September 29, 2022
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Media Portrayals of Warhol and What He Was REALLY Like

People often wonder who the real Andy Warhol was. Many people thought Andy Warhol was aloof, that he didn’t have a care in the world, and that he was a man of minimal words. However, in a BBC documentary, Brigid Berlin, Warhol’s longtime assistant and stenographer, said that he was a very talkative character and “he would never shut up.”

The media often showed Warhol’s personality and lifestyle inaccurately. In the iconic cult-classic indie film, Basquiat, where Warhol is played by David Bowie, we see Andy as a swirly, flamboyant type of character who only talked of artistic things. The sense that Warhol was absorbed in his art is a common misconception. Warhol often felt about his art the way a gas station attendant feels about his gas. Oftentimes it was a chore and uninspiring. Other times, it was a desperate attempt to stay relevant and productive. It was hardly ever a mode of self-expression and artistic glory.

Warhol often spoke more about the financial side of his art. For example, in October 1984, of The Andy Warhol Diaries, he said: “So Jean Michel’s finding out how you have to be a business [as an artist], how it all stops being just fun, and then you wonder, what is art? Does it really come out of you or is it a product? It’s complicated” (p. 606, 1989). Warhol knew he needed to do things to convert his paintings into currency. He attended parties to network with accomplished people, distributed magazines, and had book signings.

Media portrayals of Warhol are also a little bit two-dimensional, and they tend to kind of stray away from the real person that Andy Warhol was in his daily life. Even in Basquiat, a dialogue features Basquiat describing what people say about Warhol: “I don’t even have any friends anymore besides you. And everyone says ‘Warhol? That death-warmed over person on drugs? He’s just using you.’ ”

Actually, Basquiat was probably using Warhol more, in that era, than the other way around. In fact, Warhol liked Basquiat. On the 14th of October, in 1985, he had this to say: “And oh, I really missed Jean Michel so much yesterday. I called him up and either he was being distant or he was high. I told him I missed him a lot. He sees a lot of Jennifer Goode, and I guess when they break up he’ll be available again” (p. 685, 1989).   

Basquiat and Warhol did plenty of paintings together. It proved to be a very rewarding joint venture for the two. From the artistic point of view, both got something they were missing from themselves in their own work. In fact, at the time of their collaborating, Warhol’s career and style were on the decline, lagging and depleting somewhat, but he was able to create a resurgence and demand through his partnering with popular artists like Basquiat, to draw from Basquiat’s own contemporary artistic sensibilities, and create something that was far more modern and fashionable.

Warhol was very much indebted to Basquiat, and he appreciated Basquiat’s work and his collaborating with him.

What mainstream media also fails to capture is the strength of Warhol’s relationships with people. He was a man that was very concerned about his friends and always somebody who wanted to talk about their love life and get personal with them. In another excerpt from The Diaries, Warhol had this to say: “Sharon took me in the other room and showed me a picture of her English lord pissing, and his cock is like a horse’s. She doesn’t know if she should marry him, but I told her she should, with a cock like that” (p. 353).

Warhol could be very playful, and somehow always had people gravitating toward him to share the more lurid details of their lives.

Warhol was also a man concerned about money, keeping track of all of his expenses throughout the day, whether cab rides or restaurant bills. Media has portrayed Warhol as a flighty character. However, in reality, he was systematic and calculating. Even when he shied away from negotiating deals, he nevertheless still cared that they were happening, that there was a constant stream of leads to fill the pipeline or funnel.

Warhol was always looking for deals, projects, and ideas so he could move them forward. He typically looked in magazines, newspapers, or read entire books for the next big idea. 

He also credits his promoter, Fred Hughes with helping him get some ideas for the next portfolio: “Fred does help me all the time getting ideas. He really does,” and then moves on to describe the difficulty with “capturing” ideas: “But in the end ideas are actually just physically working it all out.  You’d think it’s easy once you have an idea, but it’s not. It’s just like writing” (p. 702, 1989). 

Sometimes his friends gave him ideas that he just ran with. He was very much an idea man and very much about moving forward at a brisk pace. He wasn’t a flighty artist, some kind of bohemian space cadet. If anything, he was just a normal guy trying to make a living from his strengths, capitalizing on the public sentiment of the time and its craving for pop vogue.

It is with the following quote that I end this article because it provides particular insight into the way Warhol felt about himself:

“Bianca [Warhol’s friend] was driving me crazy, saying how she’s researching my days in Pittsburgh for her book on Great Men, and she went on and on about how I broke the system, broke the system, broke the system, and I felt like saying, ‘Look, Bianca, I’m just here. I’m just a working person. How did I break the system?’ God, she’s dumb” (p. 647).

By – Todd Persaud

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