Think You Know Andy Warhol? Here Are Five Truths That May Surprise

There has probably never been an artist better known to the public than Andy Warhol. But in reality, some of what we think we know is bunkum and myth, quite often spread by the artist himself, who was famous for hiding behind a smoke screen of partial-truths and outright fibs. Here, five revisions of the Warhol story that pierce the fog.

Andy Warhol, Foodie

“I was given the same food for 20 years: soup and sandwiches. And I can tell you, my favorite is Campbell’s Tomato Soup,” said Warhol, explaining how his love for the stuff had made him want to paint it. It’s one of the artist’s more famous pronouncements. It’s also mostly a fib. His archives are full of receipts that show him choosing to eat in some of New York’s best and boldest restaurants. He gorged on Japanese food before most Americans had tasted it; he cooked gourmet meals. In the 1950s, he served pheasant under glass to a friend for Thanksgiving; in the ’70s, a favorite recipe was linguine with caviar. In 1959, he produced a satirical cookbook called “Wild Raspberries" that poked fun at high-end eating. It also proved how much he knew and cared about it. As for Campbell’s, he once said his favorite was Mock Turtle — a flavor more epicurean than popular.

Andy Warhol, Egghead

We all know the image that Warhol cultivated of himself as a dunce: happier with the pictures in comics than the prose in a book; replying to any query with the barest yes or no, as though bigger words were beyond his ken; fingers always poised on lips, like an awkward grade-schooler.

That image happens to have been pure misdirection.

In the 1950s, Warhol’s friend, the French author Philippe Jullian, fell for it at first, then received a letter from the artist and replied, “You know how to write — a shock to me.” The Shakespeare scholar Paul Bertram, a theater buddy of Warhol’s, said that the artist’s comments on the plays they saw were notably sage. When Warhol showed up for the gallbladder operation that ended up killing him, he brought along Kitty Kelley’s 600-page biography of Frank Sinatra as his latest lowbrow read; he also carried a new translation of the diaries of Jean Cocteau, a longtime highbrow hero of his.

“Warhol only plays dumb. It’s his style,” said Henry Geldzahler, the first curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a 1965 interview. “He’s incredibly analytical, intellectual, and perceptive. Why, Andy can make puns in French. But still every so often I fall into the trap. Like once Andy said, ‘What was the First World War all about?’ and I said, ‘Well, the First World War….’ And then I thought, ‘Listen, he knows more about it than you do.’”

Andy Warhol, Love Machine

Somehow, it has become accepted fact that Warhol was largely asexual. I wonder what his many boyfriends — including such prominent figures as Charles Lisanby, John Giorno and Billy Name — would say about that. In 1968, the relationship he began with Jed Johnson, later one of New York’s leading decorators, went on to last a full 12 years; they shared both a home and a bed.

The few lovers still alive talk about his eager, if awkward, maneuvers in bed. He went so far as to take “sex lessons” from a straight couple, according to his former assistant Vito Giallo. Medical records show that Warhol was active enough to need treatment for S.T.D.s.

After 1968, when his torso was permanently damaged by an attacker’s bullet, he didn’t lose interest in sex; what he seemed to like most was watching, and photographing, beautiful men in the act. He even made art from those photos, newly brought to light in the fifth volume of the complete catalog of Warhol’s paintings, published last month.

Andy Warhol, Feminist

Warhol’s feminist side has often been overshadowed by his love for arm-candy, and by the whiff of chauvinism that comes across in his promotion of a series of belles — most notably “Baby” Jane Holzer and Edie Sedgwick — as his “Girl of the Year.” But some of Warhol’s greatest influences were powerful, brainy women. That began with his own mother, a part-time outsider artist, followed, in the early ’60s, by such artists as Marisol, Chryssa, Yayoi Kusama and Yoko Ono. Women artists had long been obliged to adopt colorful public personas just to get noticed at all. Warhol, self-creator par excellence, learned some of his self-sculpting from them. “Women are the world’s major artists,” Warhol said in 1972.

Andy Warhol, Activist

There’s a common notion that Warhol was too impassive an observer to have political interests or opinions. Yet already in college, he got in some trouble for backing the presidential bid of Henry Wallace, a far-left New Dealer. Later, his Pop paintings of soup cans, Green Stamps and other icons of American consumption were often read as critiques — including by him. In Warhol’s first-ever statement on his Pop Art, he talked about how it presented “the symbols of the harsh, impersonal products and brash materialist objects on which America is built today.”

Once Warhol became a famous artist, he used his talents in aid of favored politicians and causes. In 1972, he made a poster for the Democrats that portrayed Richard Nixon as a green-tinted Wicked Witch and four years later he made a rare declaration of his party allegiance: “I voted for Carter. I’m a Democrat.” In 1980, he silk-screened a portrait of Senator Edward M. Kennedy that was issued as a print to raise money for the Democrat’s campaign.

“Like so many really good artists, Warhol is a fraud,” wrote his friend, the critic Gregory Battcock, in 1970. “He is not what he pretends to be. Warhol is not supremely aloof and indifferent, but, rather, deeply committed and surprisingly sophisticated concerning the repressive society.” Battcock concluded that Warhol wasn’t “manning the barricades yet,” but that he had “some understanding as well as sympathy for the causes of protest and revolt in American society.”

Blake Gopnik is writing a biography of Andy Warhol for the HarperCollins imprint, Ecco.

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