Then a friend suggested that he paint an everyday object, such as a can of soup. Within a year, he’d settled upon his signature technique of reproducing a photograph as a silk-screen stencil, and turning a stolen image into a kind of painting. The results were infinitely repeatable, and when the screen clotted with paint, imperfect duplication made for variations. “You get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple—quick and chancy,” Warhol later wrote. “I was thrilled with it.”
In her essay for the catalog, Donna De Salvo, the curator of the Whitney exhibition, proposes that understanding the shift means appreciating that his 1950s period was “foundational.” The case she and her show present is unexpectedly, and astutely, personal. She argues that Warhol, in making his hand disappear, was not responding to the postmodern condition so much as solving a strategic challenge brought on by the closet. By hiding himself, by making touch disappear, he could express his sexual identity negatively, in a total renunciation of the machismo of the abstract expressionists; of the Cedar Tavern myth of hard-drinking, hard-fucking, hard-painting men’s men.
Up to 1962, when a show at the Stable Gallery made Warhol famous, his is a Cinderella story (I say this without irony) and quite moving. The moonbeam—this one-off, this whatsit, who was reviled even by his gay peers as “too swish,” and who stuck to his sense of what art might be and created work completely outside a gallery system that rejected him as too weird—effected a revolution in thought and being. It makes what came next so pitiable.
Warhol ramped up his output, thanks to more liberal use of assistants. After making the Death and Disaster series, in 1963—chilling images of crime scenes, car accidents, an electric chair—he moved his studio into the 47th Street space that became known as the Factory. The debut of Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery in 1964 was triumphant. A line wrapped around the block; inside, body pressed upon body. That night, he threw open the Factory doors, and it, too, was mobbed.
Warhol, a disciplined and hard worker, pretended he did nothing, and the idea that you could be famous for being famous drew to him some badly weakened souls. The Factory, curiously, let in all the pandemonium of the ’60s, but none of its idealism. When the dancer Freddie Herko, a Factory regular, became the first of its many casualties, dancing out a friend’s upper-floor window while high on speed in 1964, Warhol—who’d moved on from painting to moviemaking—said: “Gee, isn’t it too bad we weren’t there to shoot it.”
The total blank he presented turned everyone else into the lonely fan he himself had been, back in the ’50s when, isolated and seemingly allergic to himself, he’d all but stalked Truman Capote (who regarded him as “just a hopeless born loser”). Warhol allowed himself no more than a quarter of a diet pill a day (to give him the “go go go feeling”) and, over the next few years, watched as a semi-performative nervous breakdown unfolded around him. “Desperate, lost people find their way to him, looking for some sort of salvation, and Andy sort of sits back like a deaf-mute with very little to offer.” That’s how Capote put it in Edie: American Girl, the oral history about Edie Sedgwick, the young socialite who was one of Warhol’s first “superstars” and his entrée into the old-money sanctum. “He was not responsible” for Edie’s early demise thanks to alcohol and pills, said the filmmaker Emile de Antonio. “But he never put a hand out, either.”