Given that he was surrounded by all sorts of drugs and freaks throughout this period, it’s surprising that Warhol’s most psychedelic filmed moment is reserved for a sugary trip down memory lane—an ice cream sundae with all the extras. There’s even an all-American take on the image to be found in an illustration of Warhol’s from the ‘50s of a triple-scoop sundae whose glass boat is festooned with a little American flag on either side: a patriotic Fourth of July dessert.
Despite having plenty of assistants around the Factory, which was what his studio was called, Warhol thought that he was the only one who really worked hard, that it was somehow up to him to support everyone in his employ. Success hadn’t diminished his work ethic. If anything, the opposite was true. Warhol liked to say, “I’ve got a lot of mouths to feed.” When asked why he kept himself running more or less nonstop, his favorite response was, “Someone has to bring home the bacon.” Although it’s been 25 years since Warhol died, he’s still bringing home the bacon. At a November 2010 auction at Sotheby’s, his 1962 painting of a single Coca-Cola bottle sold for a whopping $35.36 million. That’s one very expensive bottle of pop.
Pop Art may not have been a purely American phenomenon, but, with the strongest postwar economy, America gave birth to an art form that would comment on and critique a consumer society that was especially well-fed. After the war, years of food shortages, and rationing, the horn of plenty for many was, of course, the supermarket. And yet the artists whose images reflected American popular culture—cars and gas stations, the flag and comic-book superheroes, hot dogs and apple pie—were all children of the Great Depression: Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920), Roy Lichtenstein (1923), Robert Indiana (1928), Claes Oldenburg (1929), Jasper Johns (1930), Tom Wesselmann (1931), James Rosenquist (1933), and, to a lesser extent, the youngest among them, Ed Ruscha (1937).
Warhol, whose first birthday was celebrated fewer than three months before the stock market crash of 1929, came from very humble means, his childhood marked by the hardship of the times. His parents were immigrants from what is now Slovakia who settled in Pittsburgh.* His father, unable to speak or write much English, worked there in construction and as a laborer, and as a miner in West Virginia, and died when Warhol was only 14. His mother and two older brothers had to provide for the family as best they could. As a wealthy, successful artist in 1975, Warhol sat down to write his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. In it he made a number of confessions about how the privation of his early years had affected him later in life. Despite the breeziness of his style, when he admits that he “can’t tolerate eating leftovers,” his admissions are accompanied by guilt:
Food is my great extravagance. I really spoil myself, but then I try to compensate by scrupulously saving all of my food leftovers and bringing them into the office or leaving them in the street and recycling them there. My conscience won’t let me throw anything out, even when I don’t want it for myself. As I said, I really spoil myself in the food area, so my leftovers are often grand—my hairdresser’s cat eats pâté at least twice a week. The leftovers usually turn out to be meat because I'll buy a huge piece of meat, cook it up for dinner, and then right before it’s done I'll break down and have what I wanted for dinner in the first place—bread and jam. I’m only kidding myself when I go through the motions of cooking protein: all I ever really want is sugar. The rest is strictly for appearances ... .
Strictly for appearances? What about all the beluga caviar he spooned onto toast when he attended dinners at the Iranian embassy in New York in the late ’70s?
In The Andy Warhol Diaries, he mentioned that he knew things weren’t going well for the shah. Not from the number of protesters out in front of the embassy, but because the once enormous bowls of caviar had gotten progressively smaller. The more they shrank, he realized, the more the Pahlavis’ hold on power in Iran was slipping away. And why was Warhol there in the first place? His real meal ticket in those days was a very lucrative portrait business, and being able to land commissioned portraits of the shah and his wife, Empress Farah, was foremost in his mind.
Unfortunately for Warhol, by the time the paint was dry and the portraits were ready to ship to Tehran, the shah had been overthrown. As much as Warhol lusted after the fame and money—and preyed on the vanity—of the rich so that he could keep painting portraits and “bring home the bacon,” he probably didn't even like caviar that much. He was drawn to what it represented (the riches of royalty rather than the grim reality of authoritarian rule), but its saltiness was something else. If no one had been looking, he might well have washed it down with a sugary, syrupy soda. Because no matter how much money Warhol made, nor how many wigs he owned, he could never really deny his proletarian roots or his own contradictions.
The same man who could order anything he wanted from the menu at La Grenouille would volunteer to serve meals to the homeless at churches on Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The son of working-class immigrants who achieved wealth and fame through hard work and the sheer force of his ambition, Warhol had a much better grasp of potentiality than the average Pilgrim blue blood. He understood the democracy of mass production, whether in terms of the fluidity of images or of soft drinks. As he mused in The Philosophy:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
Read the second part of the article here.
Correction, July 10, 2012: This article originally stated that Andy Warhol’s parents were Slovak immigrants. They emigrated from what is now Slovakia but were Carpatho-Rusyn, not Slovak. (Return to the corrected sentence.)