Andy Warhol, arguably the most famous pop artist of the twentieth century, passed away in his sleep from sudden post-operative arrhythmia after gallbladder surgery in February 1987. Not the ending to a life as colourful as Warhol’s that you might envision.
However, there were always two sides to Warhol’s life, one more glamorous than the other. Although undoubtedly defined by his art, it was also characterised by loneliness. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1928 to parents originally from an area of Europe that is now Slovakia, English was his second language, and he spoke it with a heavy accent. This marked him as coming from among the lowest of the city’s immigrant working classes. He was a painfully shy child and although he was never actively bullied at school, he would always struggle socially.
However, he once famously said “I come from nowhere”, referring to life in an immigrant family as well as to the myth of self-creation, and the 1960s saw his reinvention into the pop artist that established him as a household name. His awkwardness and solitude persisted into later life; renowned for the parties hosted in his work space known as the Silver Factory, he would stay in the corner, painting or working, on the edge of things but never fully involved. Always alone in a crowd, pop art was a medium that allowed Warhol’s art and loneliness to align. In her book The Lonely City, Olivia Laing says, “Sameness, especially for the immigrant, the shy boy agonisingly aware of his failures to fit in, is a profoundly desirable state.” This is at least in part where the origins of the cans of Campbell soup and the many multi-coloured faces of Marilyn Monroe can be traced to. Laing points out that Warhol painted “objects whose value derives not because they’re rare or individual but because they are reliably the same.”
Art and technology were liberating for Warhol. He’d always struggled with language and talking but, inspired by a perverse fondness for speech errors, he frequently used a tape recorder, making over 4,000 audiotapes throughout his career. These included a, an audiobook comprised solely of recorded speech of those around him. In the words of the critic John Richardson: “He made a virtue of his vulnerability, and forestalled or neutralised any possible taunts. Nobody could ever ‘send him up’. He had already done so himself.”