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Becoming Andy Warhol (Review)

Becoming Andy Warhol
Abrams Comicsart, 2016
Writer: Nick Bertozzi

To the best of our knowledge, the last time a comic book addressed the art and artistry of American pop art icon Andy Warhol was in a Vertigo Comics’ 2004 experimental project entitled “Vertical”. That stand-alone comic was unconventionally formatted to resemble a series of photographic frames. Writer and artist Mike Allred within “Vertical” told the story of a romance within the subculture of Mr Warhol’s base of operations, called the Factory, and artistically conveyed this using the plainly recognisable frames of reference of Mr Warhol’s brand of pop art.

“Becoming Andy Warhol” is slightly different from “Vertical” in that the plot, rather than the illustration of the story, is a manifestation of pop art. The comic consists of a sequence of chapters which capture Mr Warhol’s life both before he was famous, and as he became successful.

The comic has no conclusion. It tells a barely perceptible story. If there is a link between each chapter, then it is that Mr Warhol was very lucky to achieve success. Further, the comic clearly portrays Mr Warhol as petty, disloyal, gauche, and thoroughly unlikeable.

In that regard, perhaps the plot, like Mr Warhol’s art, has no real meaning save that which writer Nick Bertozzi’s audience wishes to read into it. We interpret the comic as a thoroughly overdue and worthy exercise in character assassination.

In this meticulously researched comic, Mr Warhol is depicted as starting his artistic career in 1962 as an illustrator for advertisers in fashion magazines. The illustrations were for ladies’ accessories, and it is clear from this story that Mr Warhol despised both the subject matter of his drawings and the commissions he received as beneath him. It seems that this was partly driven by an early pretentiousness, and partly by a complicated and diminishing relationship with women defined by his homosexuality.

The only two women in this story are Mr Warhol’s promoter, the Stables art gallery owner Eleanor Ward, and his mother Julia Warhola. Ms Ward is eventually discarded by Mr Warhol despite serving as the scaffold for his initial success, and is replaced by a better-networked art gallery owner named Leo Castelli. Mr Warhol’s climb to success was characterised by systemic turning away from friends and loyal colleagues when they had nothing left to offer.

Mr Warhol lived with his mother, at least within the timeframe covered by this story. Mrs Warhola doted on him, nagged him, and treated him as a small boy. For Mr Warhol’s part, he interacted with his mother as if he were a cranky teenager. In the very telling, short Chapter Ten of this comic, Mrs Warhol is depicted as struck by grief when watching the 1963 funeral of US President John F. Kennedy. She wails over the famous televised images of the very young John Kennedy Jr saluting his dead father’s coffin. Mr Warhol’s mother predicts the president’s son will have an unhappy future, for boys need their fathers to thrive. That, she says, is what went wrong with Mr Warhol. Even the artist’s mother recognises that her son is dreadfully flawed. Speaking of the widowed First Lady: “She cannot be the father of their children, that boy… He needs… He will be destroyed by this, like you were.”

There is some attention paid within the plot to Mr Warhol’s love life, but it is apparently just as meaningless as his art. There is even-handed approval given to the moments of inspiration: the famous installation of Brillo boxes was a sudden and impulsive flourishing of creative insight, as was the enormous screen print of “most wanted” photographs of criminals created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair exhibition in but which was too controversial to be exhibited.

On the other hand, it is apparent from this text that the screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley were created by Mr Warhol entirely to profit from the fame of those celebrities The strategy to raid the tomb, to monetise the fame and media attention paid to Marilyn Monroe immediately upon her death is, as detailed in this comic, slightly offensive. (Another point of inspiration, a series of photographs around car crashes and suicides, was suggested to Mr Warhol by friend and early hanger-on Henry Geldzahler, and was commercially unsuccessful.)

The comic portrays Mr Warhol as lazy – he prefers photographs as his art because painting is too hard. It portrays Mr Warhol as a drug abuser – he is addicted to diet pills in a time when such prescription medication mostly consisted of pseudoephedrine. It portrays him as an offensive bore – he is very rough around the edges and has no sense of what to say and when (Mr Warhol screams out, “Yes! With a giant silver cock!” while dining at an avant garde restaurant). And it portrays Mr Warhol as deliberately counter-pretentious – in order to counter his stilted understanding of art theory, he is coached by Mr Geldzahler to sardonically mystify his art by asserting that it had no meaning, and that he didn’t understand it. This was a crutch for Mr Warhol’s inarticulate and bumbling verbal explanations of his art. And yet it worked, bemusing and purporting to hide the true meaning of what Mr Warhol intended in his artistic expressions.

If art is a mirror for the soul, Mr Warhol’s purposively reflected nothing. Indeed, it seems there was nothing to reflect.

This comic does its job well in demystifying Mr Warhol. Despite the pop art plot, its factual precision is a dagger to the heart of Mr Warhol’s character. There is not much left to like in Mr Warhol by the end of the comic. There is indeed only the art, which is as meaningless as Mr Warhol himself.