Warhol’s genius was driven by work

By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / February 5, 2010

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In “Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol,’’ arts writers Tony Scherman and David Dalton trace the ascent of the iconic Warhol from his blue-collar roots to the pinnacle of the New York art world in the turbulent 1960s.

Warhol’s recipe for success combined hard-driving ambition and a nonstop work ethic with supreme alienation. This alienation, the authors argue, probably grew from Warhol’s self-consciousness about his working-class upbringing in Pittsburgh, as well as his looks; he also was plagued by chronic skin problems and a condition that affected the appearance of his genitalia.

Born Andrew Warhola in 1928, he began his career in New York as a commercial artist, making his name drawing ads for shoes and clothing. Yet he wanted to conquer the fine art world. Dalton, who worked briefly as an assistant for Warhol, and Scherman quote one Warhol friend describing the artist’s aggressive networking: “Anything Andy had to do with anybody was to get more work. . . . Every friend he had, every contact he made, was for what he could get out of it.’’ In the hyper-competitive New York art scene of the early 1960s, Warhol was the most competitive of all.

Warhol’s famous Campbell soup cans, painted in 1962, made him a media sensation. He thrived on public attention and knew instinctively how to promote himself and his work. He sagely refused to attack his critics (one described Warhol’s work as “advertising art advertising itself as art that hates advertising’’). The authors argue that Warhol’s art, which borrowed heavily from magazine images, advertising, and Hollywood, resulted from “the friction between elitist art world cynicism and his own genuine love of consumerism.’’

By 1963, Warhol was the voice of Pop Art, but he soon grew restless with its limitations. He began making underground films which, like his art, were brilliantly conceptual but, unlike his art, often badly produced. For “Sleep,’’ which depicts a man sleeping, Warhol won widespread attention but few fans. The authors say Warhol viewed his films as an opportunity to show interesting personalities displaying themselves in front of a camera. This voyeuristic tendency led him to collect a group of interesting personalities around him.

Just as Warhol became a celebrity, so would those around him, including model-actress Edie Sedgwick, singer Lou Reed, model-singer Nico, and others. Meanwhile, Warhol’s personal life was notably barren. Because of his seemingly unconquerable physical shyness, he was unable to sustain a strong relationship with any of the many men he pursued romantically. Yet Warhol needed companionship to feed his creative energy, hence his willingness to fill his studio with many strange, and often dangerous, people.

The authors describe the disturbed, drug-fueled atmosphere of that studio, the Factory, where street hustlers might compete for Warhol’s attention with wealthy young Brahmins like Sedgwick. Some of the ensuing collateral damage included suicides and violence: In 1968, “the craziness Andy encouraged spun out of control.’’ The authors end the book with Warhol being shot by a peripheral member of his in-crowd, Valerie Solanas. “[S]ix minutes after being wheeled into the operating room, [Warhol] was pronounced clinically dead,’’ they write. But Warhol would somehow pull through and continue to create until he died in 1987 at 59 after gall bladder surgery.

Scherman and Dalton provide a fascinating study of the man who was one of the most celebrated artists and filmmakers of his time. They also offer an entertaining and provocative look at the roots of Pop Art and our obsession with celebrity. For anyone seeking to understand Andy Warhol and the 1960s art scene, “Pop’’ is essential reading.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

POP: The Genius of Andy Warhol By Tony Scherman and David Dalton

Harper, 528 pp., $40