Pope of pop

Art - Holly Johnson on the unearthly powers of the man in the silver wig

My first brush with Andy Warhol was as a child living in Liverpool in the 1970s. The tabloid campaign to ban the David Bailey documentary on Warhol was a seductive siren alerting me to another world. The memory of a bare-breasted Brigid Berlin photographing paper American flags as she flushed them down the toilet, and Warhol miming answers to Bailey's questions, became for me television images as unforgettable as the first moon landing or Olga Korbut's backwards somersaults on the bar. I saw Warhol as an inspiration, a witch doctor I just had to seek out.

Later, as a pop life-art performer, I eventually met him. It was 1985, two years before his death, and he was moving from one factory to another as he collaborated on a series of paintings with Jean-Michel Basquiat. (For Warhol, this marked a return to painting proper after years of society portraiture.) "Gee, Holly, you're so famous," was his opening line. "Not as famous as you, Andy," was the only reply I could muster.

He photographed and filmed me for his MTV show, Andy Warhol's 15 Minutes, taped our conversations, posed for photographs and signed Polaroids and copies of Interview magazine that included an article on Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

"But how do I get on the cover of Interview, Andy?" I asked with a grin.

"Well, you could always sleep with the publisher."

"Who's the publisher, Andy?" "I am."

Andy Warhol was the wunderkind of 1950s America - falsely depicted as the drive-in, happy days decade - the most successful graphic artist on Madison Avenue. A skilled draughtsman with an innovative blotted-line technique, he penned Cocteauesque drawings of sleeping friends, cats, cherubs and more shoes than Imelda Marcos. He revered the giants of abstract impressionism who got drunk on their own intellectual machismo and made paint-effects postcards in reply to the modernist masters of Europe, but he never wanted to be like them. How could he?

Perhaps pop art began in the UK with the Independent Group - Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake - and not in the US, as we have been brainwashed to believe by the American-dream propaganda machine. Nevertheless, no one grabbed the ball and ran with so much style or such a glamorous team of misfits as Warhol - with the poor little rich girl Edie Sedgwick, the Velvet Underground, the transsexuals Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, assorted Eurotrash, Ultra Violet, the singer Nico and his director of photography, Paul Morrissey. He coined the word "superstar" to describe them; they nicknamed him Drella (part Dracula, part Cinderella).

The Tate Modern retrospective, which has been brought in from Berlin, boasts an all-star cast: the Marilyns, the Lizas, the Elvises, the Most Wanted Men, the Electric Chairs, the Disasters, a man throwing himself from a building. And then there is the cow wallpaper framing a doorway through which silver clouds float; a huge camouflage painting reminiscent of Monet's vast, panoramic paintings of lily ponds; The Last Supper in Day-Glo opposite dark shadow paintings in black diamond dust; an oxidisation painting, a copper and verdigris-green abstract illusion created by people pissing on the metallic surface. The films Empire State Building and Sunset act as flickering video installations - a Warhol innovation if ever there was one.

There are self-portraits, too - most memorably the fright-wig series commissioned by Anthony d'Offay - which look uncharacteristically badly composed within the square format of portraiture by Warhol (he said in his diaries that he hated the photograph).

The media controversy that has surrounded Warhol & Co since his iconoclastic deification of the everyday object - the Campbell's soup cans, the Coca-Cola bottles, the Brillo boxes - has been as important an influence on today's celebrity-obsessed pop culture as the works themselves. Was Warhol a self-seeking multimedia megalomaniac? A charlatan, responsible for the dumbing-down of the arts? A moronic vampire who watched others self-destruct?

These are just some of the accusations levelled at his silver-wigged, bespectacled head. But whatever you do, don't listen to the army of art critics, whining away with the same old complaints. For them, the earth is still flat. For me, it moved. Go and make up your own mind.

"Warhol" is at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 (020 7887 8000), until 1 April

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The unusual suspects