By Leah Greenblatt
May 05, 2020 at 06:15 PM EDT
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Credit: Ecco

Who exactly was Andy Warhol?

It always seems to depend, more or less, on who’s asking. He could be The Man Who Wasn’t There, and also everywhere; a lightning rod, a walking Rorschach blot, an art star of both the highest and lowest order. All of those Andys exist — sometimes simultaneously over a single paragraph — in Blake Gopnik’s Warhol, a frank, gossipy, but not unacademic chronicle of one of the 20th century’s most foundational and confounding figures.

Seemingly no biographical detail is too big or too small for his 976-page colossus: Warhol’s eccentric diet (ice cream sundaes and mashed avocados); his sex life (mostly dismal, though he was also… blessed in at least one department); the wigs and nose jobs and prolonged efforts to treat his problematic skin. (Insecurities, it turns out, often played as much a role as pure aesthetics did in his legendary personal style — like the dark glasses that concealed a severe nearsightedness.)

The book begins with an incident that effectively divided Warhol’s life into before and after: the 1968 shooting by a disturbed scenester and sometime collaborator named Valerie Solanas that tore a ragged hole through his abdomen, nearly killing him. From there Gopnik dips back into the Pittsburgh childhood of the boy born Andrew Warhola; a backstory not unlike that of many working-class immigrants raised between the two World Wars, putting aside its early glimmers of artistic promise. A post-college move to Manhattan in the late 1940s brought him some recognition as an illustrator and window dresser — though financial success paled next to the extracurricular wonders of city life, even in an era in which homosexuality still remained a sort of unspeakable mortal sin.

The outlines, at least, of what follows will be familiar to fans and even casual observers of the Warhol myth, as well-documented as it is: the rise of Pop Art; the silver-walled Factory that served as both business headquarters and a kind of counterculture Narnia; the motley crew of beauties, eccentrics, and hangers-on who became his Superstars. But the man who turned soup cans and silk-screened Elvises into high art is only one part of the portrait here. Love — despite a string of gorgeous young companions, it mostly seemed to elude the lifelong romantic — takes up many pages, as do the rise and fall of numerous friendships.

Gopnik’s background as historian and critic can sometimes lead him down esoteric paths, and he tends to give his subject more credit for certain creative choices than might be due; the sheer volume of material, too, can be both exhaustive and exhausting. But the book also grounds its mad whirl of sheikhs, freaks, movie stars, and tweaked bohemians by the steady anchor of its muse: a man who, through the fond eyes of his biographer, comes off maybe as wholly, maddeningly human as he ever has — both sweet and strange, mercenary and tender-hearted. “Was his art a put-on, or was the put-on his art?” Gopnik asks several hundred pages in. “Was he himself a joke or a genius, a radical or a social climber? As Warhol would have answered: Yes.” B+

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