The end of the party

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Once the toast of New York’s art elite, why did Andy Warhol fall from grace in the 1980s? By Mark C O’fla­herty

He’s the 20th cen­tury’s most cel­e­brated pop artist, but in his fi­nal years he was shunned by the New York scene. As a ma­jor new ex­hi­bi­tion opens, Mark C O’fla­herty chron­i­cles the spec­tac­u­lar fall and rise of Andy Warhol

It is a week­day in the mid-1980s at Lime­light night­club on Sixth Av­enue in Man­hat­tan, shortly be­fore mid­night. The 12-inch remix of Big in Japan is fil­ter­ing to every stained-glass nook and cranny of the de­con­se­crated church, and the dance floor is full. There are the usual monied bridge-and-tun­nel types in Ar­mani who have to pay for their own drinks, and the proto-club kids wear­ing Gaultier and the hot la­bels from Bartsch bou­tique. Andy Warhol, in black cash­mere Hal­ston polo neck and white shock wig, is nav­i­gat­ing his way down a stair­case. The crowds above and below start to sway, push and jeer – gen­tly at first, then ag­gres­sively, ac­com­pa­nied by coke-fu­elled play­ground in­sults. Ev­ery­one, it seems, has it in for Andy, apart from his en­tourage, who bun­dle him back into the VIP room.

Although in­ci­dents like that weren’t com­mon, Warhol’s rep­u­ta­tion at the end of his life is nev­er­the­less at odds with his legacy. The artist, who died in 1987 aged 58, with an es­tate val­ued at $220 mil­lion, pi­o­neered a new kind of Amer­i­can art and changed the mar­ket for ever. Born in Pitts­burgh to Slo­vakian émi­grés, he chan­nelled his tal­ent as a com­mer­cial il­lus­tra­tor into a ca­reer as the most suc­cess­ful pop artist of the 20th cen­tury, churn­ing out work ma­chine-like, in­cor­po­rat­ing paint­ing, silk screens, avant­garde cin­ema, pub­lish­ing and celebrity por­trai­ture.

While Warhol re­fused al­most all li­cenc­ing while alive, he’s now on wall­pa­per, teapots and half of Raf Si­mons’ out­put for Calvin Klein. A ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion, From A to B and Back Again, opens at the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in New York this month, and a new bi­og­ra­phy by Blake Gop­nik is in the works. For 30 years, the hunger for all things Warhol has been in­sa­tiable – but in the 1980s, he could barely get ar­rested. ‘The crit­i­cal at­ten­tion on his work was in­cred­i­bly harsh,’ says Eric Shiner, for­mer di­rec­tor of The Andy Warhol Mu­seum. ‘That’s why the mu­seum opened in Pitts­burgh af­ter he died – no in­sti­tu­tion in New York was in­ter­ested.’

The most emi­nent art critic of Warhol’s gen­er­a­tion was Robert Hughes, who never tired of bait­ing him. Writ­ing in The New York Re­view of Books in 1982, he de­scribed the artist as ‘an ab­nor­mal fig­ure – silent, with­drawn, em­i­nently vis­i­ble but opaque, and a bit malev­o­lent – who praises ba­nal­ity… Voyeur-in-chief to the mar­ginal and then the rich… Unloved by the world at large; that weird, re­mote guy in the wig.’ It was one of Hughes’ milder crit­i­cal as­saults. Donna De Salvo, who cu­rated the new Whit­ney show, be­lieves Warhol was seen as a sell­out for blur­ring art and com­merce. But she be­lieves it was a de­lib­er­ate tac­tic. ‘Did he lead the way for Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons?’ she asks. ‘Yes. He chal­lenged the way the artist func­tions within the cul­ture.’

Warhol’s last sig­nif­i­cant ex­hi­bi­tion dur­ing his life­time was at An­thony d’of­fay in Lon­don in 1986 – a group of ar­rest­ing cam­ou­flage-pat­tern self-por­traits. The show did well, rel­a­tively: two-thirds of it sold. But a can­vas price of $35,000 looks ris­i­ble next to what the same pic­tures would fetch now. ‘Do­ing that show with Andy felt like an obli­ga­tion,’ says d’of­fay. ‘Shortly af­ter I had first met him, he had a show of his Dol­lar Sign silk screens at Leo Castelli, in 1982. It was universally dis­liked. Castelli didn’t even show them in his main gallery. Peo­ple thought the im­ages were dumb.’ To­day, d’of­fay thinks the can­vases were prophetic. ‘They look as though he knew China and Trump would come to power and Putin would strike fear into the heart of ev­ery­one.’ Of course, one could say Warhol fore­cast huge swathes of mod­ern life, from the bank­ruptcy of celebrity to In­sta­gram. And the smarter crit­ics al­ways knew it. ‘It was the high-mid­dle­brow that didn’t like him,’ says bi­og­ra­pher Blake Gop­nik. ‘He never lost his cur­rency with re­ally in­ter­est­ing thinkers, such as Ben­jamin HD Buchloh and Jean Bau­drillard.’

Much of the an­i­mos­ity to­wards Warhol was spe­cific to New York. He re­mained white hot in Europe, but on home turf he was too closely as­so­ci­ated with the cul­ture he was mir­ror­ing. That fi­nal trip to Lon­don un­der­scores the con­trast: Warhol flew Con­corde, stayed at the Ritz and par­tied at Café Royal. Ev­ery­one wanted in. His open­ing at d’of­fay was thrilling. Dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent, then, from the in­ci­dent at Lime­light, which Slaves of New York au­thor Tama Janowitz saw first-hand as part of Warhol’s en­tourage and recorded in her 2016 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Scream: A Me­moir of Glam­our and Dys­func­tion. Talk­ing to­day from her home in Ithaca, NY, she re­mem­bers it as ‘like Ten­nessee Wil­liams’ Night of the Iguana. We could feel hos­til­ity, an ocean of anger. He was seen as a has-been pop artist by crit­ics, but also de­spised by a lot of pre­vi­ous friends and ac­quain­tances.’

While Janowitz re­calls Warhol’s un­pop­u­lar­ity, she her­self has noth­ing but good things to say about him, and be­lieves the work he was mak­ing to­wards the end of his life was some of his best. ‘He didn’t have a New York gallery to show his Last Sup­per se­ries,’ she re­calls, ‘but they were fab­u­lous.’

With Janowitz that night was Paige Pow­ell, who was closer than any­one to the artist, apart from his lovers. The ad­ver­tis­ing di­rec­tor at Warhol’s In­ter­view mag­a­zine, she was also a doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher of the scene around him. They had even spo­ken about adopt­ing a child to­gether. ‘I didn’t think of him as hated by any­one,’ says Pow­ell. ‘New young artists loved him. He was hav­ing a re­nais­sance and was re­ally ex­cited by hang­ing out with Keith Har­ing and Jean-michel Basquiat. He wanted to make films again, and did a show of stitched-to­gether pho­tographs, which was great. And he was so in love with his mag­a­zine.’

Warhol was al­ways for hire – cre­at­ing graphic art for ad­ver­tis­ers in In­ter­view, rarely turn­ing down any fi­nan­cially vi­able gig. His celebrity por­traits were his bread and but­ter, and demo­cratic in their way. One for $25,000, $40,000 for a pair. ‘He was bored do­ing them, but they brought money in,’ says Pow­ell. Down­town gal­lerist Jef­frey Deitch, who worked with Warhol through much of his ca­reer, be­lieves they are sig­nif­i­cant. ‘There’s poignancy in the work that he knew was bad. He had to stoop to do those things to keep go­ing. His artis­tic am­bi­tion was at the high­est level and gave him the mo­ti­va­tion to cre­ate the later work – his Shad­ows paint­ings from 1978-79 and the Rorschach se­ries in 1984. He was try­ing to make the great­est art that any­one had ever made.’

Ev­i­dence sug­gests Warhol knew his out­put was in­con­sis­tent. He

‘He was seen as a has-been by crit­ics and de­spised by pre­vi­ous friends’

even started a run­ning joke about it at The Fac­tory. Pow­ell had per­son­ally staged an ex­hi­bi­tion in her pri­vate apart­ment of work by a then un­known Basquiat (with whom she was ro­man­ti­cally in­volved) and artist-rap­per Ram­mel­lzee, el­e­vat­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence by order­ing gilded in­vi­ta­tions from Tif­fany. She handed Warhol one while he was pedalling on his ex­er­cise bike at the of­fice. He stud­ied it and said, with­out slow­ing, ‘Paige, if you leave me and In­ter­view, you won’t get to cu­rate The Worst of Warhol.’ She says, ‘He was go­ing to give me all the stuff he didn’t like – out­takes of films, the re­ally sex­ual pho­tographs of boys, all the bad paint­ings he never wanted to show. But he died be­fore we could do it.’

When Warhol died of com­pli­ca­tions from gall-blad­der surgery in 1987, there was an al­most overnight re­vi­sion of his rep­u­ta­tion. A year later, Sotheby’s sold a large per­cent­age of his per­sonal ef­fects – in­clud­ing his col­lec­tion of cookie jars – for $25 mil­lion, a world record for such a sale, which went to The Andy Warhol Foun­da­tion for the Vis­ual Arts. That auc­tion turned his rep­u­ta­tion around. Ev­ery­one wanted a piece of him, and in 1989, Warhol fi­nally got the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art ret­ro­spec­tive he had craved. ‘It was shame­ful they hadn’t given him a show,’ says Pow­ell. ‘I boy­cotted the mu­seum for years. And when I went to that ret­ro­spec­tive, ev­ery­one there felt it should have hap­pened when he was alive. It made me sad and an­gry.’

Some of Warhol’s sur­viv­ing in­ner cir­cle be­lieve he still hasn’t re­ceived the credit he de­serves, par­tic­u­larly for his later work. Ear­lier this year, one of Warhol’s 1978 Ox­i­da­tion Paint­ings se­ries, cre­ated by the artist and as­sis­tants uri­nat­ing on chem­i­cally treated can­vases, sold for $3,375,000 at Sotheby’s in New York. Shiner was de­lighted. ‘The Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art de­cided to sell works of white male artists in or­der to buy works by women and artists of colour. What’s more phe­nom­e­nal than that?’

Deitch, con­versely, be­lieves the sale is a scan­dal. ‘The estab­lish­ment doesn’t fully ap­pre­ci­ate those works,’ he says. ‘I was very sur­prised to see the mu­seum deac­ces­sion that paint­ing. It’s shock­ing. The work Warhol was cre­at­ing in the last stage of his ca­reer, while en­gag­ing with Basquiat, Har­ing, [Ju­lian] Schn­abel and [Francesco] Clemente – all of whom saw him as their most im­por­tant in­spi­ra­tion – found him ex­plor­ing new ap­proaches to ab­strac­tion. The Rorschach, Ox­i­da­tion, Cam­ou­flage and Shad­ows paint­ings are among the most bril­liant works he did.’

De­spite ob­serv­ing his sup­port and en­gage­ment, some crit­ics found the close­ness of Warhol to New York’s young artists prob­lem­atic, par­tic­u­larly his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Basquiat. Sav­age re­views of their joint show at Tony Shafrazi’s Soho gallery in 1985 caused a per­ma­nent rift be­tween Warhol and Basquiat. ‘The art world saw Andy as a vam­pire bat,’ says Vin­cent Fre­mont, who was vice-pres­i­dent of Andy Warhol

En­ter­prises. ‘Basquiat was called a

“mas­cot” in the New York Times re­view, which was re­ally dam­ag­ing.’

If Warhol’s hunger for col­lab­o­ra­tion and in­no­va­tion was one stick used to beat him, his pol­i­tics or lack of them was an­other. For a pe­riod,

In­ter­view was per­ceived as some­thing of a per­versely Repub­li­can ci­tadel. Bob Co­la­cello, who served as ed­i­tor, de­scribed him­self to the Toronto Star as ‘a con­trar­ian’. ‘If you func­tion and live in the New

York art and me­dia world,’ he told a re­porter, ‘be­ing a

Repub­li­can is, like, more shock­ing than, I don’t know, be­ing mar­ried to your aunt or un­cle.’ It was Co­la­cello who put Nancy Reagan on the cover of In­ter­view in

De­cem­ber 1981, and Reagan’s daugh­ter-in-law Do­ria worked for the mag­a­zine for a while. Most, how­ever, saw

Warhol as placidly pro-demo­crat. ‘He was sig­nif­i­cantly on the left in his per­sonal pol­i­tics,’ says Gop­nik. ‘Gay ac­tivists weren’t hugely fond of him, but he still stood as the first no­tably out gay fig­ure in the art world. He was al­ways con­tribut­ing to an Aids fundraiser of some kind.’

While Donna De Salvo was plan­ning this au­tumn’s ret­ro­spec­tive, she spent hours mov­ing minia­ture ver­sions of Warhol’s work around the walls of a model of the Whit­ney on her desk, in­clud­ing rarely seen mono­chrome pieces based on pho­to­copied fly­ers that lo­cal char­ac­ters were hand­ing out on the sub­way (‘Re­pent and Sin No More!’) and sev­eral of the 472 dif­fer­ently coloured sun­sets he did for the be­d­rooms of a Philip John­son-de­signed ho­tel in Min­neapo­lis. On the next ta­ble was a ma­que­tte of the sum­mer’s David Wo­j­narow­icz show. The jux­ta­po­si­tion was pro­found: two gay artists, both work­ing in down­town Man­hat­tan in the 1980s in the midst of the Aids cri­sis, but cre­at­ing work that couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. Wo­j­narow­icz – who lived in a hovel in the East Vil­lage – was all sex and fury, while Warhol was lux­ury and celebrity. Any as­so­ci­a­tion with the Reagan ad­min­is­tra­tion, which had done noth­ing to fight the dev­as­ta­tion of Aids, was of course toxic.

D’of­fay’s sugges­tion that Warhol pre­dicted the 21st-cen­tury po­lit­i­cal land­scape is in­trigu­ing. In a way, Warhol and to­day’s POTUS worked to a sim­i­lar busi­ness model. They both de­vel­oped brands based around wealth and the in­di­vid­ual in the same city and decade. Un­sur­pris­ingly, their paths crossed re­peat­edly. Warhol and Trump first met at a party for Roy Cohn (the shark-like lawyer who ap­pears as a ne­far­i­ous clos­eted ho­mo­pho­bic Repub­li­can with Aids in Tony Kush­ner’s play An­gels in Amer­ica).

Marc Balet, who was art di­rec­tor at In­ter­view for the last 10 years of Warhol’s life, was em­ployed by Trump in 1981 to work on a ‘ma­g­a­logue’ to pro­mote his re­cently com­pleted pri­apic sky­scraper on Fifth Av­enue. Af­ter a dis­cus­sion be­tween Trump and Balet, it was agreed that Warhol would cre­ate a se­ries of silk screens of the new build­ing to go on dis­play in the res­i­den­tial lob­bies. ‘Trump thought it would be groovy, and it was,’ says Balet. ‘But the mo­ron do­ing the in­te­rior de­sign said they weren’t up to the Trump stan­dards. Can you imag­ine what stan­dards those might be? So that was it. And Andy was fu­ri­ous… he did work and didn’t get paid.’ It’s amus­ing to note Trump’s mon­u­men­tal fail­ure to see the work as an in­vest­ment and buy it re­gard­less. The art of the deal, in­deed.

But for­tunes and rep­u­ta­tions, as the world has seen, can change. One won­ders what a 90-year-old Warhol would be do­ing to­day. Who knows, he might have be­come pres­i­dent. Andy Warhol, From A to B and Back Again, is at the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art, New York, 12 Novem­ber-31 March 2019

‘Gay ac­tivists weren’t fond of him, but he was the first no­tably out fig­ure in art’

Right Cam­ou­flage, 1986, from one of Warhol’s fi­nal ex­hi­bi­tions be­fore his death

Top Warhol with au­thor Tama Janowitz at a New York book din­ner in 1986.Above Doc­u­men­tary maker and con­fi­dante Paige Pow­ell at Lime­light, Au­gust 1984

Right From the Rorschach se­ries, 1984

Above With Ivana and Don­ald Trump around 1980

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