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Happy Birthday Andy Warhol!

August 7, 2013

85 years ago today (August 6, 1928) the great Andy Warhol was born in the steel city, Pittsburgh, PA. If you didn’t know anything about Warhol’s biography, you would never have guessed that he was born in city as blue-collar as Pittsburgh. His unique blend of visual artistry, pop celebrity and glamour (not to mention his flamboyant lifestyle) would lead you to believe that Andy was product of New York City, San Francisco or perhaps even Hollywood. But no, Andy was the son of immigrant parents, strong Catholic Eastern Europeans (whose real last name was Warhola); moreover, Andy himself suffered as a child from Sydenham’s chorea, a nervous system disease that causes involuntary movements of the extremities and caused Andy to remain confined to his bed for large portions of his childhood. His upbringing, his close bond with his mother who cared for him deeply and tirelessly,  the young death of his father and his estrangement from his classmates all had a profound influence on the man who would eventually become Andy Warhol, legendary artist and cultural icon.

These facts – along with many others – are told in detail and with charming ease in the first book I ever read about Warhol, Jan Greenberg’s Andy Warhol, Prince of Pop.  It is a simple but rich biography of Warhol ideally written for a high school student but that should be mandatory reading for anyone who is first being introduced to Warhol. I suspect that there is very little in this book that hasn’t been recounted elsewhere, but the point of Prince of Pop isn’t to break new ground. It is to tell the story of the man’s life in its entirety, without sacrificing any of the controversial elements nor embellishing the already-fantastic tales. One Goodreads commenter described Greenberg’s effort quite well:

One of the first things that I noticed as I was reading the book was how straight forward the author is about Andy Warhol’s life. Although Greenberg does not seem to “beat around the bush” with some of the rather graphic details about Warhol’s life, she is consistently tactful about doing so.

There is so much that can be said about Andy Warhol, but before one delves into any specific aspect of his life, his art, his philosophy, his friends, he or she should get a well-rounded snapshot of everything as a whole. In 200 short pages, Greenberg does this.

Once you’ve passed the beginner stage in your Warhol-itude, there are many directions in which you can go. One book that I enjoyed was Arthur C. Danto’s simply titled, Andy Warhol. This is a biography as well (as many Warhol books are) but it is of a different sort. In Danto’s preface, he says that it is “no more a piece of art history than it is a biography, but rather a study of what makes Warhol so fascinating an artist from a philosophical perspective.” I wrote about this book when I read it this past December and encourage you to read that review now. In it, I try to explain the philosophical themes that I believe Danto meant to convey (a difficult task, seeing as I am neither a philosopher nor an artist). I also discuss visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” a juxtaposition of 45 works by Warhol and 100 works by 60 other artists who were supposedly influenced by him in some way, especially in light of visiting that exhibition almost immediately after finishing Danto’s book.

This is the legacy that the incomparable Andy Warhol has left us with. We are all fortunate to be able to appreciate the myriad works he produced – the Soup Cans, the Marilyns, the Velvet Underground … that’s where we begin, but if we listed all of the fascinating work we’d never end. But there is so much more than that. There is the philosophy. There is the politics. There is the effect on culture. And most importantly, there is the redefining of the word “art” such that almost everything that has come after Warhol can only be analyzed with Warhol in mind. When I say incomparable, it is that contribution to the our culture to which I am referring.

So Happy Birthday Andy … thanks for everything!

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