Back in the 1960s, who would’ve guessed that of all the archetypal (white) cultural figures of the era, Andy Warhol was the one whose renown and influence would grow larger and last longer than anyone’s? His posthumous superstardom, a quarter century and counting, has now outlasted his time as a living celebrity. Maybe looking and talking like one of the living dead – ghost? vampire? zombie? take your pick — was part of a brilliant shelf-life-extension strategy. I’m not entirely joking.
Warhol was a specter haunting my youth and young adulthood. As a 14-year-old would-be New Yorker living in Nebraska, I went to a grimy little storefront space in Omaha’s bohemianizing warehouse district to watch Chelsea Girls and Empire State, the first art films I’d ever seen. I was bored and confused but also riveted by the dark, chilly, un-American sensibility I’d never really imagined or even inferred. A decade later, I was part of a Today show crew filming Warhol at the Factory on Union Square as he made prints and performed his dazed-extraterrestrial act; but in the early 80s, when a friend brought him along for drinks in the East Village, I encountered not the soft Andy Warhol character he played on TV but the apparently real man – sharp, bitchy, the ennui and superficiality grim instead of cute. In 1986, he came uninvited to the launch party for Spy magazine, of which I was a co-founder; a few months later he died, and when his bestselling Diaries were published without an index, we supplied one in Spy, including the number of the page (763) on which he’d described attending our launch party.
For most of the last two decades of his life, he seemed almost compulsively interested in parties and celebrity (being one, being among them, publishing a magazine fawning over them) and wealth. As a matter of optimizing his reputation for the long haul, he left earth at the right moment, I think. He successfully coasted into middle age, but another 25 years of coasting probably wouldn’t have been good for the Warhol brand. (See: Dalí, Salavador, 1904-1989.) And death required even the haters to grudgingly grant his importance.
On the other hand, if he’d lived I could see him doing a full-on embrace of the 21st century and its hysterical, screen-obsessed solitude. I think of the Andy-Mat, his 1970s scheme for a chain of fast-food places, a “restaurant for the lonely person,” he said, where “you get your food and then take your tray into a booth and watch television.” Replace the TVs with laptops: Starbucks. Given that his oeuvre is a reductio ad absurdum case study of Walter Benjamin’s big idea about image-making in the 20th century, mightn’t our digital age of post-mechanical reproduction suit new Warhol works of art to a T? For better or worse, it’s Andy Warhol’s world in which we just live.