Painting Out Pop

"Andy Warhol" as a Character in 90s Films

How to Cite

Turnock, J. (1999). Painting Out Pop: "Andy Warhol" as a Character in 90s Films. M/C Journal, 2(4).
Vol. 2 No. 4 (1999): Pop
Published 1999-06-01

Film directors in American cinema have used the artist (painter, singer, thespian, writer, etc.) as a vehicle for auteurist identification in feature bio-pics for decades. The portrayal of the protagonists in these films usually falls victim to the "Van Gogh" syndrome, that is, the insistance on the creative inner turmoil, the solitary, misunderstood genius, and brave rebellion of its central character. This approach, however, breaks down completely when confronted with the void that is the historical figure known as "Andy Warhol." The popular image of Warhol, his studied superficiality, unapologetic commercialism, and outright catatonic demeanour, is completely disruptive to the traditional humanist artist biography. It is unsurprising, then, that recent film protagonists within the more traditional bio-pic framework found Warhol a figure that needed to be contained, neutralised, discredited, and even shot.

Mainstream cinematic narrative has added little to the conventions of the artist biography since the Renaissance. Renaissance painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari appropriated the Petrarchian edifying "Great Lives" model to ennoble and sanitise the often problematic and distasteful personalities who populated the Italian art world. This approach prevailed over the next several hundred years, and was expanded upon by the intellectual figures of the Romantic period (who were very aware of Vasari's work). The Romantics contributed to the profile of a proper artist the following traits: misunderstood intellectual fury, dark psychological depths, and flouting of social convention. The bio-pic genre, especially as it relates to biographies of artists, also lauds humanistic "greatness" as its standard of significance. The bio-pic absolutely relies on a strong central figure, who can be shown in about two hours to have some substantial educational value, worthy of the expense of the film-makers and the attention of the viewer.

In the mid-1990s, not long after his unexpected death in 1987, a character called "Andy Warhol" appeared in supporting roles in a number of feature films. The Doors (1991), Basquiat (1996), and I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) all feature an Andy Warhol character grounded squarely in various popular myths. All of the three 90s feature films which include Warhol in a substantial speaking role explicitly contrast him against another artist-figure. This other artist is presented as somehow preferable to Warhol, whether in conviction, authenticity, or validity of vision. The artist in question, Basquiat/Morrison/Solanas, predictably serves as the film-makers' lens through which the past is refracted (though more problematically in the case of Solanas). Warhol is outward sign of Basquiat's slide, the danger of fame-mongering for Morrison, and Valerie Solanas's misogynist nemesis. In each case, the more valorised figure is at first twinned with Warhol when drawn into his orbit. Eventually, the film's narrative contrasts the main subject against what the diegetic Warhol represents. In each case, Warhol becomes a metonymic representation of a larger organising factor: the economic/personality-driven entertainment industry, phallocentric hegemony, art's dead end, etc.

The demonisation of Warhol in recent bio-pics is a good starting point for examining how his image is being interpreted by the mainstream media. It is clear that in this particular forum, Warhol's impact is understood only negatively. The purpose of this study will be to demonstrate how uncomfortable the creative arts world in general, and narrative film-making in particular, is with the "empty" legacy of Warhol and his Factory, and how the reactions against it illustrate a fear of Warhol's anti-humanist, subject-less project.

It is fascinating that in the feature films, Warhol appears solely as a character in other people's stories rather than as the focus of biographical treatment. Warhol's very conscious emptying-out project has made nearly impossible any effort to deal with him and his legacy in any traditional narrative manner. Warhol's public persona -- simple, boring, derivative, and unheroic -- is directly at odds with the conventional "artist-hero" subjects necessary to the bio pic genre. This type is seen most typically in the old potboilers The Agony and the Extasy, about Michelangelo, and Lust for Life, about Van Gogh, as well as the more recent Artemisia about Artemisia Gentileschi.

The very fact of Andy's posthumous film career fits neatly into his performative œuvre as a whole, and is easily interpreted as an extension of his life-long project. Warhol's entire self-imaging stratagem steadfastly affirmed that there is no center to illuminate -- no "real" Andy Warhol behind the persona. Warhol constantly disavowed any "meaning" beyond the surface of his art works, and ascribed it no value beyond market price. He preferred methods and forms (advertising, silk-screening, and film-making) that were easy for his Factory workers to execute and endlessly duplicate after his vague orders. Further, he ascribed no importance to his own bodily shell as "artist Andy Warhol". In an act of supreme self-branding, Warhol sent actors to impersonate him at lectures (most famously at University of Utah, who demanded he return the lecture fee), since he was only a packaged, reproducible product himself. In Warhol's art, there is no hand-made integrity, no originality, no agonised genius in a garret. He displays none of the traits that traditionally have allowed artists to be called geniuses. Warhol's studio's automation, the laying bare of the cheapest and slickest aspects of the culture industry, has long been the most feared facet of Warhol's artistic legacy. It is beside the point to argue that Warhol's meaninglessness is thematised to the degree that it has meaning. Warhol's erasure of all humanistic "aura" clearly remains threatening to a great number of artists, who rely heavily on such artistic stereotypes.


In 1996's Basquiat, painter/director Julian Schnabel used the dead painter as a proxy for telling his "I was there" version of the 80s New York art scene. In Schnabel's rather heavy-handed morality tale, young African-American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat's meteoric burn-out career is treated as a metaphor for the 80s art world as a whole.

Schnabel clearly knows his Vasari. His film's scenario is a barely modified adaptation of humanist/romantic artist mythology. Traces of Vasari's tale of Cimabue's discovery of Giotto, as well as Van Gogh's various misunderstood artist scenarios are laboriously played out. In fact, the first words in the film invoke the Van Gogh cliché, foregrounding Schnabel's myth-making impulse. They are art critic Rene Ricard's, speaking over Basquiat waking up in a cardboard box in Central Park: "everyone wants to get on the Van Gogh boat. ... No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh, ... When you first see a new picture, you have to be very careful. You might be staring at Van Gogh's ear."

This quote sets the tone for Basquiat's art world experience narrative, trotting out every single Van Gogh-inspired legend (with heroin abuse standing in for the cut-off ear) to apply to Basquiat. In fact, the film veritably thematises Romantic cliché. The film's main project is the mythologisation of Jean-Michel and by extension Schnabel. However, by foregrounding the Van Gogh/Basquiat connection in such self-conscious terms, it seems the viewer is supposed to find it "ironic". (The irony is really that this po-mo window dressing is otherwise deeply at odds with the rest of the film's message.) The film suggests that Basquiat is both worthy of the allusion to the great humanistic tradition, and that his special case ("the first great black painter") changes all the rules and makes all clichés inapplicable.

Schnabel's art, which is usually described as "Neo-Abstract Expressionist", and particularly his market value, relies heavily on the aura created by previous artists in the macho heroic mold. His paintings take up Pollock's "all over" effect but with de Kooning's jauntier color. He also fastens found objects, most famously broken plates, in a pastiche of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Like Warhol, Schnabel often borrows recognisable motifs. However, instead of advertising and popular culture, Schnabel's come from a more elevated tradition; Old Master paintings appropriated from "legitimate" art history.

Needless to say, Julian Schnabel himself has much invested in reaffirming the artist-genius myth that is threatening to be deconstructed by a good number of art critics and historians. Schnabel's agenda is specifically art historical, though no less political. Schnabel, through Basquiat, restores the artist to his proper place as individual creator challenging the outmoded conventions of established art. Warhol, portrayed as the quintessential post-modern artist, represents all that has gone wrong in the art world: superficiality, mass production, commodification, popular culture influence, and the erasure of art history and deep significance. In spite of the film's self-consciousness about the phoniness of the gallery scene, Basquiat's lionisation by it validates a retrograde concept of "pure" artist's vision. Schnabel is attacking what he sees as the deadening effect of post-modernism that threatens Schnabel's own place in art history.

Basquiat's escalating drug problem and alliance late in the film with Warhol signals that he has followed the wrong direction, that he is hitting a dead end. The character Milo (Gary Oldman), the Schnabel manqué, sets up the contrast to illustrate Basquiat's slide. Milo is aligned with all that is exemplary in establishment virtues of hearth and home (doting fatherhood, settled domesticity, good living). The wholesome hand-made integrity of Milo/Schnabel's art, in line with traditional definitions of artistic greatness, is deeply at odds with the affected commercialism of Warhol's work.

Schnabel's artistic influences show up clearly in his very marked progressive view of art history and clearly named privileged pantheon. In the film, Schnabel is at pains to insert Basquiat and himself into this tradition. The very first scene of the film sees Jean-Michel as a child with his mother at the MOMA, where she is in tears in front of Picasso's Guernica. In the narrative, this is quickly followed by Ricard's Van Gogh quote above. As an adult, Jean-Michel enacts Rauschenberg's edict, to "narrow the gap between art and life". This is illustrated by Jean-Michel not restricting his artistic output to work on canvas in a studio. He graffitis walls, signs table tops à la Rauschenberg, and makes designs on a diner countertop in maple syrup. Later, Jean-Michel is shown painting in his studio walking around the canvas on the floor, in an all-over technique, mirroring the familiar Hans Namuth film of Jackson Pollock. Aligning Jean-Michel with the pre-Warhol, and especially Abstract Expressionist artists, positions Basquiat and Schnabel together against the "dead end" of Warhol's version of Pop. Basquiat and the director have inherited the "right" kind of art, and will be the progenitors of the next generation.

Warhol as a "dead end" leads to a discussion of the relationship between artists' procreative sexuality and their art. In the film, Warhol is assumed to be asexual (rather than homosexual), and this lack of virility is clearly linked to the sterility, transitoriness, and barrenness of his art. Schnabel/Milo and Basquiat, in their marked heterosexuality, are the "fathers" of the next generation. In Basquiat's collaboration with Warhol, even Andy understands his own impotence. Warhol says, "I can't teach you anything, you're a natural, are you kidding me?", and most importantly, "you paint out everything I do, Jean-Michel". By privileging Jean-Michel's art (and his own) over Warhol's, Schnabel is clearly trying to paint out the mutation of the Warholisation of art, and paint in his own art historical eugenics.

The Doors

In a less substantial role but in a similar vein, Warhol also appears briefly in Oliver Stone's 1991 The Doors, as part of a brief "rising fame" montage of New York incidents. Like Schnabel, Stone has a lot to lose from investment in Warhol's spiritual and aesthetic emptiness. Though brief, Warhol's appearance in the film, like in Basquiat, serves as a cautionary tale for its hero. The contrast made between the vacuous Factory crowd and the "authentic" Doors presages the dominant trope for the Warhol character that Schnabel would expand upon later. The Factory sequence dramatises the glamour and seductiveness of the hollow side of fame that may lead Morrison off his spiritual-quest path. The Native American shaman who Jim sees at pivotal points in his life appears at the Factory, warning him not to take the wrong path represented by Warhol. The Doors are at a pivotal moment, the onset of fame, and must act carefully or risk ending up as meaningless as Warhol.

Stone's chronicling of the 60s relies heavily on what could be called the humanist ideal of the power of the individual to effect change, raise consciousness, and open minds. Via Stone's simple reductiveness, Warhol represents here the wrong kind of counter-culture, the anti-hippie. By emulating Warhol, the Doors follow the wrong shaman. To Stone, Warhol's superficiality represents all that is dangerous about celebrity and entertainment: the empty, mind-destroying cocaine high of the masses.

I Shot Andy Warhol

The film I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) problematises the idea put forth in the other films of Warhol as artistic anti-Christ, simply because the film's subject is much more difficult to heroise, and like Warhol does not fit snugly into bio-pic conventions. Like Basquiat, the film also takes the point of view of a protagonist at the edge of Warhol's sphere of influence, here radical feminist and S.C.U.M. (the Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto scribe Valerie Solanas, in order to criticise what Warhol represents. Unlike the previous films, here Warhol's character is central to the narrative. Although Warhol clearly represents something very negative to the Solanas character, the film never fully endorses its subject's point of view. That Warhol deserved and needed to be shot for any reason beyond Solanas's personal demons is never established. Perhaps this ambivalence is a flaw of the film, but it is also telling about the problematic legacies of feminism and Pop, two movements that have led to challenges of the hero-artist ideal.

In this film, the relationship between Warhol and the main protagonist is extremely complex. Andy and his crowd are presented as clearly odious. Though Valerie comes off as more interesting and sympathetic, she is also still clearly an unhinged oddball spewing specious ideology. Within the film, Valerie's attraction to the Factory scene seems to stem from something her friend, transvestite Candy Darling, says: "if anyone can make you a star, Andy Warhol can". Valerie desperately wants attention for her radicalism (and likely for other psychological reasons, which make radicalism attractive to her, as well), and sees Andy's power for "star-making", especially among the more marginal of society, as something from which she can profit. Valerie's mistake seems to be in confusing the artistic avant-garde with the politically radical. Valerie finds kinship in Warhol's androgyny and lack of enthusiasm for sex, but does not realise immediately that Andy is interested in her play Up Your Ass primarily for its titillation and shock value, and is entirely uninterested in it from a content standpoint.

The content/emptiness conflict in Valerie and Andy's "artistic visions" becomes one of the major thematics in the film. Though like Solanas, he finds community with margin-dwellers, Andy is portrayed as far too implicated in and dependent on the so-called culture industry in order to be "Andy Warhol -- Superstar". Andy's interest in the low-life that Valerie represents is, of course, wholly superficial, which enrages her. She sees no worthy theoretical position in the banal contentlessness of Andy's circle. Valerie's manifesto and dramatic works have almost an excess of content. They work to kick people in the balls to get them to open their eyes and see the appalling conditions around them. The Warhol here, like in The Doors, wants people to see empty banality, but has no interest in effecting change. Valerie's play, as read simultaneously in the lesbian coffee shop and at Andy's studio, dramatises this divergence. When Warhol and crowd read the script with dull inflection, inert on the couch, one can imagine the very words being put to use in a Warhol film. When Valerie and friends perform those same words, the passionate engagement and deep meaningfulness -- at least to Valerie -- capture her urgent commitment to her ideas.

As Valerie gets more desperate to disseminate her ideas, and thus begins to further alienate the Factory crowd, she starts to see Andy as in fact the bodily symbol of the "man" she wants cut up. Not only does he represent the patriarch of the art world who has dismissed her and has invalidated her vision, but also more broadly the hierarchy and deep structure of Andy's world parallels the consumeristic and image-driven society at large. If Valerie wants to live with integrity within her own code, the "man" must be deposed. On top of the personal gratification she would receive in this act, Solanas would also finally find a world-wide audience for her views. Now we can understand why, when asked by the press why she shot Andy, Valerie tells them "he had too much control over my life."

Unhappily, instead of women rising up against their male oppressors to take up their rightful place of superiority, Solanas gets labeled a "lunatic" by the same media and larger establishment which (in this film) proclaim Warhol a genius. Solanas dissolves into a bit-player in the Andy Warhol story. One of the major interests of this film is that it excerpts a player from the limits of that "master narrative" story and allows them their own subjecthood. I Shot Andy Warhol, with its assertive quotational title, seems to want to reinscribe subjecthood to one of the most truly radical of Andy's superstars, reclaiming the value of Valerie's polemics from the emptiness of her anecdotal role in Warhol's biography.

Though Valerie clearly sees Andy as her nemesis, the film constructs him as a boring, ineffectual, self-absorbed effete. The great weakness of the film is that their conflict begins to look like a midget wrestling contest. Since both are competing for higher freakdom, the broader implications of either of their projects are only rarely glimpsed.

It should be clear by now that for so many, fictional Warhol is not just a problematic figure, but nearly a monstrous one. The film-makers clearly show what elements of Warhol's representative strategy they find so threatening. Schnabel and Stone have the most to lose in the replacement of their value systems (genius investment and 60s macho spirituality) by what they perceive as postmodern de-centredness, and therefore need to attack that threat the most forcefully. Less conservatively, for Harron, Warhol's Pop objectification of everyone, including women, seems to threaten women's hard-won subjectivity through feminism.

Warhol, Morrison, Basquiat and Solanas were all artists who played heavily on their roles as outsiders to mainstream society. These films build the film-makers' soapbox on the "right" way to be alienated, bourgeois-hating, and rebellious, and the films assume a sympathetic viewing audience. Even though the interest in Warhol and his flashy milieu probably got at least two of these films made in the first place, it seems clear that even the more independently-minded film establishment would rather align themselves with the romanticised artist bio-pic subject than the black hole they fear Warhol personifies.

Perhaps the character Andy Warhol is put to most appropriate use when he is only glimpsed, such as in the films Death Becomes Her, where he appears as one of the party guests for people who have taken the magic potion to live forever, and as part of the 70s glam wallpaper in 54. This kind of "product placement" use of Warhol most succinctly encapsulates the vacant banality he espoused. In these films, Warhol is unburdened by other artists' attempts to fill him up with meaning. Warhol is taken at his word. His easily recognisable and reproducible bodily shell is hollow and superficial, just as he said it was.

Warhol, Morrison, Basquiat and Solanas were all artists who played heavily on their roles as outsiders to mainstream society. These films build the film-makers' soapbox on the "right" way to be alienated, bourgeois-hating, and rebellious, and the films assume a sympathetic viewing audience. Even though the interest in Warhol and his flashy milieu probably got at least two of these films made in the first place, it seems clear that even the more independently-minded film establishment would rather align themselves with the romanticised artist bio-pic subject than the black hole they fear Warhol personifies.

Author Biography

Julie Turnock