Brain Pickings

A Graphic Biography of Warhol

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Who shot Marilyn, and other illustrated anecdotes of Warhol’s fallible humanity.

As a lover of graphic biographies, including those of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and the human brain, I was delighted for the release of This is Warhol (public library | IndieBound) — the first installment in a new series of graphic biographies of thirty famous artists by Scottish art historian Catherine Ingram. What makes the concept especially appealing is that, unlike most art history books, which tend to be either dry textbooks to be studied or lavish monograph-artifacts to be owned and admired, Ingram’s approach embodies Tolstoy’s assertion that art is about emotional infectiousness. She tells a living story, at once illuminating and vibrantly human, rather than weaving a static tapestry of facts. The result is a book that’s inviting without compromising its intelligence.

Alongside Ingram’s exploration of Warhol’s life and times — from his upbringing to the founding and denizenry of the Factory to how the “electric information age” shaped his aesthetic — is appropriately poptastic artwork by British illustrator Andrew Rae.

One of the most amusing anecdotes bespeaks how fluidly Warhol moved between art and life — how swiftly he integrated the two and how he experienced the latter as a smaller concentric circle that belongs, always and at all costs, inside the latter — but also how profoundly the backstory affects the way we confer value on art:

Four Marilyn silkscreens feature bullet holes through the idol’s forehead. How this came about is related by one of Andy’s groupies: “One day, Dorothy arrived, dressed in leather, with several friends in leather, and a Great Dane in his natural leather pelt. She peeled off her long leather gloves, pulled out her pistol, aimed at Warhol. Then at the last split second she shifted her aim to the stack of Marilyn Monroe portraits against the wall and fired.”

“Dorothy” was Dorothy Podber. When she left, Warhol turned to Billy Name, and said, “Please don’t let Dorothy do that again.” Once described as a “marvelous, evil woman,” Dorothy had a serious drug problem, and for a while she ran an illegal abortion clinic. She was banned from the Factory. The incident was a foreboding warning — four years later Factory-goer and feminist Valerie Solanas would enter the factory and shoot Warhol in the chest. Warhol decided that the damaged canvases should not be repaired. Sold as “The Shot Marilyns,” they raised the highest prices of all the Marilyn portraits.

Many of the stories, besides satisfying an art-lover’s craving for trivia factlets, speak to larger truths about the creative process — both Warhol’s own and in a general sense. For instance, the impetus for his famous 1966 Silver Clouds installation is a testament to the “slow churn” of creativity and the subconscious, long-term incubation of ideas: The idea for the show came to Warhol from a tea party he had attended at Salvador Dalí’s hotel suite a year earlier, where he had seen silver balloons floating around the room. Ingram, with her gift for metaphoric thinking that runs throughout the book, brings this back to Warhol’s biography:

There is an inherent fragility about the [Silver Clouds] installation: some balloons burst, all of them eventually deflated. The scene at the Factory was another silver bubble waiting to burst. For years the silent Warhol had held everyone’s attention. However, by the mid 1960s, as one reporter tells, “The waspish, silvery-haired Maharishi was in trouble, deep trouble. His world suddenly stopped caring, stopped knowing.”

Alongside Warhol’s ample commercial work are some of his side projects, such as Wild Raspberries, the little-known illustrated cookbook on which he collaborated with his mother and the legendary interior decorator Suzie Frankfurt.

Warhol’s world was the original golden age of the selfie, and the artist was among the first to embody what Susan Sontag would later call the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography. Ingram writes:

The self-portrait is a radical piece of art that embraces popular culture. Warhol uses a photo booth — the public camera found in railway stations and shopping malls that delivers cheap photos, “four-for-a-quarter” — and finds beauty in the throwaway, the intense, almost square frame and the sequence of stills, depicting a development in time.

Warhol promises nothing more than what the photomat delivers: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” However, that glossy surface is provocative. Described by many as a mirror, Warhol reflects the vacuousness of modern society in high resolution.

This is Warhol comes from British independent publisher Laurence King, who previously gave us the magnificent Saul Bass monograph and the fantastic series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

Illustrations courtesy of Laurence King

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