The Women in Andy Warhol’s Life, as Imagined by Hilton Als

Like Warhol’s own work, Als’s characterizations appear one-dimensional at first sight, but on closer observation, they take on a much more profound meaning.

Andy Warhol in Isfahan, Iran in the 1970s (photo by Farah Pahlavi, via Wikimedia Commons)

When most people write about Andy Warhol, the artist is center stage, with the worlds of his childhood in Pittsburgh, his glamorous New York life, and the Factory community all spinning around his central creative force. Hilton Als takes a different approach. In Andy Warhol: The Series, a 96-page book with no illustrations published late last year by Triple Canopy, Als focuses on two specific women who greatly influenced the Pop artist’s life: his mother, Julia Warhola; and Shirley Temple, the first celebrity to answer Warhol’s childhood fan mail.

Cover of Andy Warhol: The Series (image courtesy Triple Canopy)

In Jennifer Krasinski’s introduction, she identifies Als’s writing as two scripts for episodes of a potential TV show about Warhol’s life. The first script, “Julia,” focuses on the artist’s mother as an immigrant and doting parent, while “Shirley Temple” presents a more surrealist vision of the parallel lives of Warhol and the famed child actor, both born in 1928. “In these scripts,” Krasinski writes, “Hilton imagines scenes from Julia’s life from available facts and some floating fictions, recovering her as the maternal force that produced the artist.” Julia Warhola plays a central role in both episodes, and Als’s focus on the artist’s mother harkens back to his previous writing about the importance of understanding mothers (his own included) in order to better comprehend their children.

“Julia” offers an overview of the woman’s life, from when she first met her husband, Ondrej Warhola, to the day she stood at the side of her son’s hospital bed after he was shot in 1968. This section’s plot, though it meanders at times, is fairly straightforward. On the other hand, “Shirley Temple” imagines a much more convoluted and compelling story that fictitiously interweaves the lives of Warhol and Temple. A lot of “Shirley Temple” feels like a dream sequence in the shape of a weird, idealized musical, with Warhol imagining himself as Temple, a rosy tint applied to his own childhood, until Temple tries to take his life over outright. Meanwhile, the “real” teenage Shirley Temple has conversations with her agent about how to transition from childhood actor to something else — namely, radio host. Like “Julia,” the second episode ends with Warhol in the hospital in 1968, this time listening to Shirley Temple’s voice on the radio.

The ever-present character of Julia Warhola in Als’s TV series initially comes off as a rather stereotypical immigrant parent, constantly fretting about the well-being of her sickly “Andy Candy” while fumbling with English grammar. But a closer look reveals a much more complex personality. Like Warhol’s own work, Als’s characterizations can appear vacuous and one-dimensional at first, but on closer observation, they take on a much more profound meaning. For Als, the truth is often in the pregnant pauses in the dialogue (the word “beat” appears often between lines, as it might in the text of a play), rather than in the words themselves.

And just as absence connotes meaning in the dialogue, so too does the general absence of the artist himself. Although Warhol does make appearances in the two episodes, he’s often on his way out, or only shown in bits and pieces, seldom at the center of the frame and the action. That central space is carved out for the women in his life: the mother who would move in with her adult son and live in his Manhattan apartment for two decades, and Temple, the tap-dancing child actress who would help fuel the artist’s obsession with fame. Without these two women, Warhol would have been just another nobody, which is exactly Als’s point.

Andy Warhol: The Series is available now from Triple Canopy.

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