Long before reality TV assumed its misleading name, Andy Warhol understood how to turn the cameras on the cameramen. His Temptation Island was the Factory, a loose group of speed freaks and drag queens, poets and painters, filmmakers and superstars who frequented the same studio in Manhattan. Warhol captured in photographs and films the full range of activity that occurred within those walls—drawing, painting, acting, acting out, stripping, fucking, and more.
Not surprisingly, Warhol left behind a massive estate and archive when he died in 1987. But what’s good for the biography is not always good for the biographer. Who needs another Factory souvenir when the artist himself prepared, in standard-issue cardboard boxes, over 600 time capsules? Almost a dozen Warhol bios have foundered for this reason. There’s been critical insight along the way: Stephen Koch appreciating Warhol’s contribution to modern culture as a Duchampian checkmate, Wayne Koestenbaum rhapsodizing about the blank slate of Warhol’s persona and the Lacanian effects of his films. But Steven Watson, in his new Factory Made, is a better all-around historian. Along with describing Warhol’s rise as Pop Artist and pop philosopher, he accounts for the lesser-known artists and performers who too often crashed to the ground, and recognizes that it can take an entire Factory to produce one unmistakably famous face.
The first chapter spins different narrative strands that will eventually meet in New York: Andrew Warhola with his mother in Pittsburgh, where she carved tin cans into flower sculptures to sell door-to-door, decades before he painted flowers for art dealer Leo Castelli; Brigid Berlin bingeing on donuts in her parents’ Fifth Avenue apartment, before she graduates to amphetamines; a pre-teen Jimmy Slattery in Massapequa making himself up as Lana Turner, before he casts himself as the infamous Candy Darling; and Lewis Alan Reed as a young musician a few miles away, before the shock treatment begins.
All of them are ultimately heading to the so-called Silver Factory—the studio at 231 East 47th Street named for its glittering tinfoil decor. Watson manages, though, to generate suspense—pausing one story line, cueing another. Intentionally or not, Watson has written cultural history as soap opera, surely the most powerful narrative form for this tangle of desires and relationships.
And like a soap, Factory Made is most compelling when a single event cuts through the subplots. One such event is the day JFK died; another is the day Warhol didn’t. On June 3, 1968, Warhol was shot and critically injured 19 years before he died by Valerie Solanas, author of The SCUM Manifesto. Paranoid that Warhol was poaching her ideas, she entered the Factory that day with a gun in hand and revenge in mind.
No one showed any awareness of what she was doing until they heard the first explosive crack, which missed. Each person interpreted the sound in a different way. Mario Amaya thought it was a sniper firing at them from another building. Fred Hughes thought it was a bomb detonating at the headquarters of the Communist Party two floors above. Hearing it over the phone, Viva thought someone was cracking a whip.
Watson effectively reports the event from different points of view, conveying empathy for Solanas as well as Warhol. who barely survives. Perhaps this is because Watson wasn’t there. He does not have a record to set straight. Rather, he gained his intelligence the old fashioned way, reading the requisite memoirs and interviewing the surviving Factory members, videotaping many of these for a documentary now in progress.
Indeed, out of all the books written about the Factory, this one has the most historical perspective and clear-minded authority. Watson shows up late to the party, but he makes the most of it.