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Andy Land 1: Taking a Look Behind Warhol’s Shades

In 1965 Voice co-founder John Wilcock watched Andy Warhol watching

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By the spring of 1965, when Voice co-founder John Wilcock tried to make sense of the underground pop culture phenomenon of Andy Warhol, the paper and the artist were intrinsically connected. From Warhol’s paintings to his films to the live events he helped produce throughout downtown New York, the Voice was there to document the artist at work. In 1980, writing in his biography, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, the artist described what the Voice meant to the fledgling downtown scene:

“The Village Voice was a community newspaper then, with a distinct community to cover — a certain number of square blocks in Greenwich Village plus the entire liberal-thinking world, from flower boxes on MacDougal Street to pornography in Denmark. The combination of extremely local news with international news worked well for the Voice because the Village intellectuals were as interested in what was happening in the world as in what was going on around the corner, and the liberals all over the world were interested in the Village as if it were a second home.”

Wilcock’s 1965 essay treated Warhol with a seriousness that many in the stuffy world of art criticism resisted. “His public work is more a subject for humor and wisecracks than for serious study,” he writes. “Maybe his true talent lies in provoking so much argument about whether he’s an artist without doing any of the recognizable things that the public accepts as ‘art.’ Warhol is an artist, a catalyst, a perceptive observer of contemporary life whose comments are sometimes astute by being no comments at all.”

The respect between critic and subject was mutual. Later in POPism, Warhol describes Wilcock as “one of the first journalists to cover the counterculture.” By the end of the Sixties the pair had teamed to launch Interview magazine, and in 1971 Wilcock published The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol, a collection of interviews with “a cast of thousands” including the artist’s friends, associates, and sundry superstars.

With next week’s opening of “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again” at the Whitney Museum, this seems like a ripe opportunity to look back on what the big deal was in the first place.

“The Detached Cool of Andy Warhol
By John Wilcock
May 6, 1965

Andy Warhol makes movies with the same unruffled objectivity that he looks at life. His usual procedure is to set up the action — often a group of people interacting — point the camera at them, turn it on, and step back. The camera makes the movie: whatever happens, planned or not, is the film. Sometimes in the studio (which he refers to as “the factory”) there will be interruptions: telephone calls, people going up or down in the elevator, somebody dropping something or walking inadvertently in front of the camera. All is recorded. No trace of surprise or annoyance registers on Warhol’s face.

He is totally cool or very uptight, depending on your point of view. The latter school says: “Andy’s been trained in Madison Avenue. He’s like a high-powered executive who doesn’t show his feelings, but he’s seething inside.” Personally, I think it the height of coolness to regard everything with a detached eye and rely on intuition to make instant decisions. Warhol’s intuition is usually correct.

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He is the subject of intense curiosity and heated discussions. What does he DO, people ask, that gives him such a reputation? His public work is more a subject for humor and wisecracks than for serious study: representations of soup cans, silkscreen reproductions of famous faces, multi-colored lithographs of flowers, murky six-hours movies of a man asleep or Henry Geldzahler smoking a cigar. Maybe his true talent lies in provoking so much argument about whether he’s an artist without doing any of the recognizable things that the public accepts as “art.” Warhol is an artist, a catalyst, a perceptive observer of contemporary life whose comments are sometimes astute by being no comments at all.

There are very few words wasted around the Andy Warhol milieu, little idle conversation. Andy himself sizes up situations instantly, and his instructions or comments are brief. Most of his closest friends are as laconic as himself, their thoughts presumably having taken them beyond trite responses. Andy is cordial and willing to converse but wary of cross-examination. He sometimes seems slightly surprised that you have not reached the same conclusions as himself. I have never seem him “rude,” but people who believe that artists must justify themselves in words (if an artist could explain his point of view by words alone, why would he need to do anything but talk or write?) sometimes choose to put him down because he doesn’t always respond according to the accepted canons.

He is a provocateur by his mere presence — the silvered hair, the dark shades (lately he has not been wearing them much), the slightly enigmatic and faintly expectant look of an amiable polar bear. “I didn’t expect him to look such a twerp,” said a girl at one gallery opening. She was provoked by just the sight of him as many people are provoked. “I bet he’s wearing a wig; I’m going to pull his hair and find out,” she said. Andy smiled, with nervous embarrassment, and ducked into the other room to escape. Does he wear a wig? Does it matter?

Art as Weapon

I don’t propose to get into a long discussion here on what I think an artist is beyond saying that in one direction at least I favor art as a revolutionary weapon — as something to upset and bug people, to change their prejudices and preconceived opinions, to make them angry, excited, and confused, as well as delighted, happy, and (hopefully) more tolerant about differences. By these standards Warhol is superbly successful at his chosen task.

He gives the impression that he doesn’t care, and yet he obviously loves the publicity that has come to him. When he opens the New York Post he first reads the anecdotal Leonard Lyons column, in which he is frequently mentioned. He is adored excessively by the social set, and it is a rare Sunday when the Trib doesn’t mention his name or carry his picture. For some weeks now he has been accompanied almost constantly by a writer-photographer team who are planning a book on him and his activities: about 20,000 words and the rest pictures. The book is at least partly Andy’s own idea and will probably increase public curiosity about him rather than satisfy it. Next month he goes to Paris for a show at the Sonnabend Gallery.

There are rumors that a syndicate is behind him — a group of financiers who promote and finance him, as a boxer might sell 50 per cent of himself for a business proposition. The rumors are almost certainly untrue, if only because Andy Warhol is his own man — one of the most inner-directed characters around. He dominates, often silently, most of the people around him, many of them with bigger or at any rate longer-established reputations than his own.

Revolutionary Movement

Where does his money come from? He has been spending an estimated $400 per week on film alone, and although his gallery, Castelli, is known to allows its artists substantial advances (some other Castelli artists: Jasper Johns, Rosenquist, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, John Chamberlain), it is doubtful if Warhol sells works at that rate. Castelli’s Ivan Karp says: “He’s probably spending more on films than he can afford.”

For the past few months Andy Warhol, assisted by poet Gerard Malanga, cameraman Buddy Wirtschafter, script-writer Ronald Tavell, and the ubiquitous photographer Billy Linich (“foreman” of the East 47th Street “factory”) has been making at least one full-length movie per week. There is usually a current “superstar,” the present one being Edie Sedgwick, a slender, beautiful East Side chick who played herself in the 70-minute feature “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Warhol did a revolutionary thing in this epic: he moved the camera, swinging it around to follow Edie into the kitchen, completely oblivious to the fact that two sightseers were in the line of fire.

Much of the movie — like most of his works it was filmed one day, processed the next, and screened the day after — is out of focus, but nobody knows better than Warhol that this merely increases the mystique. A midnight audience that will sit stolidly for six hours and watch a man sleeping will probably argue fiercely about whether the lack of focus was intentional or not. He has since refilmed it to do Edie more justice. And the point is, of course, that once again the focus or lack of it doesn’t matter: the filming is the thing, not the film.

If Warhol has any specific point of view about his films, it is probably that what happens happens: he’s having a ball learning how to make home movies, and it’s merely gravy to him if the movies become valuable art works because he happens to have made them. (How much do you think an original Warhol movie, of which there’s so far only one print, might be worth someday? If this aspect has occurred to him, he doesn’t talk about it.) Meanwhile the movies — screened once — pile up in silver cans in his silvered studios.

The filming is fun. Like most amateur movie-making, it casts that extraordinary spell that makes the onlookers believe they can go in and out of the action at will. Up front, in the lights, are the “actors,” often just a bunch of people improvising on a basic script; then there’s the camera, alone and dispassionate as it automatically eats up the film; and Warhol himself is a few feet away watching silently with an enigmatic expression. In other parts of the studio somebody may be asleep on a sofa, or atop a ladder taking still pictures of the scene. The ultimate, bound to come someday, is when a second cameraman simultaneously films the scene of Warhol filming his movie, both version to be projected side by side at a subsequent screening.

Acceptable Spoof

Some people complain that “Andy Warhol is putting everybody on.” It might be true, but could be as much a compliment as a critique. Society is flexible enough these days to tolerate somebody who is playing back a tape of it at a different speed. And people who are “put on” are usually accepting such a spoof, albeit sometimes unwillingly (just as one definition of a loser is somebody who thinks he’s a loser). It is doubtful, anyway, if anybody deliberately sets out to “put everybody on.” More likely he (i.e., Warhol) just started doing things that seemed to him to be interesting, outrageous, funny — more or less indifferent initially to the effect it might have but obviously greatly pleased (and encouraged) by the fact that there was an effect.

“Poor Little Rich Girl,” though technically lousy, did a good job of catching the languid boredom that exists around a girl who has little to do all day but lounge on her bed, read, chatter on the phone, smoke, make coffee, and try on her wide range of spectacular clothes (including a fur dress). In the second reel Edie’s friend Chuck came in to chat with her (he is mostly off-camera — to get into a Warhol movie it is necessary to intrude into the static frame itself). The conversation was…well, just conversation. Neither pointed nor pointless but rather the normal gossip of two friends who discuss things and people in common.

Black Background

For “Horse,” Warhol took a horse up to his fourth-floor studio in the elevator, stood it near the door eating a pile of hay, enacting a parody Western in front of it, complete with hokey hamming, drawled insults between the Cisco Kid and the sheriff, fist fights, a game of strip poker, and facial mugging to an opera record on the sound track. The horse, a stolid, black background, munches unconcernedly throughout the movie. What gives this film its authentic Warhol touch is to have the characters peer through the lights to read their lines from scrawled shirt cardboards held up off-camera by Malanga and Tavell.

In “The Life of Juanita Castro,” a large family group ranged on and around the sofa, sits unmoving for at least half of the movie while “Fidel” (played by a pretty Argentine girl) improvises a 30-minute harangue in Spanish. Other offbeat casting in this movie includes the Argentine’s sister as Che Guevara, Elektrah as Raul Castro, and Marie Mencken as Juanita Castro. Director Ronnie Tavell stands in the center of the group verbalizing each action and comment before it takes place. (“Juanita, get up, face the camera, and say ‘Puta, puta, puta.’ ”) Objective Warhol trademark: although everybody faces the camera, the movie is actually filmed from one side.

Away from the studio again for a movie, untitled, about Marie Mencken and her husband, Willard Maas, themselves long-time film-makers. This one was shot in an attic apartment in Brooklyn Heights where time has stood still, so far as the furnishing were concerned, since Maas moved in before World War II. Once the camera was set up, the pair sat and drank and bugged each other in the time-honored way of long-married couples, Marie lapsing into spells of sullen silence relieved by the arrival of exuberant visitors, one of whom ended the action abruptly by throwing her drink across the room and blowing out one of the lights. Warhol, surprisingly, expressed his disappointment with this epic. He’d expected that Marie Mencken would launch into one of her endless anecdotes, but for some reason she’d been inhibited and grown silent. Perhaps by getting drunk too soon.

‘Beautiful Girls’

“What Andy is selling, unlike traditional painters, is not art so much as a milieu,” one friend of his sums up. “The atmosphere around him is very potent and very self-contained. At a time where the word ‘camp’ is fashionable, everybody says that Andy is ‘campy.’ But Andy wouldn’t use that word. To begin with, he’s like an original creative mind — he wouldn’t allow himself to be so easily categorized. There’s a definitely swishy air around sometimes — not so much Andy himself as a few of his friends — but it doesn’t matter. It would be silly to get hung up on that kind of evaluation when it’s not at all the main bag.

“And anyway, there are always beautiful girls — lots of them and more seeking him out all the time. Most of them claim to have been original stars in his ‘Thirteen Beautiful Women.’ I sometimes think that there must be as many ‘Thirteen Beautiful Women’ around here as there are beds that George Washington allegedly slept in. It’s strange, when you think about it, that his most impressive star — Mario Montes — is a man. He/she played ‘Harlot’ in a blonde wig. And there were moments in that film that should ensure Andy’s reputation as a remarkable artist even if not as a movie-maker. I think the part where Mario eats a banana is one of the most sensuous things that’s ever been filmed!”

A final comment came from a commercial artist I met at a party. “Warhol?” he mused. “I met him 10 years ago when he was a commercial illustrator doing shoe ads. And do you know what? He wasn’t just a man drawing shoe ads — everybody agreed that he was the BEST illustrator of shoe ads.”

 

 

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