My name is Rick Schwab, and I worked with Andy Warhol, photographing his paintings from 1983 until his death. I spent many hours with him; both in and outside his studio. And the following are my impressions:
Although I have known many artists, as an expert on art and art history, I am none. All I know is what I feel when I stand before a work of art. And for me and the rest of us, that is a very good starting point.
Like Andy, I grew up Catholic in a grimy, working class industrial city. His home was Pittsburgh; mine was Buffalo. Andy still went to St. Patrick’s most Sundays and I would meet him after Mass, at The Factory. His memorial was held at St. Patrick’s, a few weeks after he died.
Why did Warhol make the kind of art that he did? Andy knew that there was a purpose to his existence. And from the moment he arrived in New York, he reveled in being a catalyst. In Warhol’s world, everything was connected to everything else: society, art, money, and people’s relationships to each other. He was a participant, voyeur, provocateur, and madly in love with humanity. He knew that the power in art comes not from the materials it is made from or what it looks like. Rather, art’s power comes from how it affects people. Pop Art was Andy’s mirror that he held up before the world. Using images that were well-known to all. Thereby making the experience of art bigger, and affecting more people, than anyone had ever done before. He celebrated the unique experience of looking at art, while playing a joke on it too.
Warhol treated his fame seriously. As if he had a contract with society to keep. His wigs were very important to him. He would buy them himself at a big store on the south side of West 14th Street. He called them “hooker wigs” because a lot of prostitutes shopped there and he trimmed each wig himself. I would watch him walk around the studio with a pair of shears, snipping here and there, checking himself in a mirror, now and then. When he had cut the wig just right, he would place it on a peg, on a 4 by 8 foot sheet of plywood, leaning against the wall. There could be 8 or 10 wigs on that plywood. Looking like some weird
Coney Island carney game. Toss a ring around one of the wigs and get a prize.
New York Society’s prize was Warhol, showing up at an opening, or night club, or whatever. Halston once said that “Andy would go to the opening of an envelope.” To Warhol, attending all these things kept him in the spotlight, and gave him lots of what he enjoyed, on a personal level, the most: gossip.
Andy loved to gossip. It was his personal passion. He created a magazine called; “Interview” which was really just another vehicle in which to “dish.” In the eighties, when I knew him, his entourage included the socialite; Cornelia Guest and rock star wife, Bianca Jagger. He had a way of concentrating his voice at you when he spoke. He could talk in a tone barely above a whisper, but would aim right for your ear, and, even in a crowded room, you could hear everything he said. I remember him at an opening, standing next to Ms. Guest and dishing to me about her for several minutes. She didn’t hear a word.
But while Warhol loved to gossip, he hated the idea of anyone gossiping about him! His boyhood shyness was always right there, below the surface. Once, while I was photographing at The Factory, a popular rock group, known as “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” was being interviewed by Andy for his magazine. The lead singer, Holly Johnson, loudly announced that he wanted his picture on the cover and asked Andy who the publisher was so he could have sex with him. Someone immediately told Johnson that the publisher was Warhol. The room went silent and I watched Andy turn 20 shades of red in embarrassment. The interview pretty much ended.
Always the tactician on his career, though, Warhol did allow some gossip about him to circulate. He was very fastidious about his health. He didn’t smoke, drink or do any drugs, and was a vegetarian. He saw too many bright stars destroy themselves, and if he got high, he might have done something stupid that people could gossip about, too. But because of the world he surrounded himself with, the popular legends about him claimed that he did drugs and other dangerous behaviors. Andy did nothing to dispel these rumors. He decided that THAT gossip was constructive, and added to his cachet as an artist.
Society and celebrity mirrored Warhol’s love of life in New York, and inspired his creativity.
And Warhol carried with him a deep understanding of how the universe worked.
I never knew a more focused, diligent and professional artist. In the early eighties, the art market was booming and the new generation of artists, which included
Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat adopted Warhol as their Obi -Wan. It was a natural fit for him, and his creativity blossomed anew. Included with Andy’s cosmic intelligence was a generosity of spirit. That giving of oneself to the world brings enrichment back to that person. No one at The Factory knew about his plans to create a foundation after his death. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts was Andy’s legacy to all of us after he died. Giving grants in support of the visual arts, The Warhol Foundation grows every year, and last year it gave away over 13 million dollars.
Andy Warhol’s art was a gift. His favorite word was “great.” He held his art before us as if it were a mirror with which we could see ourselves and realize how “great” our experience of existence can be.