PRINT April 2003


1987: Andy Warhol, 1928–1987

The Daily News, February 23, 1987. Photo: Hy Simon.

I KNOW I HEARD about Andy’s death before it hit the papers, so it must have been sometime late that Sunday, February 22, 1987. I was on the telephone with Peter Hujar, meandering through some extended schmooze, undoubtedly about him having AIDS and/or me being in love, when Peter said, offhandedly, “By the way, Andy Warhol died.”

Just like that. It’s Peter’s timing I recall. A little like “PS: Your cat is dead.” Yet I assure you Hujar did not give the news of Andy’s death the backseat out of indifference. Peter was taut with emotion over it. His offhand tone was more typical of the dire deliberateness that muffled so much in one’s world circa February 1987. Those were overwhelming times. Moving day by day toward the future that 1987 was holding before us, you had to hold on very tight. People who weren’t close to the AIDS epidemic may find it hard to connect to the kind of quiet desperation that suffused so much of life then. Those who tested positive, like Peter, had a diagnosis that looked exactly like a death sentence. Uninfected people knew—knew—that some significant number of the people they cared about would be dead within a year. Life was lived with that bell tolling all the time. “In the midst of life, we are in death,” Luther wrote. Well, February 1987 was literally like that.

Such was the metaphysical mix for Peter’s “By the way, Andy Warhol died.” A week later, Vogue asked me to gather statements from people about Andy’s passing. Richard Serra was charming; Dorothea Rockburne was blunt; Emile de Antonio, incisive. Peter’s statement was one of two (but only two!) tinged with tangible grief: “It’s so sad that he’s gone. I wasn’t ready to have Andy go yet. Not yet.”

Not yet. That said it. Not yet. Make it the motto of 1987.

Fifteen years earlier, I had written a book called Stargazer, in which I argued that Warhol’s famous vision of “now” entailed a parallel sense of “now’s” perpetual transition into “then.” I saw Andy’s aesthetic of pure immediacy as a myth, a neo-romantic dream for all its brash daring; the whole thing glowed in a nimbus of things passing. By the ’70s—or even earlier—Andy was already swathed in the aura of his ’60s moment. He carried with him his very own lost age. Warhol’s “now” was a covert romanticism that exuded, like some philosophic vapor trail, a kind of pathos— a pathos for which film is an especially potent medium. Even Andy’s fascination with the stars was riddled with the ironies of this pathos, not the least of which was a cult of young beauty captured on film, only to die immortalized. He started the “Marilyn” series the day of Monroe’s suicide. “Timing,” he noted, “is everything"; Warhol’s “now,” in short, was drenched in mortality.

Andy replied with a blurb for the second edition:
Stargazer is to die over.”

Long after, when he was actually gone, I still hadn’t plumbed how complex my surmise really was. After the murder attempt of June 1968, Warhol believed he had briefly “died” on the surgical table, only to have his “death” miraculously rescinded and his restored life thus split into a momentous Before and After. I didn’t quite grasp how important that event would become for his subsequent vision of time. Warhol thought his “reprieve” from death had been conditional: Under certain conditions, it could and would be cancelled. For instance, he was sure he must never again enter a hospital. If he did, his own supremely privileged moment, that moment of death, suspended in 1968, would come unstuck. God would finish the moment he’d put on “pause,” and Andy’s death would resume—but only in a hospital, where it had been interrupted. These obsessions, I gather, lay behind his mad, life-threatening refusal to take sound medical advice in 1987.

In 1987, the “now” of the ’60s died—a “now” that claimed to be without past or future, and upon which Warhol had based his glowing Pop statement. And its vanishing left behind another “now,” one that felt more like an ’80s “not yet.”

It was as though some significant part of a generation had made a transit between two different senses of the moment, two ways of experiencing the touch of time.

Stephen Koch is a New York–based writer and critic.