Business art: the art of performing business

I recently finished slogging through Blake Gopnik’s epic biography of Andy Warhol. The audio book is 43 ½ hours long, twice as long as the audio version of Dune.

I have mixed impressions of the book. I enjoy Gopnik’s writing in the New York Times. I think his tastes match mine fairly well with mine. His point of view is always deeply informed. Gopnik knows and loves art deeply.

The biography opens like a thriller recounting the story of Andy Warhol getting shot by Valerie Solanas. He describes the event, the injury, and the traumatic surgery in tense detail. Heart pounding. The rest of the biography unfolds decade by decade through Warhol’s entire life. It is thorough.

One critique of the audio book: the narrator chose to impersonate voices throughout the book, including an exaggerated impression of Warhol’s speaking voice. I found this distracting. Warhol was alive and televised in living memory. You can hear his voice on YouTube. That cheesy impression took me out of the narrative. Your experience may vary.

The biography, after that thrilling intro, settles into a long string of anecdotes which are both fascinating but also boring. I know Gopnik is weaving a narrative through Warhol’s life by selecting which anecdotes appear in the book. They foreshadow, they call back, it all works. In the course of the writing Warhol’s life feels like a laundry list of historical events. But isn’t everyone’s?

This is a tempered recommendation. This book isn’t for everyone; It’s a commitment. If you are interested in art history, and Warhol in particular, the book is great. If you want to peer deep into the world of New York City in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s - this book is amazing. Warhol was there for all of it. Through Gopnik’s writing you get to be in the same room with gods and monsters. It’s an intimate portrait of a complex person and artist.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know that Andy Warhol was gay. For that matter, I embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were also gay (and lovers for a time). I revere these artists. They (along with Sol LeWitt) form the foundation of my understanding and approach to art.

I can’t believe I knew so little about them as people.

My formal art education was through college and grad school in the mid to late 1990s. Art School - even at a state university - is notoriously liberal. There were openly gay students and faculty. Why didn’t our history professors talk about this?  It’s a shameful omission.

It’s my own fault that I tend to focus on the art, not the artist. I think about the what and the how, and then the effect of the art. By not understanding who these artists are I never understood the why.

Gopnik’s Warhol tells the life story of its subject but also shows us how Warhol’s identity as a gay man informed and shaped his work and his public persona. Gopnik would argue Warhol’s public persona is just as much a work of art as any silk-screened soup can. Understanding Warhol’s queer identity, adds a level of depth, heart, and pathos to Warhol’s work that is, perhaps, entirely unexpected given its slick, sleek, and still very contemporary, appearance. For me, this is the most important facet of the biography. The second most important is business art.

Gopnik circles around in business art as a concept but never defines it. It’s a term Warhol used in his book The Philosophy Andy Warhol: A to B and Back Again and shows up from time to time in interviews and throughout Warhol’s journals. “Business art” is not a philsophy, it’s more of a mood. The idea behind business art seems to be two things: one accepting (and reveling in) the nature of all art as a business and two, running a business as art. I think this second part includes Andrew Warhola’s self-transformation into Andy Warhol.

In Warhol’s early career, he was a successful commercial illustrator. He developed a technique of ink drawing with a perfectly sloppy, expressive line. This technique was achieved by blotting the still-wet ink with paper. This blotted-line look was just what a number of fashion magazines and advertisers wanted and proved to be very popular. To keep up with demand, Warhol trained his friend, Nathan Gluck, to recreate his signature style:

While the boss was out hunting for new contracts, Gluck took care of the day-to-day, from drawing the stream of shoes and jewelry that poured into the studio to blotting each of those drawings once Warhol had approved or tweaked it.91 “When I was helping him, I would recast myself and try to do things à la Andy,” he said, although Warhol still had to simplify Gluck drawings that came out too fine and detailed.

While Nathan Gluck was holed up in Warhol’s home studio making illustrations, Warhol would make his way from magazine to magazine scaring up new assignments. In these early days he already had a “factory” mentality.

Still from Warhol’s film “Chelsea Girls”

Warhol moved into filmmaking, managing the Velvet Underground , and eventually even television. He tried to abandon traditional art making along the way; he declared painting dead long before it was cool.

REPORTER: Ten years ago people were talking about the end of painting.

WARHOL: Well, I did. I always said that back then.

REPORTER: Was that tongue-in-cheek or did you really think that you had stopped painting?

WARHOL: I was serious.

His doubts about painting had already surfaced as he moved into Pop in early 1961, when he abandoned the painterly brushwork of his first Coke bottles. They matured in late ’62, when he replaced his brushes with a printer’s screens. 🔗

Warhol never abandoned painting or art making. His paintings, especially his society portraits, funded his other creative endeavors. The ongoing creation of fine art functioned to maintain Warhol’s identity as an artist and not just some famous guy who makes things. His silk-screened paintings were successful (and profitable) art in their own right, but they were also important signifiers of art.

Warhol’s public profile didn’t demand that he make genuinely important new art; given the fame he had already racked up, he just needed to make enough art, publicly enough, to remain recognizable as “Andy Warhol, the artist.

Warhol was completely forthright about the fact that he worked with a crew of assistants who often did most of the real work in creating his artworks. In some cases he even exaggerated how little effort he put in. In this way Warhol was exploding the myth of the lone artistic genius toiling away in their studio.

A struggling artists may work alone, but this is because they can’t afford the help. Any successful working artist (now, back in the 1960s, or the 1760s) employed a crew. The people working under an artist might have aspirations of their own. For others it was just a cool job. Warhol was  really not much different from his contemporaries. Rauschenberg surely wasn’t stretching his own canvases or producing his own silk screens. The difference is that Warhol was honest about it, He bragged about it. He said himself “I’ve got to bring home the bacon, I’ve got a lot of mouths to feed…”.

Before long, however, it dawned on him that in “taking care of business”—shooting movies under his name, selling his prints, and finding him portrait commissions—his peons were executing a new kind of art for him, the way Malanga and others had executed some of his early silkscreens. “I knew that work was going on, even if I didn’t have any idea what the work would come to,” Warhol wrote. That corporate “work” turned out to be some of the most important art he ever made—“Business Art,” he came to call it, “the step that comes after art.” It established that everything this artist would do as head of Andy Warhol Enterprises, Inc.—as portraitist, publisher, publicist, celebrity or salesman—counted as components in one boundless work, part performance art, part Conceptual Art and part portrait of the market world he lived in.

Warhol lived as an artist, manager, teacher, CEO, pitchman, and celebrity influencer. His entire public life is a sort of Bauhaus Gesamtkunstwerk with no line separating the art, the business, the business of art, and the art of doing business.

I find this to be personally inspiring. The next time I’m rehearsing in the mirror for a client presentation, I’ll try to think of it as part of my personal Gesamtkuntswerk.

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