The tabloids gave Andy Warhol a Viking funeral last week, as well they might. At 58 he suffered cardiac arrest following gall-bladder surgery. To the end, he remained surrounded by an aura of popular fame such as no other American artist had ever known in his or her lifetime -- a flash-card recognizability that almost rivaled Picasso's. Millions of Americans who could not have picked Jasper Johns or Henri Matisse from a police lineup could identify that pale, squarish, loose-lipped face with its acne, blinking gaze and silvery wig.
He was, after all, that weird guy who did those soup cans a quarter of a century (was it really that long?) ago. The working-class hero, son of an immigrant Czech coal miner named Warhola in Pittsburgh, who for a time acquired a court that seemed almost Habsburgian in scope if not in distinction: the Velazquez dwarfs of the Factory. The guy in the photo with Madonna, Liza, Jackie O. The aesthete who said money was the most important thing in his life and in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, thus offering a tacky sort of transcendence to every hair stylist, fledgling actor and art student in America. The ageless child of media fame who made scores of underground films in which often nothing happened (Empire offered eight hours of staring at the Empire State Building) and who published his own magazine, Interview. Andy, the living transparency, with his face pressed to the shop window of the American dream and his head full of schemes to titillate an aging, youth-obsessed American culture.
Warhol's early works were the ones that mattered. He began as a commercial artist, became for a time (between about 1962 and 1968) a fine artist with something akin to genius and then lapsed back into a barely disguised form of commercial art. His sense of timing, his grip on how to give an image graphic clout, and his fixation on style as an end in itself all came out of his years of advertising and display work during the '50s for I. Miller, Lord & Taylor, Glamour and Vogue. By the end of this period he was rich, professionally famous and yearning for recognition as a serious artist.
The opportunity came with the Pop movement in the early '60s. His contribution was the image taken from advertising or tabloid journalism: grainy, immediate, a slice of unexplained life half-registered over and over, full of slippages and visual stutters. Marilyn Monroe repeated 50 times, 200 Campbell's soup cans, a canvas filled edge to edge with effigies of Liz, Jackie, dollar bills or Elvis. Absurd though these pictures looked at first, Warhol's fixation on repetition and glut emerged as the most powerful statement ever made by an American artist on the subject of a consumer economy. The cranking out of designed objects of desire was so faithfully mirrored in Warhol's images and so approvingly mimicked in his sense of culture that no one, in fact, could be sure what he thought.
He was also, from the outset, much possessed by death. Warhol's multiple- image disasters of the early '60s based on news photos of fatal car wrecks are suffused with dread and compassion beneath their icily casual surface. Such works looked amazingly raw, frank and direct when they were made. More than 20 years later, they still do.