As art critic-cum-biographer Blake Gopnik lays out in this brilliantly granular, not un-critical 976 page hagiography, the man born Andrew Warhola branded “pop art” in many forms: painting, sculpture, photography, filmmaking, sound recording, TV broadcasting, magazine and book publishing, advertising, media appearances, persona creation. His influence still blares on all those fronts, but especially in pop music’s hydrant-flow of brand-building: the social media blitzing, the mixtape-dropping, the meme-embargoing, the cameos, the clothing lines, the media empires.
Gopnik shows Warhol as both tireless culture worker and pop oracle. As a precocious, queer, working class art student in 1940s Pittsburgh, he was a proto-punk provocateur, dyeing his hair green, cross-dressing, painting finely-rendered close-ups of fingers probing nostrils. As an elegant, foppish Mad Man in ‘50s New York City, he was a go-to illustrator for jazz LP covers and offbeat fashion ads, and in a perfect storm of history, his explosive ‘60s pivot into fine art and filmmaking coincided with rock’n’roll’s explosion, around which point he reinvented himself as Andy Warhol: leather jacketed, faux-teen naif, surrounding himself with a posse of fascinating, speed-gobbling weirdos whose “art” was largely their performative lifestyle, a half-century before social media made that a mainstream career choice.
Canny musicians came courting. Dylan sat for one of Warhol’s ego-plumping “screen test” portraits, making off with an Elvis Presley silkscreen for his trouble. A young David Bowie, so wowed by Warhol he named a song for him, made pilgrimage to the artist’s famous Factory studio and mimed for him. Warhol himself formed a short-lived band of fellow avant-garde artists, The Druds, and later mentored the Velvet Underground, illustrating their iconic debut and drawing them into his omnivorous media art enterprise for roughly 18 kinetic months. The latter makes for a relatively short passage given all that Warhol was up to, and one of the remarkable things about Gopnik’s book is how many passages merit (or have already received) book-length treatment. His achievement is keeping many balls in the air while pacing a swift narrative. At nearly a thousand pages, it’s quite a feat.
In his later years, as Warhol became celebrity portraitist and entrepreneurial starfucker, he stayed involved with music. A Stones fan from the get go, he designed the iconic zippered-crotch cover of Sticky Fingers’ and the haut-graffiti package for Love You Live; the band rehearsed for their ’74 tour at his lavish Long Island estate, Eothen. A Studio 54 fixture, Warhol savored the landmark disco’s pretty boys (Gopnik notably corrects history by giving Warhol back his not-inactive sex life), and he created Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes, a marvelously weird early MTV production. Warhol wouldn’t live to see MTV’s full 90s flower, or his 21st century pop offspring: Frank Ocean’s multi-platform morphology, Charlie XCX curatorial collectivism, the cults of branded super-producers (Kanye, Dre, Diplo), and more. Nowadays, his late-capitalist notion that corporate enterprise is pop’s ultimate creative act has more traction than ever; the century’s most Warholian musical moment may be Jay Z’s line in the “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” remix: “I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man.” As Gopnik shows, for the modern pop star, Warhol was the blueprint.