Andy Warhol, by Wayne Koestenbaum. New York: Viking/Penguin Lives. 224 pages. $21.95. BUY NOW


Wayne Koestenbaum introduces his new biography of Andy Warhol with an apology: "Andy Paperbag"ˇmore on the sobriquet laterˇ"didn't want to humble himself before words or time. As interpreter, I must make him submit to both." Warhol, his singular efflorescence, does make those who traffic in book learning look fusty and overweening: Words are for nerds! That said, Koestenbaum unleashes a torrent of them, mostly, as promised, ignoring his subject's will to inscrutabilityˇbut also honoring it.

By the end of the first paragraph of the opening chapter, the reader has a good idea of what's in store in terms of prose style/critical method. The story beginsˇfittingly for this paragon of self-inventionˇwith a name change. Andy Warhol (nÚ Warhola) dropped the final vowel in an apparent gesture of ethnic debulking typical of the period. For Koestenbaum, this abridgment inspires a flight of linguistic fancy (the first of many), in this instance a sustained riff on the dropped letter a. We learn that Andy was asexual, that he was the author of a: a novel, that the A-bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945, the day of his seventeenth birthday. Convinced or not, the reader may yet be capable, as I was, of delighting in a further flourish: At the time of the dropped bomb, Andy had not "climbed art's A-list." Oh yes, the dropped a also recalls the subject's beloved cat, Hester, who, the biographer offers, may have been named for Hester Prynne, bearer of the stigmatic A in The Scarlet Letter. It will appear that I am having a bit of fun here, though not as much fun, it must be said, as the author. My point is this: While the sheer extravagance of textual play is sure to exasperate the pragmatic reader, Koestenbaum's approach is ultimately more productiveˇmore legitimately poeticˇthan one would initially assume in the dazed aftermath of his opening assault.

The author, it happens, is a poet. In addition to his celebrated forays into confessional fandom, The Queen's Throat and Jackie Under My Skin, Koestenbaum has three verse collections to his name. So if a given improvisation at first seems an eye-roller, read on: A current of authentic literary purpose redeems each local excess. As poet, Koestenbaum takes what he needs, and what he doesn't need is the conventional detail, say, of the heftier 1989 Victor Bockris account.

To make his Warhol speak to us as resonantly as its subject does to him, Koestenbaum lays in a system of recurring figures, a kind of subterranean infrastructure in which key words, key tropes of the artist's disposition return (like the dropped a) with the enervating (and ultimately revelatory) persistence of psychic repetitions. Take the mysterious sobriquet "Andy Paperbag." Warhol coined this self-deprecating nickname based on his habit of toting his sketches around in plain sacks. In Koestenbaum's hands, the name is teased out for unimagined associations. It signifies, early on, the "bag-over-the-head homeliness" Koestenbaum views as central to Warhol's initially disabling self-perception; then a colostomy bag (his mother, with whom he cohabited for most of his adult life, had one). Along the way "bag" becomes "can" (Campbell's) and "box" (Brillo, Heinz): The iconic receptacles, "usually interpreted as commentaries on mechanical reproduction," are now seen as "displacements," standing in for the artist's "erotic hungers" and by extension his voracious drive to incorporateˇto contain (as in a container)ˇthe exhausting onslaught of quotidian experience. By the time "bag" appears in the late form of the "time capsules" (Warhol's name for the boxes in which it was his habit in the '70s to deposit the artifacts of his daily rounds of shopping and socializing), the word has acquired, like the artist's archival lunacy, a kind of absolute resonance.

"Compared with Warhol," Koestenbaum offers, "the other exhausting modern figures (Picasso, Stein, Proust) are manicured miniaturists." Pointing to the nature of the artist's expansiveness, to the broadened palette its accommodation demands, Koestenbaum proposes a corrective midway through the book that could be taken as the topic sentence of his whole undertaking: "[Warhol's] work and life had become not a theory of fame (as critics would stereotypically assume) but a theory of relationships, a query into the texture of human bondage." In working up this "texture"ˇof sexual longing, of social anxiety, of our everyday thrall to celebrityˇone "relationship" inevitably comes to figure, if discreetly: that of the author to his subject. If Koestenbaum's life of Andy is a determined poetic act, it is also a sympatheticˇand rather personalˇinhabitation.

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