- Andy Warhol by Wayne Koestenbaum
Weidenfeld, 196 pp, £12.99, November 2001, ISBN 0 297 64630 3
In his account of late capitalism Fredric Jameson describes its cultural logic as if it were a schizophrenic – broken in language, amnesiac about history, in thrall to glossy images, subject to mood-swings from speedy euphoria to catatonic withdrawal. No wonder that his exemplar is Andy Warhol. ‘Warhol distrusted language,’ Wayne Koestenbaum writes on the first page of his smart biography; ‘he didn’t understand how grammar unfolded episodically in linear time, rather than in one violent atemporal explosion. Like the rest of us, he advanced chronologically from birth to death; meanwhile, through pictures, he schemed to kill, tease and rearrange time.’ Signs of this linguistic disturbance, real or staged, are abundant. There is ‘virtually no correspondence in his hand’: photographs, audiotapes and films were his modes of inscription. He couldn’t spell to save his life: typographic errors recur in his commercial illustrations of the 1950s, sometimes introduced by his Czech mother, Julia. And he spoke in a deadpan that extended to his books, which were mostly edited from taped conversations. All of this evidence leads Koestenbaum to his initial diagnosis of Warhol: ‘Trauma was the motor of his life, and speech the first wound’ – speech understood here as the medium of ‘normal’ intersubjectivity or reciprocity with the world.
‘Trauma’ is the lingua franca of much cultural analysis today, and it is not new to Warhol studies either. From his mother’s colostomy bag (she had colon cancer) to the brutal scars that tattooed his torso (he was shot, almost fatally, in June 1968), wounds figure literally in Warhol. A 1960 painting, based on a newspaper ad for surgical trusses, asks prophetically ‘Where is Yo Rupture?’, and Warhol always seemed to pick out the telling cracks in images and in people, whom he often regarded as another species of image. Metaphorically, too, as a breaching of interior and exterior, trauma can be seen as the very operation of his art. ‘It’s just like taking the outside and putting it on the inside,’ Warhol said early on about Pop, ‘or taking the inside and putting it on the outside.’ This elliptical remark might be understood literally – at one point Koestenbaum interprets his ‘entire oeuvre as an externalisation, crisply distanced and disembodied, of his abject internal circuitry’ – or again metaphorically, with his Pop images seen to register the delirious confusions between private and public that first became pronounced in this era: that is, between the desires and fears of the individual subject and the commodities and celebrities of consumer society, of which Warhol was the great portraitist. In either case he appeared ‘porous’ in a strange, new, near-total way: porous both in his art, with its steady stream of Pop effluvia (from his early Campbell’s Soup Cans to his late Diamond Dust Shoes), and in his life, with his studio, dubbed ‘the Factory’, set up as an open playground for subcultural denizens, mass-cultural divas, and ‘superstars’ of his own making.
At the same time Warhol was the opposite of porous. Especially after his shooting by the paranoid Factory fade-out Valerie Solanis, he countered his vulnerability with psychological defences and physical trusses of different sorts: buffering entourages, opaque looks (big glasses, silver wigs), protective gadgets (the omnipresent Polaroid and tape recorder), plus a weird ability to pass as his own double or simulacrum (even when he was right there in front of you he seemed somehow disembodied). And these devices became central to his persona, which is sometimes seen as his ultimate work: Warhol as the spectral centre of a flashy scene, a kind of blank Gesamtkunstwerk-in-person. Whereas Marshall McLuhan, a very different media figure of the 1960s, viewed new technologies as prostheses, Warhol used them as screens. As Koestenbaum writes, the dominant strategy of his Pop was to combine ‘lurid subject’ and ‘cool presentation’, and to translate images from one medium or sphere into another in order to ‘embalm’ them – though this embalming could also infuse his images with a psychic charge, an unexpected punctum, as Roland Barthes might say. Think of the two housewives in Tunafish Disaster (1963), victims of botulism taken directly from a newspaper page; smeared across the silkscreened painting, their smiling faces become piercing in repetition.