Three months after Andy Warhol’s unexpected death in February 1987, due to complications from gallbladder surgery, the Village Voice devoted a special twelve-page-section to the artist and his legacy: Voice art critic Gary Indiana took stock of the work itself; Warhol’s former aide-de-camp Gerard Malanga explored the artist’s process; Factory superstar Viva shined a spotlight on Andy’s films and his faith; and artist and critic Barbara Kruger explored Warhol’s fixation on celebrity, and his tectonic impact on the culture. All four contributors took note of Warhol’s spirituality, which tended to focus as much on the trappings of religion as on the redemption of his soul:
“I wondered, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April Fools’ Day, if I was in the right church,” wrote Viva. “Andy’s memorial service seemed more like a canonization than a mass, one that the Deceased himself would have been most offended by.”
“Andy wasn’t the ‘Village Holy Man,’ ” she wrote, “he was God Himself.”
As Kruger noted, Warhol was just as devout a follower of the church of celebrity as he was of the Byzantine Catholic faith from his Pittsburgh childhood: “For the guy who wanted to be reincarnated as a diamond on Liz Taylor’s finger, proximity to fame was almost enough: a sort of elixir, an enabling connection plugging him into the glittering dispensations of prominence. His own celebrity became part of a baroque networking, a bright constellation of havers and doers who could inhabit the VIP lounge of the universe, where everybody who was anybody would show that they could never be mistaken for a nobody.”
Malanga, for his part, noted how Warhol explored ideas of mortality in his paintings and films, and how “this death element has always been directly connected to sex.”
It was Indiana who went the furthest in teasing out the various threads of Warhol’s identity: his faith, his sexuality, his genius. Recounting an exchange with Factory denizen Taylor Mead, Indiana noted that “Andy’s problem was that he wasn’t content with being a genius, he wanted to be a saint, too. And so, the speakers at his memorial service stressed his unflagging Christian spirit, his charity. How he multiplied the loaves and fishes.”
Few figures had a firmer grasp on American culture in the 21st century, as this week’s opening of “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again” at the Whitney Museum of American Art makes clear. But that much was clear three decades ago. “The fashion illustration, the early ‘easel’ work, the repertoire of silk-screen virtuosities, the paintings, the movies, Interview, the photographic activity, the books, and the resonant figure of Andy himself, were informed by a coldly smart reading of American culture,” wrote Kruger. “He cannily appropriated a seriality of signs, jokes, and icons that seemed right on the nose. But that’s not surprising, since Warhol was so taken with the face of things.”
“I’ll Be Your Mirror”
By Gary Indiana
May 5, 1987
A thorny, twisty subject: Andy Warhol. The Andy Warhol Phenomenon. The vacant but obdurate public presence — relentless, in fact — famed from the outset for its entourage. At first the entourage consisted of amiable lunatics, charmingly damaged heiresses, beautiful street boys, miraculously loquacious speed freaks, fallen Catholics, people with a flair for “suggesting ideas.” Later the shimmering mask surrounded itself with buttoned-down professionals, social climbers, dewy millionettes. Since the new people risked nothing, and felt nothing much about anything, they provided few ideas. The product lost its quality of selective inanity. It became an example of surplus vacuity. The Presence no longer wondered at his inability to feel.
Then the death. The private duty nurse, who sounds like someone who might have changed her name from Valerie Solanis [sic]. And the incredible obsequies. Years ago, Taylor Mead told me that Andy’s problem was that he wasn’t content with being a genius, he wanted to be a saint, too. And so, the speakers at his memorial service stressed his unflagging Christian spirit, his charity. How he multiplied the loaves and fishes. One speaker made the curious argument for sainthood: it wasn’t for Andy to be his brother’s keeper. The understatement of the century, surely. As further proof of Andy’s intense spirituality, his eulogist quoted the line about wanting to be reincarnated as the ring on Liz Taylor’s finger. Clearly, Catholicism is exactly what it used to be.
One former superstar put it quite succinctly: “I’m going to Andy’s funeral, but I doubt if he would go to mine.” Outliving Andy must be, for some, a surprise. As usual, excellent timing. The culture was becoming weary of Andy Warhol. The inanities had ceased to charm, having reached a brutal apotheosis with the picture-book America. Lately, Andy had resorted to flirtation.
ALTHOUGH HIS INFLUENCE is pervasive in the best contemporary art, the best contemporary artists were having none of him. The inspired, breathtakingly easy Duchampian gesture can only come off against a background of resistance, of entrenched tradition. When it works today, the background it works against is precisely the seduction of the glamorous surface. Richard Prince had already inverted Andy’s best-known, most-misquoted maxim. In the future, no one will want to be famous. A nice twist on Dorothy Parker’s line: “If you want to know what God thinks about money, just look as the people he gives it to.”
“Either wear a work of art or be a work of art,” said Oscar Wilde, an aesthete with an attractively messy private life. Andy Warhol became a much less convincing work of art after the demimonde clasped him to its jeweled bosom. HIs eerie gift, until then, had been the ability to confer celebrity — on a soup can, a Port Authority rent-boy, or a wacked-out socialite. The Church of the Unimaginable Penis, or something. Andy was the father confessor, the kids were the sinners. Which is why he didn’t need to be involved with them when they finished confessing. The sanctity of the institution and its rituals is what’s important, not the personal salvation. Maintaining the eternal surface.
After turning his back on zanies who’d been his inspiration, Warhol no longer bestowed celebrity, but instead sustained his own through increasingly ludicrous associations, chiefly through his magazine, Interview. The upscale Interview chewed its way through acres of glossy trash at Studio 54 before arriving among such “interesting” people as George Will, Nancy Reagan, Jerry Zipkin, and the Shah of Iran. Whatever Warhol was trying to do, it didn’t “read” as anything except venality.
For example, the I’ll-paint-anybody-for-$20,000 approach. Art critics committed to the myth of Warhol-as-bellwether suggest that Warhol has simply done the same thing Goya did, or other court painter in the past. But an artist of Warhol’s affluence isn’t faced with starvation if he turns down a commission, say, from Idi Amin, or the Sultan of Brunei. Contrary to the Warhol philosophy, modern life still does require choices. Quite a few people with money wouldn’t piss on Nancy Reagan if her guts were on fire, and many of them commission portraits. At any rate, the “court paintings” are Andy’s weakest work — unless you look at them a certain way, and think their very lack of depth tells you something about their subjects.
They’re bad as paintings. This is of less concern than the fact that they’re bad as images. One of the usual objections to Warhol’s paintings is that he’s not a “painterly painter” in the traditional sense. People who cling to this kind of distinction miss the point that Warhol, long ago, brilliantly made about mass culture. Robert Hughes, for example. Hughes’s essay, “The Rise and Fall of Andy Warhol,” is one of those luminously nasty pieces of writing that clears the air of accumulated piety. But to ignore the importance of Warhol’s art, especially in the ’60s, simply because it isn’t arduous the way a Francis Bacon is, negates almost every worthwhile development in art in the past 20 years. Painting and image-making are sometimes the same thing, and sometimes are quite distinct. The emphasis can be here, or there. They don’t have to have a hierarchical relationship. Hughes seems to believe that some aesthetic utopia existed in the past, a utopia that art will return to after the current, doleful period. Many people think this way. Warhol understood something hateful but true: we aren’t going to lose the past in quite the same way as before. And we’re not going to find it again, either.
NOTHING ANDY EVER SAID was true, but that is beside the point. There are less cogent objections to Warhol than Hughes’s, less respectable ones. Sometimes they’re mixed up with valid ones. Homophobia was one of the first reactions to Warhol, especially from the Cedar Tavern set, the Abstract Expressionists. You could be a fag back then, like Frank O’Hara, as long as you could pass, and understood you were supposed to suffer over it, lusting after those real guys painting their heroic, tortured canvases. Andy was a swish.
A swish was somebody who couldn’t hide it. It was just the way you were. Something from the ’40s and ’50s and before, when gays were either butch or femme. You find less and less of this when sexual role models disintegrate, as they did in the ’60s and early ’70s. Andy wrote somewhere that he exaggerated his swishiness, because it wasn’t something he thought he should change.
One of the most liberating experiences of my life was seeing Bike Boy at a theater in Cambridge. I was with some ultrastraight but sensitive, tolerant Harvard boys who froze in horror after the first two minutes. Viva was in a bathtub with a man, telling him if he wanted to make plastic sculptures he should just do it and shut up about it. “We’re into other things, now,” she whined. As I watched this film I thought: “That’s for me.”
It’s bizarre that Warhol’s films have been out of circulation for so long. Or perhaps not so bizarre. When Warhol said, in his last interview, that the films “are better talked about than seen,” it occurred to me that a certain crust of the haute monde might have been less welcoming to Andy if it had been exposed to his movies. Which, I believe, compose his richest body of work. Who will ever forget Ondine, with his face buried in Joe D’Allesandro’s underpants, in Loves of Ondine? Or Ingrid Superstar’s recipe recitation in Bike Boy? The draft-dodger’s soliloquy, or Viva’s epic monologue, in Nude Restaurant? Taylor Mead scampering about in Lonesome Cowboys: “Oh you jingle, and you jangle, but you seldom wrangle…” I haven’t seen these films in 20 years, and I remember every frame. I’ve already forgotten E.T.
Warhol’s films are gloriously erotic, as sculpture is erotic. They’re honest. Pornography — which every American should enjoy at least as much as having Edwin Meese for an attorney general — is dishonest. Perfect faces on perfect bodies do not blissfully couple without any problems, in real life; they only do that in California. When Ondine’s about to get into Little Joe’s BVDs, the bathroom door flies open and in walks Brigid Polk, demanding to know what that cheap little hustler is doing with her husband. Sexual pleasure is immanent in the Warhol movies, a possibility; but pornographic fulfillment is always shown as a deluded ambition. Real people are too complicated.
We should be wary about praise and damnation of Andy. He helped open thousands of closet doors. If the things he lent himself to in recent years fill me with distaste, I still admire the frosty slap he gave America before he became America’s favorite vanity mirror. One should especially mistrust portraits like the concoction in Edie, a book compiled by George Plimpton and Jean Stein — surely two of the most privileged individuals in America, born with silver spoons, and zealous defenders of their class. Andy was a working boy. He worked hard, he made his money, they buried him with the blessings of his church. A saint for all the wrong reasons. And isn’t that what America is all about?