February 3, 1998
Essayist Richard Rodriguez remembers Pop artist Andy Warhol, and examines his effects.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, Pacific News Service: Andy Warhol died 10 years ago. This season a most peculiar show at the Whitney Museum of American Art--"The Warhol Look"--focuses less on Warhol's arts than on his obsession with celebrity, beauty, and the body. In these galleries you will find Andy Warhol's various wardrobes, his corsets, his wigs, his toiletries, his collection of movie star photographs, including this autographed Shirley Temple that he sent for as a boy.
He was born Andrew Warhola in the hill district of Pittsburgh, the son of Eastern European immigrants. He grew up quiet, withdrawn. He ready movie magazines. Something about Warhol's life has long interested me. Maybe it's because the more I read of his life, his public persona, the more elusive it seems. What makes Warhol so modern is that he was the first artist to wonder--seriously wonder--about the modern predicament of celebrityhood. He wondered about the 50-foot smile on the movie screen and the rock stars who command thousands of waving hands, and the fashion models who are known simply because they are beautiful. Here are the photographs Warhol collected of Marilyn Monroe. Warhol took this photo and then transformed it with garish light and colors into silkscreens that examine the mystery of celebrity.
Are we looking at Marilyn's private face, or just her public smile? How do we know the difference? How did she? Is this face ours more than it belongs to her? There was perhaps the yearning of the reticent homosexual, the boy in the closet, and Warhol's obsession with fame. Maybe too a reflection of his Catholicism--a notion of the incarnation--everything in the world redeemed. "Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," Andy Warhol famously said. Most people only hear the tail end of his dictum, the "15 minutes," but Andy Warhol said, "Everyone will be famous." Early in his career he surrounded himself with drug addicts and hustlers and transvestites. He turned a movie camera on them, and he called them superstars.
It was both his decadence and his generosity that he could be interested in such people. Here too was an artist who believed in the machine. He called his studio a factory. He carried a Polaroid camera, not a sketch book. He interviewed people with a tape recorder, not a pen. What made him so eerie an artist was the way he refused the romantic role of the artist who remakes nature. He was in awe of nature and terrified of it--the body. He was enchanted by beautiful people. He knew that he was ugly and that nature controls us. He feared death. He toyed with wigs and with make-up, changed his look from Brooks Brothers to leather, wondered about his sexual identity, always manipulating his own self. Warhol would understand our own decade, now when people wear their naked bodies like a kind of garment, pierce them, tattoo their skin, display muscles, or thinness.
He became more famous than many of the celebrities toward whom he aimed his camera. He became a first name--Andy--like Liz or Marilyn. Rich people paid $40,000 to have him do their portraits. He churned out silkscreens--always he sold only the face. In 1967, he was nearly murdered by a stalker who achieved her 15 minutes of mad fame. Death pursued. Many of these smiling faces in Studio 54, the nightclub Warhol frequented in the 1970's, died of AIDS or overdoses or suicide. Warhol, himself, died in 1987, after a minor gall bladder operation. Ten years later, his Marilyn has become as famous as Marilyn Monroe's real face. But then, wasn't Marilyn's public face like a garment draped over her private life? Warhol's Marilyn ends up decorating a dress designed by Johnny Versace, the designer who was murdered last summer by a crazed fan, who wanted to be beautiful and famous. It was worn by Naomi Campbell, who was instantly recognizable to hundreds of thousands of Americans known by her first name because she has a beautiful face. I'm Richard Rodriguez.