Warhol’s Darkness

A Brief History of His Brush with Death

Most everyone is familiar with the oversized series of Campbell’s Soup Cans on display at the MOMA, however this week I thought it would be interesting to examine an event that had such a major influence on Warhol that it ultimately lead to his death.

CONTENT WARNING: GUN VIOLENCE

During the year 1968, Warhol was amongst if not the most well-known working artist during the Pop art movement of the mid-20th century. His circle would include everyone from radical vagabonds to New York socialites, many of whom gathered in his Factory, a converted warehouse with foil-sided walls and silver ceilings located in Manhattan.

On June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas, an acquaintance of Warhol would show up at the factory armed, which lead to the shooting of Warhol and Mario Amaya, a London art gallery owner. Amaya was not mortally wounded. However, Warhol would be shot twice in the torso and before being taken to a hospital where, at one point, he was pronounced dead before being resuscitated. This left Warhol with the uncomfortable burden of wearing a surgical corset for the rest of his life to ensure his internal organs would be secured in place.

Robert J. Levin, Andy Warhol Undressing for Facial, 1981. Courtesy of Maison Gerard.

So what was Solanas’s motive? Well, shortly after being indicted for the attempted murder, she was discovered to be suffering from Schizophrenia, which almost certainly played a part in her motivation to shoot Warhol. Solanas was familiar to others as a radical feminist, however she had a particularly vitriolic and intense nature, much of which poured out into her 1967 SCUM Manifesto…a manifesto dedicated to a new world order structured around the elimination of the money system and men in their entirety. It is important to note that Solanas had faced a life of adversity, disenfranchisement, poverty and sexism amongst many other staple issues of the 1960’s that still persist today. From my perspective (and this is just my perspective) her writing, actions and persona are representative of an oppression that half of humanity has faced as early as humanity itself and is illustrative of the tragedies that can be born as symptoms of this collective sickness.

Valerie Solanas in the offices of The Village Voice in 1967. Credit…Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Returning to my earlier point, Solanas had been soliciting Warhol to produce an original play of hers called Up Your Ass for years before the shooting. Warhol would pass on her request, leading to initial tensions between them. She would also push for him to help her produce and disseminate copies of her SCUM Manifesto, however he would again deny her. Over time, Solanas’ mental state would continue to deteriorate, harming her already weakened social life. Fearing Warhol would steal her manuscripts, and therefore her intellectual property, she would make her way to the Factory in Manhattan and shoot Warhol and Amaya before fleeing, turning herself in only a few hours after the event.

Warhol would undergo extensive surgery, instilling a fear of doctors, hospitals, and western medicine within him. During February of 1987, Warhol died of a heart attack after surgery performed on his gallbladder, a procedure he had delayed for years due to this fear. Ultimately, the Solanas-Warhol shooting stands as a distinct event during the period of Modern Art, which, like many other violent crimes committed in the same year, sent shock waves that surged through the pop world and would continue to influence Warhol’s work and life until he died.

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