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.”
May 5, 1987
“I’ll Be Your Mirror”
By Gary Indiana
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 at 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 painters 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? ■
“Working With Warhol”
By Gerard Malanga
as spoken to John Perreault
Andy’s death was untimely. All of a sudden Andy dies? You would think time would simply continue forever with Andy. Like I always had this fantasy I would be hitting 60 and Andy would be close to 80 when we’d be talking on the phone in the 21st century. My initial experience at hearing that Andy had died was very much like looking in a window witnessing this dramatic event unfolding. There was no immediate impact. His death also defined what came before as now being history.
On the other hand, Andy’s death was a liberation in that young artists influenced by Andy, or who would have hoped for some kind of blessing or acknowledgment, are not going to get that now. They are literally on their own. There will be parties but Andy’s not going to be at these parties. People by and large will adjust to his not being around to flatter them. Andy would always flatter you into making you feel that you were an equal. He almost became your fan. You’d be walking away thinking he was your best friend and you’d only known him for a few minutes. His own emotional distancing was his unique and astute way of removing himself from any emotional experience he might otherwise feel toward you. It was his way of remaining in control.
I’ve always considered Andy a Conceptual artist in that he was really a spiritual child of Duchamp. Andy revitalized the notion of concept by activating it into an end result, always keeping in mind that the idea was very much the content of whatever it was he would depict in painting or film or gesture. In other words, for Andy, the idea of a man sleeping was easily and more fully realized as a film rather than a painting. This is a prime example of his gift for making artistic decisions. By realizing this idea through film he was literally redefining and equating real time with reel time or “running time,” and taking into account viewing time as well, which can’t be accomplished in a painting. This was Andy’s way of getting the viewer to experience to some degree what he was experiencing in the act of re-creating the idea into form. It didn’t seem likely that he would want to spend eight hours in front of a canvas, nor would anyone view that same hypothetical canvas for eight hours.
There was no Factory when I met Andy; there was only the Firehouse, called that because it once operated as a real New York firehouse, prior to Andy’s leasing the building from the city. Andy had no assistant. It was just Andy. He had gotten involved with the application of silk-screening to his paintings when I went to work with him. Charles Henri Ford had known that I had previous silk-screen experience and knew Andy needed someone to help him with his silk-screen paintings, and so when Charles introduced me to Andy he immediately asked me if I would like to help him and I replied Yes.
I hadn’t made any films of my own when I began assisting Andy in the film-end of work, but, based in part on my intuitive and practical knowledge of filmmaking gained from working with Marie Menken, I took Andy to Peerless Camera, where we shopped around and I suggested he purchase a 16mm Bolex with motor-drive attachment. I knew where to go for these things. Andy was not your technical expert. He wanted everything to be totally easy, like push the button and let it roll. This was his technical and technological aesthetic surfacing. The motordrive allowed for the continuous run of three minutes of film.
When I went to work for Andy I already had an identity of my own as a published poet. Working with him was a sheltering experience of sorts. He provided and took care of my immediate financial needs when accompanying him, like dinners and movies and trips to Europe — all those fringe benefits were taken care of in addition to a minimal salary. When I agreed to work for Andy he asked me what I would like to be paid. In those days the legal minimum wage was a dollar and a quarter an hour, so Andy said okay. It never dawned on me that I could have asked for and most likely would have received a flat rate for the week or at least three dollars an hour.
I enjoyed the work immensely. Whatever project we worked on was always fun or seemingly so, because we were creating paintings and making films and coming up with ideas for various multimedia situations, so I was very much a part of the creative process. I was poor but never broke. I was always extravagant with what little I had to play with because I knew Andy was there when I needed him.
Andy got most of his ideas from what was around at the time or what might have been suggested to him in conversation or over the phone, or he might be flipping through a newspaper or magazine and an image would catch his eye. Or sometimes I would come up with the idea, or he would and in turn I would find the appropriate image to fit the idea like, for instance, the portrait of the cow for the wallpaper. He hated that cow at first. I had to force that cow on him. He didn’t like it. I said, “Andy it’s got a kind of motherly quality, there’s a maternal look to this cow.”
A friend of his who worked for a photo agency used to lay all these wire service pictures on Andy, the kind of visual pulp you’d find in The National Enquirer. Some of those images found their way into the “Death and Disaster” series. Andy was mutable in the sense he was able to absorb other people’s ideas and make them his own. He was receptive to what was around him so that he would re-create the idea with little or no effort on his part is making decisions, and Andy was a pro when it came to making decisions.
This kind of open spontaneity was carried over into the films as well. Whatever happened in the process of making the film became a part of the film. Nothing was left out. Andy’s attitude was for all mistakes or inconsistencies in quality or technique to be part of the art. Nothing was wasted. We were not about to do it over! Andy never did any editing or any splicing. There was never any post-editing, so whatever editing was evident was done in the camera by stopping and starting the mechanism.
When Andy got shot in 1968, Lonesome Cowboys was in the can but it was mostly unedited. He had perceived this film as a four-hour abstract genderless Western using Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the taking-off point for an inverse transsexual metaphor. Juliet is played by Viva, who is renamed Romana, and Juliet becomes the male counterpart, Julius, Romana’s leading man. Andy gets shot. Paul [Morrissey] edits the film into a potential commercial vehicle. So Lonesome Cowboys becomes Andy’s 8½. At that point, with the exception of Blue Movie a year later, Andy didn’t make any more films because Paul took over during the time Andy was recuperating. So it was kind of a blessing in disguise because Andy was a big fan and admirer of Walt Disney and he always wanted to just put his name on whatever was being made at the time, as in “Andy Warhol Presents,” even though it might not have been directed by him.
The first film in which I appeared was The 13 Most Beautiful Boys, which was basically a three-minute screen test. The second film in which I had a part was Kiss, making out with Baby Jane Holzer for three minutes straight. The film was really a comment on Hollywood’s imposed moral code at the time in that films couldn’t depict a kiss scene for more than 15 seconds on screen.
I had no illusions whatsoever of being an actor. In those days I was first and foremost a poet. I had my first starring role as the rehabilitated juvenile delinquent, Victor, in Vinyl, which was a clandestine adaptation of the book A Clockwork Orange. Vinyl was also Edie Sedgwick’s first film appearance and even though she was visually present during the film’s entirety she had no lines and literally remained silent. Vinyl was followed by Edie’s brilliant self-portrayal in Poor Little Rich Girl. Kitchen, written by Ronnie Tavel, was Edie’s first scripted movie. It was to be her debut as a serious actress but she kept fluffing her lines. The film was intended as a vehicle for Edie to show off her talent at acting but she was just terrible. With Kitchen Andy was trying to get into the swing of things by trying to learn. He wanted to be disciplined and have everyone learn their lines and the film went through several rehearsals before Andy actually shot it. Nevertheless Edie did forget some of her lines. On the day of the shooting I brought Rene Ricard onto the set and managed to get him into the film. There was no part in the script for him, so he became Edie’s silent houseboy. Edie said, “Who’s he? What’s he doing here in my movie?” And then she’d be forgetting her lines. Kitchen was the first scripted film where Andy wanted everything to go right and, of course, it ended up being as spontaneous as everything else he’d been creating.
Andy and I worked on the paintings together. Many of the screens were just too big for Andy to do it alone. Death always seemed to be a kind of pervading metaphor in a lot of the paintings, more than in his films. The films have a decadence about them — an association with self-destruction and death. The poppy paintings also carry the association with death but in a more potent way. The poppy has always been associated with sleep or death. Andy’s first movie depicted someone sleeping for eight hours. It could have been a man dead for eight hours. Andy’s work involved a kind of lethargy, and this death element has always been directly connected to sex. In the film Empire, for instance, you see the building in overexposed daylight to compensate for the night to come, and gradually the building makes its appearance in more detail as night draws on and then the building lights up, so one can construe that the range from blinding light to total darkness was like life evolving into death. Of course, the obvious metaphor of the Empire State Building as a phallic symbol is directly associated with the movie King Kong, to which Andy’s film pays homage — if only indirectly.
But Andy’s films, and likewise the paintings, always paid homage to tradition. Andy’s paintings are really a documentation or comment on the tradition of art. You have the self-portrait series, which is a genre; you have the flower paintings, which are part of a genre. Any number of instances in Andy’s work fit into various genres of art. Andy started out making silent films in black and white; then he graduated to sound/black and white. Then he switched to color with sound. There was a progression of Andy re-experiencing the history of filmmaking from its very beginning.
Andy shied away from competition with other artists. An early instance of that was when Andy was in isolation working on his comic-strip paintings and finding out that another artist he hadn’t even met yet, Roy Lichtenstein, was doing comic-strip paintings and he immediately stopped making comic-strip paintings and went on to something else. He was not going to compete with Roy Lichtenstein. Andy had a vision of an original sense of himself in avoiding any mimicry of what anyone else might have been working on at the time, except, of course, when he would use history as a counterpoint. He might have been envious of other artists but only in a humorous way. Andy was always the fan. He was enamored of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. They were like gods to him. He’d get so nervous about seeing or talking to them he’d run to the bathroom to urinate. And he always liked the Abstract Expressionists.
Andy’s entry into the art world on his own was by collecting art. He bought art from the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in ’60, ’61 — paintings by Jane Wilson, Larry Rivers, and Tchelitchew. He was serious and conscientious and had a good eye for certain pieces. Collecting art was for Andy a kind of nourishment.
Andy might be remembered for 15 minutes [laughter]. I think Andy will ultimately be remembered and appreciated as a Conceptual artist and surely a progenitor of the Pop Art movement, and everything else that he was involved with will be frill or icing on the cake. Besides being remembered for the specific paintings within a given period that are iconographic, I think he’ll be remembered for how he arrived at making those paintings — which I think are very important in terms of the conceptual mode that came about in allowing those paintings to occur. Likewise for the films Sleep, Eat, Haircut, Empire, the three-minute portraits, and three-minute screen tests. The idea that someone could be screen-tested is like becoming famous for three minutes or taking three minutes to become famous for an instant of time.
Everything Andy did was interesting, but not everything he did was brilliant or great. I think Andy went into a slump in the ’70s. A lot of superficial, glitzy work was being inflicted onto the art market just to generate money, which was the one thing Andy loved most. You see, money for Andy was his ticket to power and power meant control. Once Andy had money he was terrified of giving it up because it meant giving up a part of himself and to give up a part of himself meant to reveal or expose a part of himself. Andy veiled himself in little lies and construed myths about himself when he was interviewed by the press.
So after the Mao portraits and the “Vote for McGovern” poster Andy takes a horrific creative plunge, as if he’d arrived at nothing and knew it. But he kicks back with the Hammer and Sickle paintings and to a degree with the Shadow paintings. The most recent work I’ve seen, the sewn or stitched photographs, are brilliant because they transcend in the most magical way possible the literal, mundane accuracies they convey. I was envious when I saw that exhibition because I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Those dangling threads have an eroticism and sexual nuance about them, as if they were symbolic pubic hair. He took some of the most boring, mundane photographs imaginable and by multiplying the images it was like the old Andy coming back, pulling it off with great flair. Again, what you have here is a commentary on the genre of photography and art. The way he put these images together left me ecstatic. As much as I would love to I don’t dare stitch a photograph. ■
GERARD MALANGA is a poet, photographer, filmmaker, and multimedia artist. He is the photo archivist for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
“Viva and God”
I wondered, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April Fools’ Day, if I was in the right church. Andy’s memorial service seemed more like a canonization than a mass, one that the Deceased himself would have been most offended by. Like Queen Victoria, Andy never distinguished himself as being apart from his “colleagues,” always using “we” instead of “I.” The speaker who described Andy remaining “untainted” by the “corruption” of the “self-destructive lemmings” around him would have provoked a murmur of dissent from the Master, along the lines of “if you can’t say anything nice.”
Feeding the poor and going to mass, while worthy activities, hardly make for true spirituality or religiosity. In fact, in perusing some of my 10-year-old writings on Andy, I’ve discovered what really bothered me about the beatification. The speakers didn’t go far enough. Andy wasn’t the “Village Holy Man,” he was God Himself.
1976 The script in the Warhol-Morrissey movies was the common body of experience vibrating in the space between the actors. The success of the films was dependent on our ability to summon our lives’ experiences to the front of our brains, the tips of our tongues, so tangible as to be almost visible out in front of our craniums. The dialogue was already there, we had only to read it, basing our technique on an intuitive knowledge of what was vibrating in that space.
1987 Paul Morrissey, who thinks it inadvisable to use the word “space” in the above paragraph, maintains it was the absurd artificiality of the scenarios he always sketched out (“Viva, you be the Madame of the whorehouse, you’re in love with Julien, but Louie wants him too,” etc., etc.) that led to a realistic dialogue because of the freedom it gave us to plumb the depths of our real emotions and experiences. This is also true.
The feeling that we were onto something good led us to approach this seemingly random improvisational method with a contagious enthusiasm and a deadly seriousness that we tried hard to hide. In actuality the whole scene, including Andy’s directions, was extremely stiff. Other directors I’ve worked with since have been infinitely more relaxed and ready for fun than either Andy or Paul. One would think the Factory would have been the penultimate in bonhomie; yet John Schlesinger, Herb Ross, Bill Norton, Agnes Varda, Wim Wenders, Pasolini, Michael Sarne, were all backslapping buddies next to the severe, silent directors of the “underground.”
Though Andy’s role was, like that of all Directors, to play God, he had a firmer grasp of the deity’s identity, having been raised with the Baltimore catechism’s definition (all-cognizant, all-present, all-powerful, all-loving). Described as a passive watcher, God differed from Andy as a director only because of the element of “grace.” But even here Andy mimicked God by occasionally asking one of us to repeat an action, a phrase, or a laugh: grace. Grace was a free gift and only God knew when it would rain down on you. Since time repeats itself for no one, being asked to repeat a particularly good moment was “grace.”
1976 Example of Warholian “grace”: My role in Bike Boy was to seduce Joe Spencer. I was given exactly three directions. The first was to change my position, moving to Joe’s other side, the second was to remove my clothes, the third was to repeat a laugh I’d just uttered. I repeated the laugh, the camera began grinding again, and all of a sudden there wasn’t any more film. The scene was finished, as it always was when the newsreel camera ran out of its 35-minute load of film. If wasn’t until five years later, upon seeing the movie for perhaps the fifth time, that I realized why Andy had asked me to repeat that laugh: Joe’s slack penis, prominent in the foreground but previously unnoticed by me. I lay apparently laughing at Joe’s impotence, though in reality I had never dared to look down. Totally embarrassed, I had been concentrating on looking up at his face.
1987 Paul says Andy asked us to repeat something when he didn’t get it the first time because he was focusing somewhere else or he ran out of film. Scratch grace.
1976 “Tell people that you’re acting, that you had a script,” Andy begged me over and over again, “don’t ever let them know that it’s real!”
1987 As I listened to the eulogies at St. Pat’s about ’60s corruption and the deep spirituality of Andy’s last paintings, I wondered if I was as truly out of step with the rest of the world as our family doctor in Alexandria Bay, New York, once claimed. I remembered the first time I saw myself on the Warhol-Morrissey screen; Paul phoned my 83rd Street and Park Avenue apartment, told me to quit painting, said I was a performing genius on the order of a Mick Jagger and I had to come to the Factory immediately and see Bike Boy, my second Warhol film in a week (neither of which I’d yet seen). I got on the subway and went downtown.
I was amazed. Was that really me? What made my timing so flawless? My dialogue so brilliant? In the following months I saw Taylor Mead, Ondine, and Louie Waldon perform as brilliantly while Brigid, in The Imitation of Christ (whose cinematography, thanks to Paul, was the most gorgeous I’d ever seen) gave a performance that seemed the summa cum alta of humor, feeling, and originality. We were clearly the forerunners of a new style, one that was bound to sweep cinematic circles within the decade.
It didn’t. But if I’d depended on Andy’s obituaries for information, I’d never have known he took a single second off from painting pictures to shoot a frame of film. In the one or two instances where the films were mentioned, you’d swear they were shameful porn trash. The Andy I knew regarded painting as the shameful deed and did it as surreptitiously as he shopped for velvet blue jeans, choosing odd hours of the day and night for both activities and sneaking the results into hidden nooks and crannies of the Factory or bathrooms of the rich and famous (where many of the portraits ended up), claiming when caught that he had to paint to make the money to shoot the films. But total incomprehension of the movies has always been the norm:
1976 “…The central difference between films of interest made by Warhol and those made by his epigonous imitator-author Paul Morrissey is the complete absence of Duchampian inspiration in the latter. The elimination of Duchamp’s influence in Warhol’s films, which was for their defenders what made them interesting, is on the aesthetic level what is meant by the commercialization of the work in Morrissey’s hands.” —Stephen Koch, Stargazer
Blue Movie, entirely my idea, and enthusiastically seconded by Andy, was the occasion of so much embarrassment to Paul Morrissey that he could not stay on the set and watch the filming. In his book Stargazer, Stephen Koch places Blue Movie under the heading The Films of Paul Morrissey. From its inception, a year before Andy was shot, to its actual filming in August or September of ’68, Paul had no say in the filming, never went near the camera, did not direct in any way. [1987 — Gerard Malanga says, however, that Paul, rather than being embarrassed, was “jealous” because, having attempted to “sanitize” Andy, the Master was now, with Blue Movie, bouncing back.]
Unbelievably, Koch also places Blue Movie in the pre-shooting category (when a simple phone call would have cleared up that error), doing this apparently to prove that Andy was floundering in a pornographic morass of failures just before he was shot.
Andy made Blue Movie six months after he was shot.
As far as I know it was the only film made solely by Andy and the actors (Louie Waldon and I), and no one else had a single thing to say or made a single move in its direction. During the shower scene Andy left the camera running alone in the hallway and walked away. Any fool can see that walking away from a running camera is about as Duchampian as you can get.
On page 51 Koch wrote that “the wretched Lonesome Cowboys is the last film he [Andy] directed entirely on his own… abandoning Duchamp and lacking Morrissey’s greedier and more self-indulgent personality.”
Here Koch has Andy “abandoning Duchamp” on his own, without the devil-temptor, Morrissey. The fact is that Lonesome Cowboys, filmed before Andy was shot, and before Blue Movie, is almost entirely Paul Morrissey’s creation. We made it, however, because of the following exchange: “Gee, I bet it’s a really nice life to do that,” Andy said to me from the balcony, looking down on the native Arizonian who was mowing the lawn of the motel in Tucson, where we were staying during a college lecture tour. “Out in the sun all day in a nice warm climate. I think I might like to do that.”
“Me too,” I said, “in fact I’m not getting on the plane unless you promise me we can come back and make a movie.”
1987 My father phones. “My God,” he says, “have you seen the newspapers? You’d think Andy Warhol was the greatest artist of all time! Ha! For painting a Campbell’s Soup can!”
“But the films were good,” I say.
“Films? Hell. They were just pornographic movies, weren’t they?”
1976 Andy made it painfully clear to me that the entire burden of dialogue and “action,” not to mention
“plot,” was on my frail shoulders because, according to him, nobody else was capable. Although my nature has always been classical feminine passive, I believed that I had to dig up, from the furthermost recesses of my soul, the ability to act, rather than react. I was made to understand that I had no one to react against because none of my fellow actors (with the exception of Ondine, Taylor Mead, and Louie Waldon) could use their brains. They didn’t have any brains. “Please Viva,” Andy would whine, “you’ve got to do something! Nobody else will!” Or, “Please Viva! You’ve got to talk! Say anything! Nobody else can!”
Trying to maintain a world of “healthy sexuality” when first, no one knows what it means, and second, there is no health anywhere else in our society, is a medieval fantasy. The Warhol films were about sexual disappointment and frustration: the way Andy saw the world, the way the world is, and the way nine-tenths of the population sees it, yet pretends they don’t.
The difference between the Warhol-Morrissey films and other films is that in the former neither the ideal nor the pretense at the ideal is there. The truth is there. L’Age d’Or by Buñuel is the only other film I’ve seen about sexual truth. If I’d seen it before making Blue Movie I’d have gotten up, stared into the camera, and said, in the middle of the shooting, “Get me another partner!”
1987 As I ponder it, I think Andy’s modus operandi was neither to reveal “disappointment and frustration” nor to “ridicule and trivialize” the dogma of the day. Andy had nothing against which to compare either of these two ideas. Because he was so shy and complexed about his looks, he had no private life. In filming as in “hanging out,” he merely wanted to find out how “normal people” acted with each other. And I think my own idea about Blue Movie wasn’t, as I believed at the time, to teach the world about “real love” or “real sex,” but to teach Andy. I truly loved Andy and would have done anything to help him. Of course, Blue Movie didn’t work out the way I had envisioned, partly because the man who had been the original inspiration for the idea didn’t want to make the film, and partly because the act of observation changes everything. ■
VIVA is a novelist, journalist, actress, and painter.
By Barbara Kruger
The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s.
The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s.
The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s.
Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet .
—Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, 1975
Aside from serving food relatively quickly, McDonald’s is about a particular kind of presentation: the American rendition. It condenses the look of the last 35 years of highway architecture and public eateries into the time it takes to grab a bite. Above all, it is the primary vision of businessmen concerned with profit and efficiency in the field of food services. But McD’s brand of global culinary imperialism and the brass-tackism of its financial acumen was of little concern to Andy Warhol, to whom McDonald’s was both merely, and most importantly, beautiful.
He might have also called it adorable, the nimbus crowning a figure both pleasurable and good-humored. His comment can read as a happily relieved relinquishment of the critical, a resolutely numbed-out dose of enthrallment. But maybe it can also work as a dislocator, courting the negative with a kind of languid irony. Andy Warhol always seemed to hanker for that really pretty line that wandered unmerrily between contempt and adoration.
The adoration was the easy part, like the icy vehemence of the kind of guy who would stand outside the Pantages Theater on Oscar night, clutching a bouquet of roses for one star or another. 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.
All these yens for glamour and fame, coupled with a smooth ability to cut through the grease of wordy, “unpleasant” complexities and historically grounded explanations, made for the stuff of Warhol’s work. 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. 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.
It was this face, this parade of glaringly alluring visages, that soaked through Warhol’s production, that floated to the surface of his work and showed us how images of certain well-known and sometimes smiling heads could make the sedentary seem so terribly busy. Inhabiting a kind of gauzy villa of narcotized smirks, they might even suggest, beyond the irony, a passion. The passion for the elegant figure. The cut of a jacket. Shiny blond locks framing indigo, shadowed eyes that glance at a boy who’s always looking the other way. We are breathing inaccessibility. As voyeurs, we need not be articulate, merely attentive. Beauty is in our adjacents, and the next party is always the best.
Mixing the scattered seriality with the promiscuous capabilities of the silk-screen process, Warhol crammed his images with the commodities and commotions of his time, and made them belt out a national anthem which sounded suspiciously and pleasantly like “Money Changes Everything.” The singularity of specific icons was processed through an assembly line of fluent, varietal repetitions. But although these procedures were employed with machine-like detachment, the work, nevertheless, has the feel of a cottage industry in which the tiny mismatches and eccentric registers of the silk-screen process become as resonant as de Kooning’s rapturously brushy orchestrations. From the ironic presentation of the renovation of affliction (the nose job, dance instruction, and paint-by-numbers pictures) to his portraiture, Warhol’s images coalesced into a facetious cataloging of photographic and painterly gesture: a testament to inaccessibility, to the rumor of a stainless beauty, to the constancy of glamorous expenditure.
The tony veneer of these incisive parodies and icy vanities could serve as screens on which to project Warhol’s raw and powerfully tedious movies. Kiss, Blowjob, 13 Most Beautiful Women, Poor Little Rich Girl, Screentest, Face, Chelsea Girls, and even Empire, (with its attention to the “face” of an anthemic structure), all seem to be searching for the perfect visage. The “up close and personal” talking head, coupled with the enlargement of the film format, produced the ironically doubled myth of “Super Star”: a site at which the marginalized could enthusiastically produce the image of their own (im)-perfection, in which the generic position of “star” was doubled over and, rather than choking on its own artifice, swallowed it whole and proceeded to describe the experience lo us for what seemed like an eternity. By suggesting that people could spend their lives lying in bed, talking on the phone, and cutting their bangs, these films foregrounded both the fun and charm of being wasted, and the hard work it takes to live another day. They create different readings than the gelled signifiers of the static portraiture, and proceeded to tell a story about the thin line between glamour and shit. They satirize, yet embody, the star system, the impossibility of everything, and the sublimity of the mundane gesture. They are contemptuous of the spectator as masochist and invite an intelligently hasty exit. They are clean-cut examples of film as idea, combining the “creative” dispensations of so-called avant-garde filmmaking with the look of Sam Fuller’s perpetual complaint that someone is staring at him.
Throughout all this work, Warhol functioned as a kind of engineer of retention: a withholder who became the doorkeeper at the floodgates of someone else’s expurgatory inclinations. His acuity can be construed as a kind of coolness: an ability to collapse the complexities and nuances of language and experience into the chilled silences of the frozen gesture. He elevated the reductivism of myth and mute iconography to new heights of incommunicado. Mixing the posing of stunned subjectivity with the confessional forays of raging objectification, he produced something that sometimes looked like a talent show in the asylum. Like any good voyeur, he had a knack for defining sex as nostalgia for sex, and he understood the cool hum of power that resided not in hot expulsions of verbiage, but in the elegantly mute thrall of sign language.
BARBARA KRUGER is an artist and critic.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 13, 2018