Andy Warhol has been the subject of major retrospectives, a bevy of books, and a slew of scholarly studies. Is there anything left to be learned? Warhol, Blake Gopnik’s definitive new biography, suggests that there are in fact still revelations to contended with. Below are seven of the book’s biggest reveals.
Artist Philip Pearlstein may have inspired the “15 minutes” aphorism.
Gopnik’s book puts forward a possible origin story for one of Warhol’s most famous one-liners: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Gopnik traces that comment back to something said by artist Philip Pearlstein, a fellow Pittsburgher, back in the 1940s, when he and Warhol were friends. Before being drafted to fight in World War II, Pearlstein had received top prizes in juried art exhibitions for his work. Pearlstein told Gopnik that Warhol asked how it felt to be famous, to which Pearlstein responded, “It only lasted five minutes.” Gopnik calls into question whether this gave way “15 minutes,” though Pearlstein has apparently remembered the story in different ways over the course of the years. And Warhol may not even have said it at all: Gopnik suggests that the the aphorism only entered the public consciousness after it was published in the catalogue for his 1968 Moderna Museet retrospective in Stockholm; Warhol only started repeating it once others had adopted it as his most famous quote.
A taste for photography among art directors pushed Warhol toward the art world.
It’s widely known that Warhol started out as an illustrator, racking up a small fortune with his trendy—and, as some have suggested, queer—drawings of shoes. But it’s less often understood why he went in a different direction and ultimately became a Pop artist during the early 1960s. According to Gopnik, Warhol perceived a threat in the rise of photography, which was suddenly displacing the business of many artists who worked by hand during the early ’60s. “Commercial art at that time was so hard because photography had really taken over, and all of the illustrators were going out of business really fast,” Warhol said in one of his final interviews. Lured by the art world’s PR machine, Warhol began showing in the gallery sphere, where he ended up displaying lots of paintings making use of photographic imagery.
[Read an interview with Gopnik about stripping away Warhol’s greatest myths.]
Warhol may have taken the idea for some of his breakthrough works from another artist.
Throughout his career, Warhol was known to test traditional ideas about authorship and originality—but did he borrow another artist’s style for his own benefit just before he hit it big? Gopnik suggests that Warhol may have appropriated—or stole, one could say—the aesthetic of his 1962 paintings of dollar bills from Chryssa, another New York–based artist whom Warhol “had to have known about,” according to Gopnik. Chryssa had garnered acclaim for a 1961 Guggenheim Museum show that featured paintings of newspaper ads printed in grids. One year later, at New York’s Green Gallery, Warhol exhibited his dollar paintings with their images arranged in a similar format. “For a brief moment before Pop took off,” Gopnik writes, “Chryssa was a rising star such as Warhol still had no hope of being.” In potentially leeching off her style, Warhol was signaling “the beginning of his practice as the great Pop Art sponge,” Gopnik claims.
An alleged sexual assault caused a stir on the set of a Warhol film.
Warhol’s experimental films flouted all kinds of sexual mores, but Lonesome Cowboys, a 1968 parody of Hollywood Westerns, may be the one that got the artist into the most trouble. While on set in Arizona, Warhol attracted the attention of locals eager to see what an avant-garde artist and his queer New Yorker friends were up to, and one day, “things truly got out of hand,” Gopnik writes. Viva, an actress in Warhol’s Factory, claimed to have been harassed by the men involved in the shoot, and according to Gopnik, she was assaulted on set. Because of the assault, one local lodged a complaint with the FBI, which kept a file on Warhol for nine years afterward.
A failed Jane Eyre adaptation got Warhol into a two-year-long legal battle.
In the late ’60s, after Warhol moved on from Pop, he undertook a number of bizarre film projects, including an adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel Jane Eyre. Titled Jane Heir, Warhol’s adaptation was to be set on the estate of supermarket heir Huntington Hartford II, and it was meant to be a true feature film, with period clothes to be recycled from a failed Broadway version of the story. After a casting director complained that the film’s screenplay called for no dialogue, Warhol brought on his poet friend Ronald Tavel to do a rewrite, which now featured Mr. Rochester recast as a black man. A tangle involving financing grew too complicated, and the project was canned. But the struggles over it did not end there: Phillip “Fufu” Van Scoy Smith, an investor in the project, later sued Warhol for $80,000 in 1968, and the legal battle stretched on for more than two years, only ending after the backer failed to show up in court.
[Read an excerpt from Warhol about the artist’s Business Art practice.]
Warhol may have dodged his taxes.
Just how much did Warhol hate paying his taxes? Quite a bit, according to Gopnik, who claims that Warhol undertook numerous efforts to obscure his finances. On a single day in 1969, Gopnik says, Warhol wrote $70,000 in checks to his mother—from four different corporate entities. “Those payments sure look like some kind of tax dodge, putting money in her hands to end up in Warhol’s,” Gopnik writes. Yet there were other potentially shady dealings too: Gopnik claims that Warhol let the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Pasadena Museum of Art fabricate his works and that he then claimed the works as donations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Members of Warhol’s circle knew he was up to no good. After Valerie Solanas’s assassination attempt of Warhol in 1968, Brigid Berlin, a close Warhol friend, said, “It’s gonna be the Internal Revenue Service that gets him, not a gun.”
Warhol had a spat with one of his New York dealers over works that he didn’t like.
By the end of the ’60s, Warhol had become engaged in the project of Business Art, which involved the creation and execution of projects intended purely to make money, possibly as a form of conceptual art. According to Gopnik, Business Art reached its apex with several series of paintings produced for New York gallerist Ronald Feldman, who had Warhol make pictures devoted to prominent Jews, endangered animals, and cartoon characters and pop-cultural icons in the ’80s. (The animal pictures, Gopnik writes, represented Warhol’s “weakest series yet.”) Though collectors bought the works for high prices, few—including the artist—were happy with these works. Warhol reportedly feuded with Feldman and accused the dealer of having too much creative control over them—Feldman even chose the imagery himself, Warhol claimed. One time, Warhol called Feldman because he wouldn’t take some of the pop-cultural icon paintings, and in a 1981 diary entry, the artist wrote, “I wound up yelling and I hate to yell on the phone.”
Correction 5/12/20, 3:45 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated details about Chryssa’s 1961 newspaper ad paintings and Warhol’s 1962 dollar works. Both Warhol and Chryssa’s works featured images arranged in grids; the paintings themselves were not exhibited in grids. This article has been corrected to reflect this. Additionally, this article has been clarified to note that art directors preferred photography to illustration, not department store owners.