Pioneering American artist Andy Warhol was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. The primary creative force behind the Pop Art movement, Warhol had an undeniable impact on celebrity culture as well as the world of advertising. The legendary artist passed away at the age of 58 due to cardiac arrhythmia but his life was almost cut short in 1968 by a sudden attempt on his life.
On 3rd June of 1968, radical feminist writer Valerie Solanas brought two guns along with her into Warhol’s office with the intention of ending the artist’s life. Although things did not turn out quite the way she wanted them to, Solanas’ name was permanently recorded in the annals of history due to the events of that day. Born in New Jersey, Valerie Solanas had endured a difficult childhood during which she was sexually abused by her father as well as her grandfather. It had a memorable impact on her later views and shaped her ideological positions.
Solanas studied psychology in college and wrote the famous feminist doctrine, the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto, which is now a crucial part of her legacy in popular culture. In it, she argued that the only way for women to achieve a utopian condition in this overwhelmingly patriarchal framework is to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” Solanas’ radical conceptualisation of a more active brand of feminism has been credited by many as a crucial evolutionary step in the fight for women’s liberation.
After moving to New York in the mid-1960s, Solanas had to beg and take on a job as a sex worker in order to support herself. Around this time, she wrote a play titled Up Your Ass (1965) which followed the life of a sex worker who hated men and even killed one of them as the logical conclusion of her hatred. Two years later, Solanas confronted Warhol outside his famous studio, The Factory, and asked him to produce Up Your Ass. Although Warhol was generous enough in offering to read her work because it “well typed”. However, he later claimed that he had lost it which led Solanas to believe that the artist had stolen her work. As compensation for losing her play (although many reported that Warhol found it to be too dirty), the artist even hired her to appear in his 1967 film I, a Man.
The Factory had many “hyper-feminine” women who enjoyed Warhol’s company and Solanas felt that she was excluded by them due to her androgynous nature. She was tired of the amount of control that she claimed Warhol had over her life and became paranoid, demanding money from people while worrying about the possibility of Warhol and Maurice Girodias (who had offered to publish the SCUM Manifesto) hatching plans against her. Taking matters into her own hands, she decided that it was time for her to decide her own fate and stop letting men control the little agency she had. Solanas bought a gun for herself in early 1968 to prepare for what was about to come.
According to official accounts, Solanas was well-aware that the assassination of Andy Warhol was nothing more than a publicity attempt. While threatening producer Margo Feiden at gunpoint, she said: “Yes, you will produce the play because I’ll shoot Andy Warhol and that will make me famous and the play famous, and then you’ll produce it.” Although Fieden reported this to the authorities, nobody took her seriously and dismissed the entire thing. That very day, Solanas watched and waited outside The Factory in anticipation of her target. Paul Morrissey tried to get rid of her by lying to her about Warhol not coming in that day but she rode up and down in the elevators until Warhol walked in.
Valerie Solanas accompanied Warhol to his offices and stood her ground even though Morrissey threatened to physically assault her. When Warhol received a telephone call, she shot at him thrice (missing the target with the first two bullets). She also shot art critic Mario Amaya and was going to continue her rampage but her gun jammed and she left, leaving behind her address book, a gun and her sanitary napkin which James Martin Harding considered to be an important part of her assassination attempt and compared it to a theatrical performance – “attention to basic feminine experiences that were [publicly] taboo and tacitly elided within avant-garde circles.”
Considering her work to be done, Solanas turned herself in and was sentenced to three years in prison. It was during this time that she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. After a five-hour surgery, Warhol survived the damage to his lungs, stomach and other vital organs. Despite all the chaos, Solanas maintained that she was right in doing what she did and even declared so in court. She felt that it was her moral obligation to do so because she erroneously thought that Warhol owned all the rights to her artistic output. Solanas famously said, “I consider that a moral act. And I consider it immoral that I missed. I should have done target practice.”
The assassination attempt had a profound impact on Warhol’s life as well as his art. He lived in constant fear that Solanas would come after him again which made him appreciate the immediacy of life even more. After being released from prison, Solanas did stalk Warhol and other figures involved with The Factory which led to her being arrested again. However, none of it came close to the temporary popularity that she had gained due to shooting Warhol and she slowly became obscure and was allegedly homeless at one point. Despite everything, Solanas maintained her belief in her brand of radical feminism and the SCUM Manifesto right up till the end of her life.
As for Warhol, he utilised the terrifying ordeal to re-evaluate his own ideas about the human condition: “Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there—I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television—you don’t feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.”