“The only genius with an IQ of 60” is how Gore Vidal summed up Andy Warhol. It isn’t hard to see what he meant. The point Vidal missed was that Warhol’s unique antennae allowed him to set standards for cool right up to today.
Laid-back, uninvolved, he deliberately turned his back on traditional education – “I never read, I just look at pictures,” he once said – and was given to proclaiming that popular culture was as important, if not more so, than centuries of high art. Warhol was the grit that made the pearl for our times.
He had a go at everything in his studio on 47th Street, New York, which he moved into in 1963. It was called the Factory, to emphasise that what happened there was utilitarian, repetitive and not important. Yet it was the hippest place. Cecil Beaton, Mick Jagger and the like couldn’t wait to breathe its unique air and meet Warhol’s self-selected celebrities – Candy Darling, Joe Dallesandro and, above all, Edie Sedgwick. What happened there has defined much of our culture over the past 40 years.
The Warhol Foundation continually finds new ways to keep our attention; and, independently, there was the 2006 film Factory Girl, starring Sienna Miller. I’m struck by the irony that Warhol has been turned into his own, endlessly churned-out multiple. I’m sure this gets a laconic smile from beyond the grave from the man who said: “Nothing is exciting, nothing is sexy and nothing is not embarrassing.” He knew then what we, in these celebrity-soaked times, are just beginning to discover: that nothing is more corrosive and banal than fame.
(First published June 2006)