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A historic and perfect quarantine book about Andy Warhol

Jeff Simon

It is true that Andy Warhol's eye saved his life.

That's the story we're told in the arresting beginning of one of the year's great books "Warhol" (Ecco)  by Blake Gopnik, a 976-page biography of a sort whose greatest impact is usually evenly divided between academic scholarship and the unfortunate toe of one who might happen to drop it on the unlucky appendage by mistake.

The book's gripping opening sentence is this: "Andy Warhol died, for the first time, at 4:51 p.m. on the third of June 1968. Or that was the grim verdict of the interns and residents in the emergency room of Columbus Hospital in New York."

The evidence is they had no idea of his identity. "Some 20 minutes earlier, the artist had been shot by Valerie Solanas, a troubled hanger-on at his famous studio, the Factory ... During the half-hour it took for the ambulance to arrive, Warhol slowly bled to death. By the time, the patient was dropped at the hospital, the young doctors couldn't find a pulse. There was no blood pressure to speak of. The patient's color was newsprint tinged with blue. By any normal measure, this thirty-nine-year old Caucasian, five-foot five, 145 pounds, was D. O. A."

A 40-year-old surgeon in private practice was nearby checking on a patient in intensive care. He rushed to the emergency room and his junior medics filled him in. He made one final check on "the fresh corpse where it lay, unmoving eyes closed, soaking the gurney in blood.

"He lifted an eyelid and watched as a still-living pupil contracted in the glare of hospital lights."

There was a life still to be saved which belonged to the man who, for better or worse, is now considered to be the most famous artist of the 20th century.

On this behemoth book's final page, we are informed in its final paragraph "the critical skepticism that Warhol lived with has evaporated in the years since his death. It is looking more and more like Warhol has overtaken Picasso as the most important and influential artist of the Twentieth Century. Or, at least the two of them, share a spot on the top peak of Parnassus beside Michelangelo and Rembrandt and their fellow geniuses."

By now, I probably don't have to tell you this this is not only a profoundly rare book but is almost perfect in the publishing era it finds itself.

It is that great anomaly – a gargantuan chronological biography of unprecedented completeness crammed with an artist's entire life at the same time that it is a very well-written book, as journalistically readable as can be and, as those opening pages prove, occasionally gripping.

We are used to books that are one or the other – either triumphs of historical scholarship or page-turners. We are not used to urbane books that try to be both and largely succeed.

Its 56-year-old author Blake Gopnik has written about art for Newsweek and The Washington Post, Toronto's Globe and Mail and The New York Times. He also is a member of an altogether singular family in current American literature. His brother, Adam Gopnik, is a versatile and polymathic staff writer of The New Yorker whose works consider a bewildering variety of subjects. (Adam's books are about everything from child-rearing in Paris to Abraham Lincoln.)

What we know of the Gopnik brothers is that they are dauntingly smart and they can write. Can they ever.

In a historic period where many – who can afford to be – have been forcibly idled by a quarantine which prefers us to remain alive and socially distant against an implacable and often lethal viral enemy, a book of such size and quality is a godsend.

Warhol's would-be assailant – whose lack of success was more good luck and happenstance than anything else – was Valerie Solanas, known at the time of her attempt on his life as the author of the S.C.U.M. Manifesto for a man-hating organization of her devising called the Society for Cutting Up Men. Their principal credo was the needlessness of the male gender of humanity and, therefore, their extinction as soon as possible.

She was typical of the outcast social chaos of Warhol's factory in that she had asked Warhol to read and consider filming her obscenely titled movie script. He read it, was shocked at how "dirty" it was and never returned it to her.

Three bullets from a gun was her comment on that, one of which notably hit its target which caused lifelong physical and psychological damage of all kinds of which his public remained largely ignorant. When he died, years later, of complications from "routine" gallbladder surgery which was anything but routine considering Warhol's health history and lifelong habits; he was 58.

The tale of Warhol's life, as Gopnik tells it chronologically, is fascinating all the more so because no one before Gopnik has ever had the ambition to produce such a gigantic and definitive work of its sort.

Many volumes have been written about Warhol but none before this one have had its precise ambitions. If anyone with interest in art and culture has to be quarantined with one book for company, he or she could do far worse than living with this 1,000-pager.

The outline of Warhol's public life was tumultuous and endlessly provocative, resulting in many decades of that commonplace Manhattan mix – rigorous and minute attention combined with either mockery or worship and a notable paucity of reaction found in between. He was an avant garde painter and post-Duchamp artist who came from the world of commercial design and came to decry painting before embracing it again. He and his brother-and-sister "pop artists" captured the public's attention in a way that Warhol thrived on and seemed driven to despite his contempt for it.

His films were simultaneously boring, brilliant and a tedious parody of Hollywood as it had been refashioned by Manhattan's "Andy Underground." Some were hilarious. Some were unwatchable, as only truly radical avant garde gestures can be. All were more commented upon than seen – until, that is, the wildly evolving art film audience turned some into art house hits.

His "factory" version of Hollywood deconstructed Hollywood's idea of stardom with joy and glee. When pop musicians started hanging around, they were told to come right in. They fit in well. (E.g., the Velvet Underground.) When they were big enough (the Rolling Stones) they could employ Warhol factory talents and body parts.

His magazine Interview was, for a time, one of America's necessary periodicals.

The quantity of information encased in this massive enterprise is oceanic, from the details of his working-class childhood in Pittsburgh (which did not, it seems, include the Eisenhower-era brand names later celebrated in his initially famous art – his mother made the family ketchup, for instance) to the final era details of his "business art" which are enough to depress almost anyone.

Since Warhol's public life was involved with centralizing "undergrounds" of one sort or another, a lot of sex passes through as background, but most of it is as ironic and denatured as the rest of Warhol's visible universe.

What we can see now that we couldn't see then is that the whole postwar Manhattan world of ironically putting air quotes around every activity, in a world of fame and information, included culture and politics and is something that in the 21st century we are paying dearly for in both politics and culture.

The amusements of the informationally wealthy were something less than amusing to the informationally deprived when a pervasive contempt for the informationally underprivileged was discernible even if the solution is not.

Warhol was a giant figure, a genius of a sort to be neither underestimated or overpraised.

The book is bursting with his lifelong obsession with fame and its parodies in the careers of such cohorts as Baby Jane Holzer, Edie Sedgwick, Joe Dallesandro, Viva, Candy Darling, Rod LaRod, Gerard Malanga, Brigid Berlin, and superstar patrons like Jackie Kennedy and Liz Taylor.

Warhol was a teeming and fascinating American subculture in the Age of Information. There isn't likely to be a better source of information in a book about that subculture than this giant history and chronology.

On the other hand, if you want judgment and speculation about the meaning of that subculture, try Gary Indiana's book "Andy Warhol and the Can that Sold the World."

It's only 175 pages long.

And those pages are small.

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