He invented frivolity as aesthetic attitude to life and determined that the essence of things is merely in the packaging. This designer was Andy Warhol, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1928, son of a coal miner who was a Slovak migrant. After being baptized in a Byzantine Catholic rite, the youngster contracted Saint Vitus Dance at the age of 13, which caused his four limbs to move uncontrollably.
Ostracized by his school companions because of the unusual pigmentation of his skin, confined to his bed for a long period of time, and over-protected by his mother, little Andy found his only escape in comic book heroes and pamphlets with the faces of Hollywood, a mythomania from which he would never recover.
It’s not clear if he ever recovered from Saint Vitus Dance syndrome if one bears in mind that from the time he moved to New York in 1949, he didn’t stop moving for the rest of his life among a frantic gathering of aristocrats, eccentrics, mad artists, bohemians, drug addicts, models, and other birds of paradise, each of whom, as the Guru of Modernity, he began to award the 15 minutes of fame to which he or she was entitled, and for which some of these creatures were disposed to kill or die for. This would happen.
At first, Andy Warhol devoted himself to advertising, to illustrating magazines and drawing ads for shoes; but there was a moment in which, contemplating a bottle of Coca Cola, a can of soup, or the face of Marilyn, he had a First Revelation. He thought that certain figures and commercial products were true icons of American life and it was necessary to introduce them into the sacred realm of culture and art.
The pop-art he had just invented needed a philosophical foundation and with a complete and grand impudence he tossed to the world this manifesto: Coca Cola makes all people equal. “In America the millionaires buy essentially the same things as the poor. No amount of money in the world can help you find a better Coca Cola than the one the beggar on the corner is drinking. All Coca Colas are the same. Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the beggar knows it, and you know it.”
His philosophy about the surface of things was presented in society in 1954 with an exposition called The American Supermarket at the gallery of Paul Bianchini on the Upper East Side. It was set up as a grocery store with paintings and posters of soups, meats, fish, fruit, and soft drinks mixed with these same real products on shelves. The difference was in the price. A can of soup is a dollar in reality and cost two thousand in the representation. Today a dollar is a dollar, but if the bill is painted by Warhol it’s worth six million dollars at an auction.
Andy continued adding more American icons to art: the electric chair, the revolver, police charges against demonstrators for human rights, cars, cans of Campbell soup, the faces of Hollywood celebrities, while all around him was condensing a group of strange beings who were half human and the rest fiction or decoration. They all congregated around his studio, the famous Factory, on 47th Street and 7th Avenue, with its wallpaper made completely of aluminum.
The artist made a qualitative leap after the extraordinary case of a 1964 exposition in Philadelphia when the paintings didn’t arrive at the gallery on time because of a transportation mishap. The public filled this room with bare walls and Andy, watching from the mezzanine, discovered that the space resembled a fish tank filled with crustaceans that moved around in a San Vitus dance stimulated by themselves—the only source of energy. No one cared about the paintings. The only thing fueling the expectation was the presence of the artist surrounded by his creatures, whom everyone was trying to imitate.
In that moment, Warhol had his second revelation. The only way to exist is to be reflected in somebody else’s mirror. If a Coca Cola or a can of Campbell’s soup is an American icon, why not he? What he had painted was not important. His true creation was that group of strange beings that had managed to gather among the four walls and who didn’t look in any way like the other inhabitants of New York, only like each other, as if they were a tribe.
With faces whitened by rice powder, red crests adorned by marabou feathers, anorexic bodies tiled with colored crystals, those who formed this tribe included Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist who was raped by her father and wound up lost and wandering the streets of Manhattan from the age of 15—and who had written a script called Up Your Ass; Edie Sedgwick, the daughter of a California millionaire, born on a 3,000 acre ranch, who landed in New York as a model with all her amphetamine beauty, and was taken in by her grandmother who lived in a 14 room apartment on Park Avenue; singer-songwriter Nico, the actress Viva, Gerald Malanga, Ultra Violet, Freddie Herko, Frangeline, the writer John Giorno, the filmmaker Jack Smith, the musical group—The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, the Chelsea girls, and the rest of the anonymous, grimy youngsters that entered and exited The Factory, many of whom only wanted to piss upon the copper plates to produce unexpected nuances in the engravings through the oxidation of their urine. Upon these engravings, they sometimes added strawberry marmalade, melted chocolate, or human semen. It was a part of their quarter of an hour of fame.
This frantic rush toward the Void fueled by the underground movies, the experiments with drugs, sex in the elevators, cries in the night, and overdoses in the bathrooms that constituted modernity in the sixties came to an abrupt end on June 3, 1968, when a stressed out Valerie Solanas entered The Factory with the intention of getting Warhol to return the script she had given to him. He did not want to film it as it seemed too obscene, but the truth is that he had lost it.
Up your ass. It was enough for Valerie to take out a revolver, the very one the artist had painted as an icon, and empty the entire cylinder—all six bullets. One of them passed through Warhol’s body and almost sent him to his grave, a fate from which he was rescued by a surgical procedure that lasted five hours. The scars from this operation were converted into a poster.
“He had too much control over my life,” said Valerie during her trial.
But fame always finds someone else even more well known. This event was overshadowed by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy a few days later. The Saint Vitus Dance came to an end. From that moment on, Warhol looked like a man made of cardboard said the birds of Paradise that fluttered above his silver wig.
What’s more, Edie Sedgwich also destroyed herself. One morning she was found lifeless in her bed from an overdose of barbiturates. Only Basquiuat, the black graffiti artist Warhol had rescued, rose to glory.
Being always visible, and forging lovely packaging for the spirit was what carried Warhol through the world of art. For this reason, the artist also designed his own funeral, which was celebrated in the Byzantine Church of the Holy Spirit in Pittsburgh on the 22 of February, 1987.
The coffin was sold bronze with four silver handles. Warhol was decked out in a black cashmere suit, a printed tie, a silver wig, pink-framed sunglasses, with a small breviary and a red flower in his hands. According to accounts, his friend Paige Powell dropped into the coffin an issue of the magazine Interview and a bottle of Beautiful perfume by Estée Lauder.
She could have added a can of Campbell soup, a one dollar bill, a Coca Cola, and a revolver. All that is America.