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Andy Warhol in 1963

Andy Warhol photographed by Dennis Hopper, January 1, 1963

I’ll never come to terms with Andy Warhol, and I don’t think anyone can. Essentially unknowable, he was “the absolute Queen of non-existence” as one observer put it, and the most you could get out of him in casual conversation was “wow” or “really?” or “oh, wow” — with perhaps a “uh, yes” or “uh, no” thrown in for emphasis. In private, he could be much more talkative, but there was always a distinct distance between Warhol and the world, from the start of his career until the all-too-early end.

So much has been written on him; perhaps the best account of life at the various Warhol studios, or “Factories,” is either David Bourdon’s Warhol or Steven Watson’s Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, which is more recent. He was an absolutely serious artist, yet he made it all look ridiculously easy, knocking out silkscreen paintings at such a torrential pace that one felt that there would always be another one, since they were so easily manufactured.

Arguably the most influential visual stylist of the second half of the 20th century, he only lived to the age of 58, after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt on June 3, 1968 by Valerie Solanas, from which he never really recovered. A lifelong Catholic who attended Mass every morning, Warhol was nevertheless emblematic of the demimonde of the New York art world, and his films, paintings, and sculptures were, from the first — with his Disaster paintings, and works like 129 Die in Jet — always tinged with the scent of death.

As he told critic Gene Swenson in 1963 — in “What is Pop Art? Interviews with Eight Painters,” Art News 62 (November 1963) — “I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of the newspaper: 129 Die.  I was also painting the Marilyns.  I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or Labor Day—a holiday—and every time you turned on the radio they said something like ‘4 million are going to die.’  That started it.  But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect.”

And yet, once upon a time, the future seemed limitless for Warhol, as the 1960s were getting under way. At the top of this page is a lovely portrait by Dennis Hopper, now in the Public Domain, of Warhol in a restaurant on New Year’s Day, in 1963. Warhol seems relaxed and absolutely at ease; his career is just taking off. Pop art is about to explode. Warhol will become its principal figure. The world is young. Death is an abstract concept, something far, far away.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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