Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol’s Death Not as Unexpected as Once Thought

Art critic Blake Gopnik, who is currently at work on a biography of Andy Warhol, has written a piece for the New York Times explaining that the artist’s 1987 death after gallbladder surgery was not as unexpected as it was initially made out to be. Dr. John Ryan, a retired surgeon and medical historian, said, “This was major, major surgery—not routine—in a very sick person.” Ryan was prompted into researching the artist’s death through his brother, writer and art historian Hal Foster.

Warhol had a family history of gallbladder trouble—his father had his removed in 1928, the year of his son’s birth. The artist had more than a decade’s worth of gallbladder problems as well, perhaps exacerbated after he’d been shot in 1968 by Valerie Solanis, a writer and radical feminist famous for her 1967 SCUM Manifesto (SCUM is an acronym—it stands for the Society for Cutting Up Men). Warhol had also been quite ill for at least a month before his surgery: he barely ate, became quite emaciated and dehydrated, and took speed every day to try and keep up with his demanding schedule. When the artist was finally operated on by Dr. Bjorn Thorbjarnarson—a sought-after surgeon famous for treating the Shah of Iran—he saw that Warhol’s gallbladder was completely taken over by gangrene (it disintegrated when he tried to take it out). He also had nine damaged organs, and a rupture in his abdominal muscles that gave the artist a tremendous hernia (after Warhol was shot, he spent the rest of his life wearing girdles to try and hold in his bowels—his body never fully recovered from the shooting). Thorbjarnarson repaired the artist’s abdominal wall during the surgery.

Despite these problems, Warhol’s operation went well—the artist was in his hospital room making telephone calls by evening. A nurse checked in on him at 4:00 AM; he seemed fine. But two hours later, he was unresponsive. His face turned blue and all efforts at resuscitation failed. Via an autopsy, it was found that Warhol’s heart had trembled and stopped—it was a “ventricular fibrillation” that had killed him. Stewart Redmond Walsh, a professor of vascular surgery at the National University of Ireland in Galway, has done research into sudden death after surgery. He said that when a very sick body experiences extreme stress through a major surgical procedure, it can be fatal, explaining that, “the artist’s bad luck should be thought of as less like a lightning strike than like being hit by a car while crossing the street.”