Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in 1928 to Slovak immigrant parents in Pittsburgh, USA. How a working-class boy came to anatomize his country in a handful of defining images (car crashes, race riots, electric chairs) is the subject of this huge and scrupulously researched biography by Blake Gopnik. At almost 1000 pages, Warhol: A Life as Art makes significant demands on the reader’s time, patience and, one might add, wrists (the book is heavier than a housebrick). It is worth persevering, however, as Gopnik digs deep into the life of one of the most unlikely mythmakers of our time.



Before Warhol made his name in the early 1960s with his mass-produced Pop, the “genteel” world of easel painting had been violently rejected by the Abstract Expressionists, Gopnik reminds us. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and other American intransigents had spattered and jabbed at and their canvases with paint. Their influence was often baleful, though. The British artist William Green, who studied in the late 1950s under Professor Carel Weight at the Royal College of Art, made giant aggressive abstracts by riding a bicycle over hardboards saturated in paraffin or bitumen. (“So much for the undercoat”, the comedian Tony Hancock lampooned Green in his 1961 film The Rebel.)


Warhol himself often invited ridicule. The use he made of cigarette packets and other commercial packaging (his 1964 ‘White Brillo Boxes’) suggested a PR-savvy, headline-hunting impresario, who was rather more interested in money than in art. Yet, as Gopnik argues, even at his most “Pop”, Warhol upheld a tradition of fine art and draftsmanship. His famous “minted” dollar pictures of 1961 involved hand-printing the hand-drawn bills – a good deal of care and craft.


Gopnik is not the first to detect a religious iconography in Warhol’s silk screens of Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy and other celebrities. Warhol had gone to church at least since he was a child in 1940s Pittsburgh, when he had to walk more than a mile each Sunday to pray at St. John Chrysostom Greek (“Byzantine”) Catholic Church. His religious faith deepened in 1968 after an attempt was made on his life by the radical feminist Valerie Solanas.



Like his adored mother Julia Warhola, Warhol held Catholics to a high moral standard, and privately upbraided the Italo-American film director Martin Scorsese for his divorce and remarriage. Painfully shy, Wahol made a point of leaving Mass before the Sign of Peace, however, which he said he disliked (“I always cringe when you have to shake hands with the people next to you”.)



Warhol’s sense of religious duty, undimmed since his Pittsburgh childhood, encouraged him to volunteer for work in New York soup kitchens and to spend Christmas and Thanksgiving among the city’s homeless, says Gopnik. Unsurprisingly, he was thrilled in 1980 to attend a papal audience with John Paul II in Rome. “You’re Andy Warhol!” a nun yelled at him, adding: “Can I have your autograph?” (Warhol was disturbed to note her resemblance to the pistol-toting Valerie Solanas.) A memorial service was held for him at New York’s St Patrick Cathedral on his death in 1987, at the age of 58. Gopnik’s biography, by turns gossipy and informative, is the last word we shall have on the sphinx-like Warhol, his silver wig and all.