Portrait of Andy Warhol at his exhibition dedicated to Black transvestites in the US. Ferrara, November 1975 - photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Lives of Artists – Andy Warhol

The New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins describes his first meeting with Warhol - and the brief exchange that established who was in charge

If you want to know what it’s like to be in the presence of important and groundbreaking artists, you should really ask Calvin Tomkins. Over the past 59 years, Tomkins has profiled almost every culturally significant figure in the contemporary art world for The New Yorker magazine.

Our new six-volume anthology of his work, The Lives of Artists, brings these profiles together. There are many delightful long reads in there, but there are also moments when, in just a few finely chiselled sentences, Tomkins describes the range of impressions and emotions one might experience meeting an artist for the first time, face-to-face. Consider this description of Andy Warhol. 


Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett
Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett


"Warhol wasn’t anything like what I had expected. Instead of a barely articulate, slightly sinister manipulator of troubled souls—a ‘Sphinx with no secret,’ as Truman Capote once called him—he came across as playful, sly, funny, and very alert. He had his own tape recorder going throughout the interview — he taped everyone in those days — and he asked the first question, which was ‘Do you have a big cock?’ I wasn’t as thrown as I might have been, because I thought he’d said ‘clock’. ‘Not especially,’ I replied, glancing at my wrist—but we both understood right away who was in charge.

He said he had tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade John Coplans, who was organizing the retrospective, to limit it to a single painting. ‘It doesn’t really matter if you show one picture or fifty,’ Warhol told me, ‘and it would be so much more elegant to show just one.’ He went on to say he wished there was a way to make money without working.


The Lives of Artists by Calvin Tomkins
The Lives of Artists by Calvin Tomkins

‘I thought after I was shot maybe I wouldn’t have to work anymore, but I do,’ he confided. ‘And it’s so hard to get ideas.’ He talked about Frank Stella (‘That’s where I got my idea of repetition’) and about why he admired Jasper Johns (because ‘he gets five hundred dollars for a drawing—even Picasso didn’t get that much’), and he asked if I could get into my article the fact that Eleanor Ward, his former dealer, had a painting of his that she didn’t own and wouldn’t give back. At the end of the interview, he said, ‘Have I lied enough?’"

Andy possibly had, and yet Tomkins had still revealed so much. For more encounters like this order a copy of The Lives of Artists here.

This six-volume set includes 82 of Tomkins's most significant profiles dating from 1962 to 2019. Part art history, part human interest, Tomkins offers insights and observations about the artists, their work, and the ever-changing art world they inhabit. Buy The Lives of Artists here.