Of the many misunderstandings and underestimations of Andy Warhol, the most wrong-minded may relate to how willful and even conniving he was as an artist. By no means the naïve ditz that his (meticulously tended) persona put forth, Warhol was instead smart and timely in countless ways. And he had a handle on controversy too—as a means to an end with attention as a just reward.
Periods of Warhol’s shapeshifting career are marked with artworks that took provocation as a priority. Here are 12 of his most controversial offerings.
Campbell’s Soup Cans
For those of us not around at the time, it’s impossible to reverse-engineer just how wild it must have been to see paintings of Campbell’s soup cans on canvases arranged like so many mass-produced consumables on grocery store shelves. It ranks among the shrewdest moves in 20th-century art, and though its seeming simplicity is more multivalent than detractors allow, it taps into a sentiment that Warhol nurtured for the whole of his life. As cited by fellow artist Barbara Kruger in the catalogue for the recent exhibition “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” Warhol himself later wrote, of another American standard: “The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s. Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.”
Warhol was fascinated by different kinds of darkness that terrorize and titillate us all, and that fascination found no more resonant form than the disquieting image of an electric chair sitting expectantly in an empty room. Part of his “Death and Disaster” series, which culled images from newspapers and magazines and set them in the curious context of art, the chair he focused on was the final furniture used by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed at New York’s Sing Sing prison after being convicted for spying on America for the Soviet Union.
Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)
Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” works took on different tenors (including the deceptively sinister Tunafish Disaster, which featured tainted fish cans of a kind that poisoned people who ate them), but the most gruesome featured imagery of automotive accidents in the early years of car culture in America. Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), painted in 1963, is one of several such works, with a news photo from an unidentified source repeated over and over again. As Warhol told ARTnews that same year, “when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.” But then, of course, it does have an effect—and recognizing and questioning that effect was a big part of Warhol’s contribution to the art of his time.
The 13 Most Wanted Men
Warhol’s greatest pun twisted the notion of “Most Wanted” criminals to take on homosexual undertones—and on a spectacularly public stage at the 1964 World’s Fair. For the New York State Pavilion (designed by famed Modernist architect Philip Johnson), Warhol reproduced mugshots of n’er-do-wells to hang on a 20-by-20-foot mural on the side of the building. But they only lasted a short while—before the work was covered with silver paint and later removed, for reasons that have taken on different explanations over time. Some have said that Warhol was displeased with the mural; others suggest that governor John D. Rockefeller, wanting not to alienate part of his political base, nixed it because seven of the 13 men were of Italian origin. Warhol also made an alternate mural (which has since been lost) with headshots of World’s Fair organizer Robert Moses, the subject of Robert Caro’s legendary biography The Power Broker. He also made smaller-size paintings of the original mugshots, including one of liquor-store robber John Joseph H., Jr. that just two years ago sold at auction for $28.4 million.
Undertones were not in play in Blow Job, a 1963 film of a man being fellated over the course of an alternately entrancing and mind-numbing 35 minutes. The action happens off-screen, as the camera stays fixed on the face of the fellatee: DeVeren Bookwalter, who Warhol—in his book Popism: The Warhol Sixties—described as “a good-looking kid who happened to be hanging around the Factory that day.” Of his pleasure-getting star, the artist also wrote, “Years later I spotted him in a Clint Eastwood movie.” (That would be The Enforcer, though Bookwalter’s credits ranged—from a theatrical production of Cyrano de Bergerac to roles in The Omega Man and a TV movie about Evita Perón starring Faye Dunaway.)
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable
A multimedia extravaganza known to be a bastion of shrieking feedback and dancing with whips, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable was a series of events that Warhol organized with storied rock band the Velvet Underground at the Dom, a venue under the nightclub known as the Electric Circus in New York’s East Village. It traced back to a wild performance in 1966 at a banquet for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry (footage of which was shot by Jonas Mekas and Barbara Rubin) that Warhol recalled in Popism like so: “The second the main course was served, the Velvets started to blast and Nico started to wail. … The doors flew open and Jonas Mekas and Barbara Rubin with her crew of people with camera and bright lights came storming into the room and rushing over to all the psychiatrists asking them things like: ‘What does her vagina feel like?’ ‘Is his penis big enough?’ ‘Do you eat her out?’ ‘Why are you getting embarrassed? You’re a psychiatrist; you’re not supposed to get embarrassed!’”
The bright and shiny Silver Clouds were supposed to mark the end of Warhol’s career as a painter in 1965. The idea behind that didn’t quite float, but the balloons themselves did. Set aloft with a proprietary mix of oxygen and helium developed with engineer Billy Klüver—a major figure behind E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology)—the Silver Clouds can hover without rising too high or falling too low. They also make a good match for the sky: as documented in footage of a balloon release from the roof of the Factory, while watching one fly away, Warhol exclaims, “Oh, it’s beautiful! It really is. It’s infinite because it goes in with the sky. Oh, it is fantastic—this is one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened.”
Warhol helped make spirited socialite Edie Sedgwick a star of the streakiest sort—so much so that, in introducing them together for an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show in 1965, the puzzled TV host intoned, “These two are the leaders. No party in New York is considered a success unless they are there.” But while they were inseparable for a stretch, the dynamic duo’s relationship grew strained (among many other problems, Bob Dylan was said by some to have figured as a source of jealousy between them) and they came to an acrimonious end years before Sedgwick died of an overdose in 1971, at the age of 28. Warhol was said to have been cruelly dismissive and cold during Sedgwick’s protracted flame-out; in Edie: American Girl, a fantastic 1982 oral history by Jean Stein and George Plimpton, Sedgwick herself is quoted as saying, “Warhol is a sadistic faggot.”
While working with different kinds of abstraction in the late ’70s, Warhol made a series of “Oxidation Paintings” with pee. As described on the Andy Warhol Museum’s website, “The only paint the artist used in this painterly work was the metallic gold ground.” Then he “invited friends and acquaintances to urinate onto a canvas … The uric acid reacted with the copper, removing components of the pure metal to form mineral salts.” Further experiments were conducted in terms of pattern-making and “varying the maker’s fluid and food intake.”
As chronicled in mesmerizing fashion in 800-plus-page tome known as The Andy Warhol Diaries, Warhol kept close track of his daily doings, including all kinds of mundane matters such as boring small talk and tallies of banal expenses incurred. “The record he kept included even the ten-cent calls he made from street payphones,” Pat Hackett, who edited the Diaries, wrote in an introduction. “It wasn’t that he was being overly cautious—the IRS had subjected his business to its first major audit in 1972 and continued the scrutiny every year right up until his death. Andy was convinced these audits were triggered by someone in the Nixon administration because the campaign poster he’d done for George McGovern in 1972 featured a green-faced Richard M. Nixon and the words ‘Vote McGovern.’”
Collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat
When Warhol worked on collaborative paintings with Jean-Michel Basquiat in the ’80s, accusations of exploitation were hurled at both parties. Was Warhol trying to glean some contemporary relevance from a younger star? Was Basquiat scheming for more or different kinds of attention? The work they made together do not suggest a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, and it couldn’t be more obvious whose contributions are whose on canvases that don’t quite coalesce. As New York Times art critic Vivien Raynor wrote in 1985, “Here and now, the collaboration looks like one of Warhol’s manipulations, which increasingly seem based on the Mencken theory about nobody going broke underestimating the public’s intelligence. Basquiat, meanwhile, comes across as the all too willing accessory.”
Appearance on The Love Boat
In 1985, a little more than a year before his death, Warhol made a guest appearance as himself in The Love Boat, a TV show “by that point dropping fast in the ratings and with only seven months left until cancellation,” as described by Blake Gopnik in his biography Warhol. The artist’s eloquence on-screen was less electrifying than the silver wig he wore, with just a few halting lines that began with “Hello, I’m—” and ended with “Maybe you two would like to get together with us here in L.A.?” As chronicled by Gopnik, Warhol might have been his own harshest critic, writing of the experience in his Diaries, “Flubbed my lines in the morning, felt bad about it. Worked all day.”