week he certainly took everyone by surprise. He died at the age of only 58, and in a most unusual way.

Not that Warhol ever looked exactly in what you might call the pink. Indeed, his appearance - the pale, drawn, quick-eyed face set atop an angular frame that always looked as if he had left the coat hanger inside his jacket - led many to suppose that he regularly ingested things even more damaging than 20th-century consumer culture. In short, he looked like a junkie.

But the man many took to be the ringleader of Manhattan hedonism never did illegal drugs, and was far from being the person his appearance suggested. He was born, in Pittsburgh, to Slovakian emigre parents as Andrew Warhola in 1928, and was brought up in the Byzantine Catholic faith. So, even before he could read, he was absorbing, through his church's emphasis on icons, the power of imagery. He would have understood semiotics even before he had heard the word. Warhol's Catholicism was a faith he never lost or shirked, attending mass virtually every day, volunteering regularly at shelters for the homeless in New York and financing his nephew's studies for the priesthood.

Another formative experience was his childhood illnesses. A nervous, insular boy, at the age of eight he was struck by rheumatic fever, which became a bad case of St Vitus's dance. This always sounds comical, but is not; people sometimes die from it. The disease left Warhol not only with a blotchy complexion, but also, through many weeks spent alone in a bedroom festooned with pictures of film stars, a lasting obsession with celebrity and its images. …