Andy Warhol's Deaths and the Assembly-Line Autobiography

By Reeve, Charles | Biography, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Andy Warhol's Deaths and the Assembly-Line Autobiography


Reeve, Charles, Biography


Test-driving the artworld cliche that dying young is the perfect career move, Andy Warhol starts his 1980 autobiography POPism: The Warhol Sixties by reflecting, "If I'd gone ahead and died ten years ago, I'd probably be a cult figure today" (3). It's vintage Warhol: off-hand, image-obsessed, and clever. It's also, given Warhol's preoccupation with fame, a lament. Sustaining one's celebrity takes effort and nerves, and Warhol often felt incapable of either. "Oh, Archie, if you would only talk, I wouldn't have to work another day in my life," Bob Colacello, a key Warhol business functionary, recalls the artist whispering to one of his dachshunds: "Talk, Archie, talk" (144). Absent a talking dog, maybe cult status could relieve the pressure of fame, since it shoots celebrities into a timeless realm where their notoriety never fades.

But cults only reach diehard fans, whereas Warhol's posthumously published diaries emphasize that he coveted the stratospheric stardom of Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson--the fame that guaranteed mobs wherever they went. (Reviewing POPism in the New Yorker, Calvin Tomkins wrote that Warhol "pursued fame with the single-mindedness of a spawning salmon" [114].) Even more awkwardly, cult status entails dying--which means either you're not around to enjoy your notoriety or, Warhol once nihilistically proposed, you're not not around to enjoy it. "I don't believe in [death]," begins the two-sentence chapter "Death: All About It" in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, "because you're not around to know that it's happened" (123). So not being a cult figure--if we accept that Warhol wasn't--has its upside: the artist lives on, perhaps to secure a larger version of fame.

On the other hand, during the late 1970s, as they were engaged in the transcribing, writing, and redacting that would produce POPism, Warhol and his co-writer Pat Hackett couldn't have missed the publicity benefits of a premature demise. In 1970 and 1971, rockers Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, and artists Eva Hesse and Robert Smithson died in their late 20s to mid 30s; Mama Cass and artist Gordon Matta-Clark were similarly young when they followed in 1974 and 1978. Unshakable

auras surrounded them all, and the odd convergence of regret and relief coloring Warhol's speculation about what would have happened if he'd met the same fate goes deeper than his playful opening allows.

After all, work started on POPism in the later 1970s, when Warhol had nearly died "ten years ago" in dramatic circumstances recounted near the book's end: (1)

   as I was putting the phone down, I heard a loud exploding noise and
   whirled around: I saw Valerie pointing a gun at me and I realized
   she'd just fired it.

   I said, "No! No, Valerie! Don't do it!" and she shot at me again. I
   dropped down to the floor as if I'd been hit--I didn't know if I
   actually was or not. I tried to crawl under the desk. She moved in
   closer, fired again, and then I felt horrible, horrible pain, like
   a cherry bomb exploding inside me. (272-73)

"Valerie" is Valerie Solanas, self-styled leader of the Society for Cutting Up Men and a disgruntled sometime Warhol hanger-on.2 Following her assault, Warhol suggests, he passed through death's door but fortunately--or not--returned to the near side too quickly to launch a cult: "They brought me back from the dead--literally, because I'm told that at one point I was gone. For days and days afterward, I wasn't sure if I was back. I felt dead" (274). The reality of this near-death experience prompts one to wonder what Warhol has in mind with his breezy opening. Is his desire for fame so perverse that part of him wishes he'd died and thus secured it? Or does his book begin with a sensationalizing joke about Solanas's nearly successful murder attempt? Given Warhol's work-is-everything/everything-is-work ethic, one can imagine him making--or approving--a joke about his near-death experience if he thought it would sell books.

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