Why did Andy Warhol die?
Polaroid of Andy Warhol

Polaroid of Andy Warhol

Published: October 26, 2019

Who was Andy Warhol?

Andy Warhol was a renowned pop artist. He is a Pennsylvanian native, having been born in Pittsburgh on August 6, 1928. His parents were Ondrej Warhola, an emigrant coal worker, and Julia. Warhol feared hospitals and doctors since his childhood, and for this reason, he would be bedridden when he falls sick.

Education

He completed his graduation in 1945 from Schenley High School. Warhol was a special boy, and he won multiple awards, such as Scholastic Art as well as a Writing Award. He wanted to become an artist thus studied art education at Pittsburgh University. He also joined Carnegie Mellon University and studied commercial art, and graduated in 1949 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in pictorial design.

Warhol was a member of the Modern Dance Club and Beaux Arts Society while still studying and the art director of a campus magazine called Cano.

Moving to New York

He moved to New York immediately afterward to pursue his dreams and started a job magazine illustrations and advertising. Andy Warhol was also a movie director and producer, who helped launch the careers of many artists. But what influenced his career as an artist was an encounter with Valerie Solanos, a radical feminist, an author, and a writer.

The events leading to Warhol’s death

Shooting accident in 1968

Andy Warhol’s death cannot be mentioned without the shooting incident in 1968. Warhol made a career out of photographing depravity and calling it truth1, as well as director and producer, and that is how his path with Solanas – his shooter crossed.

Andy Warhol being carried to an ambulance unconscious after a gunshot wound

Andy Warhol being carried to an ambulance unconscious after a gunshot wound, photo: Jack Smith/nydailynews.com

Unconscious after shooting, critically wounded Andy Warhol is carried to ambulance

Unconscious after shooting, critically wounded Andy Warhol is carried to ambulance, photo: Jack Smith/nydailynews.com

Valerie Solanas

Solanas was a writer and feminist and founder of the Society for Cutting Up Men and the only member of the group. The feminist had written a play and wanted Warhol to produce it for her. Warhol passed it, citing that the play had skimmed the satirical and extremely scatological script that was utterly obscene. He suspected Ms. Solanas was working for the police on ‘some kind of entrapment2.’

The pair had little to nothing in common. They wouldn’t even be able to be mentioned in the same breath today. However, Solanas would change the life of Warhol significantly, but not for the better. On June 3, 1968, she shot Warhol and critically wounded him that he was pronounced dead in the emergency room. She was outraged by Warhol’s rejection of her script and that he lost the copy of the play that later reappeared in an abandoned trunk.

Valerie Solanas critically shot Andy Warhol at his 16th-floor Union Square office

Valerie Solanas critically shot Andy Warhol at his 16th-floor Union Square office, photo: nydailynews.com

Accusations against Warhol

Valerie Solanas came to believe that Andy Warhol wanted to steal her SCUM Manifesto after Warhol misplaced the manuscript. Before the shooting, Solanas had called Warhol office on numerous occasions, churning out threats and demanding that he return the document. Warhol started ignoring her calls. This made her believe that he would borrow ideas from her script and that he didn’t actually lose the text, but tried to use it for his own career.

Solanas was fame-hungry, and the shooting brought her all the attention she wanted. In consequence, she was disowned by other feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women, which also disavowed her agenda.

Portrait of Andy Warhol

Portrait of Andy Warhol, photo: christies.com

Warhol’s recovery & Mentally affected by shooting

Warhol spent two months in the hospital, nursing the gun injuries, which affected his lungs, spleen, esophagus, liver, and stomach. This forced him to wear surgical corset his entire life to support his inner organs from falling out. The injuries from the two shots from Solanas were so severe that doctors had to cut open Warhol chest and massage his heart to revive it.

Dr. Guiseppe Rossi, photographed in 1969, the surgeon who resuscitated Warhol

Dr. Guiseppe Rossi, photographed in 1969, the surgeon who resuscitated Warhol, photo: christies.com

The incidence also affected Warhol mentally. He was recorded by the New York Times saying3,

I was shot, and everything is such a dream to me. I don’t know what anything is about. Like I don’t even know whether or not I’m really alive or – whether I died. It’s sad.

It was this experience that further rendered Warhol afraid of hospitals that even refused surgery in 1973 after being diagnosed with a gallstone. The doctor said4, “He was convinced if he was hospitalized, he would die.”

Despite being afraid of doctors and hospitals, Warhol still got treatment using alternative means such as healing crystals. It seems Warhol was right after all. He put off the procedure until his gallbladder became infected, and when he underwent surgery, he died the next day.

Effects of the gunshots 19 years later

The wounds from the bullets in 1968 were severe. Warhol did hire a private coach who helped him to exercise fairly regularly. But it is fair to conclude that the gunshot wounds, though inflicted on him 19 years before his death, play a role. Jose Diaz – the chief curator of Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, stated5:

He could have gotten the surgery scheduled and done earlier, had he been more preventative about his health.

We know from medical records that Warhol never recovered fully from the gunshot wounds. This left him with “a lifetime of trouble eating and swallowing6,” alongside a large hernia that made him wear girdles to hold in his bowels. For these reasons, during the operation, Dr. Thorjarnarson had also repair Warhol’s abdominal wall.

The operation was successful, but later, Warhol’s heat experienced some complications as a result of “ventricular fibrillation.” This still shocks many, given that it was just routine surgery. However, according to new research, the complications are not that surprising.

Richard Avedon - Andy Warhol, August 29, 1969

Richard Avedon – Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1969, photo: avedonfoundation.org

Richard Avedon - Andy Warhol, August 29, 1969

Richard Avedon – Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1969, photo: avedonfoundation.org

Richard Avedon - Andy Warhol, August 29, 1969

Richard Avedon – Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1969, photo: avedonfoundation.org

Death date

Warhol died in Manhattan at 6:32 am on Feb 22, 1987, less than 24 hours after undergoing successful surgery. He lived to be 58 years old. Up to this day, the actual cause of his death is not known. Records on the case are labeled “Pending Further Investigation.”

After Warhol had a successful surgery, he woke up and was making plans to appear to a new ballet performance the following evening, according to his dermatologist. Warhol was placed under a morphine drip but never regained consciousness. Dr. Hunter believes that his cause of death could not be figured out by the doctors and post-mortem examination.

Andy Warhol’s death certificate

Andy Warhol’s death certificate/recordart.net

Analysis

Analysis by Dr. Stewart Redmond Walsh

Many medical researchers have developed an interest in Andy Warhol’s death. In his interview with The New York Times, Stewart Redmond Walsh, a vascular surgery at the National University of Ireland, Galway, said the tragic death of Andy Warhol is not surprising. He explained7:

When a sick body goes through the trauma of a major operation, the stress on the entire system, including the heart, can sometimes be fatal.

Warhol, Dr. Walsh said in a phone interview, ‘was unlucky,’ but, according to the doctor, the artist’s bad luck should be thought of as “less like lightning than like being hit by a car while crossing the street.”

Analysis by Dr. John Ryan

Andy Warhol’s death has been linked with routine gallbladder surgery for many decades. However, a medical expert suggested that the death of the legendary pop artist shouldn’t have taken the world by surprise. In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. John Ryan stated8: “This was major, major surgery – not routine – in a very sick person.”

In the past few years, Ryan, a retired surgeon, and medical historian, has been studying Andy Warhol’s medical history. Ryan presented his findings from the research at the annual Pacific Coast Surgical Association meeting.

It was revealed that gallbladder complications ran in the family of Andy Warhol, and he had been seriously ill for months before his death. Warhol was a workaholic and combined with his fear of hospitals. It meant that his health was never a priority to him. When he was compelled to visit the hospital at last for a surgery, Warhol’s gallbladder was already filled with gangrene. According to his doctor, Bjorn Thorbjarnarson, it fell into pieces as he removed.

As Ryan reports9, Warhol’s high-paced life contributed to some extent to his gallbladder issues:

Warhol was dehydrated and also emaciated from barely having eaten in the previous month; had for years been taking a daily dose of speed; and was still suffering from the effects of a brush with death in 1968, when he was shot by enraged hanger-on, Valerie Solanas. Only a brilliant surgeon and brilliant luck had saved his life then – he had been declared dead in the emergency room and had nine damaged organs.

David Montgomery - Andy Warhol's Shooting Scars, The Factory, 1968

David Montgomery – Andy Warhol’s Shooting Scars, The Factory, 1968, photo: davidmontgomery.net

Analysis by David Burdon

In his biography of Warhol, David Burdon stated that Warhol’s death might have been caused by over-hydration.

He writes10,

According to later reports, the hospital’s medical and nursing staff neglected to look in on him periodically and to monitor his intravenous fluid intake and urinary output. No one adequately supervised the private-duty nurse, whose incomplete notes failed to record the patient’s blood pressure, pulse rate, and other vital signs, as well as his dosages of morphine and other medications. As a result, Warhol’s over hydration went unnoticed.

New York Times article, 1991

Bourdon’s assertions could have been influenced by the reports from a multimillion-dollar court case. It was filed by the estate of Warhol against the hospital after the controversies surrounding his death.

This is what the New York Times reported11 about the lawsuit,

The [estate’s] lawyer, Bruce Clark, said that New York Hospital negligently pumped more than twice the required volume of fluids into Mr. Warhol when he underwent gallbladder surgery five years ago and that the resulting internal pressure causes his death from heart failure.

A piece on the New York Times by Ronald Sullivan “Care Faulted in the Death of Warhol” on December 5, 1991, reported: “Andy Warhol was 5 feet 11 inches tall but only weighed 128 pounds,” Mr. Clark said12.

He was anemic and undernourished, but his doctor said in his admitting papers that he was in “good” health. He continued13,

His undernourished body had a capacity of from 3 to 4 quarts of blood, but they kept pumping fluids into him without making sure anything was coming out, and then they increased the intake.

According to the article, the records from Andy Warhol’s doctor indicated that he was in “good” health when he visited the hospital.

Robert J. Levin - Andy Warhol Undressing for Facial, May 1981

Robert J. Levin – Andy Warhol Undressing for Facial, May 1981, photo: robertjlevinphotography.com

Routine surgery? Over-hydration & Other factors

So, why did his gallbladder surgery termed as routine? The phrase meant that the operation was routine for a healthy individual. The same procedure that Warhol underwent would only require an overnight stay in the hospital today, and in the 1980s, it could take up to 5 days.

It is hard to pin the blame on over-hydration alone as what might have caused the artist’s death. It could also be the operation itself that put a strain on Warhol’s heart. There are other factors too that could have played a part in Warhol’s heart failure. Based on the majority of reports about the death of the artist, it was caused by “ventricular fibrillation,” which is linked to cardiac arrest.

According to the America Heart Association, the major causes of ventricular fibrillation are damage to the heart muscle as a result of heart attack or insufficient blood flow to the heart muscle, drug toxicity, cardiomyopathy problems with the aorta, or sepsis. However, it is not recorded anywhere that Warhol had any of these symptoms.

Richard Avedon - Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1969

Richard Avedon – Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1969, photo: avedonfoundation.org

Drugs / Speed

There were also some claims that Warhol was taking speed, a form of synthetic drugs. However, that is highly unlikely because amphetamine-based drugs are usually subscribed to individuals with behavioral conditions like Attention Deficit Disorder. They typically don’t cause long-lasting physical problems, including the amphetamine-based medications given to children who have ADD and are over six years old, for example, Dexedrine.

Kate Simon - Andy Warhol Reading the NY Daily News at The Factory, 1980

Kate Simon – Andy Warhol Reading the NY Daily News at The Factory, 1980, photo: katesimonphotography.com

The mistake of the hospital

Warhol weighed more than 10 pounds less than the required weight of a man his height. The estate attorney tried to demonstrate how over-hydration could have played a role in Warhol’s death by conflating body fluids with blood capacity. However, the results weren’t the same. But, shockingly, the hospital failed to monitor Warhol’s fluids – if the reports are accurate, as this was an obligation on the side of the hospital because it is standard procedure for hospitals. Every patient admitted to a hospital should have their be fluids monitored, so it is a bit surprising that they did not do it for Warhol.

Conclusion

Warhol estate and the hospital agreed to settle things out of court, thus the hospital paying Warhol estate $3 million in compensation. As the matter was settled out of court, it is still unknown if over-hydration played a role in the artist’s cardiac arrest, which killed him.

Andy Warhol's grave, Pittsburgh 123 Bethel Park, St John the Baptist Cemetery

Andy Warhol’s grave, Pittsburgh 123 Bethel Park, St John the Baptist Cemetery, photo: Allie Caulfield/flickr.com

All images: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS 2019, London unless otherwise noted.

 

  1. https://time.com/3901488/andy-warhol-valerie-solanas/
  2. https://time.com/3901488/andy-/
  3. http://bit.ly/2ooNY9M
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/06/nyregion/treatment-of-warhol-is-defended.html
  5. https://www.history.com/news/andy-warhol-shot-valerie-solanas-the-factory
  6. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/arts/design/andy-warhols-death-not-so-routine-after-all.html
  7. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/arts/design/andy-warhols-death-not-so-routine-after-all.html
  8. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/10/nyregion/bjorn-thorbjarnarson-dead.html
  9. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-4246530/The-secrets-Andy-Warhol-s-death-risk-high.html
  10. https://www.nytimes.com/1987/04/11/nyregion/warhol-received-inadequate-care-in-hospital-health-board-asserts.html
  11. https://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/05/nyregion/care-faulted-in-the-death-of-warhol.html
  12. https://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/05/nyregion/care-faulted-in-the-death-of-warhol.html
  13. https://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/05/nyregion/care-faulted-in-the-death-of-warhol.html
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