All his life Andy Warhol looked like death. He came into the world that way: blank, rheumy-eyed, sick as the day was long. An unmerry child with St Vitus’ Dance, the young Warhol lay twitching in his bed under a blanket of fan magazines, the source of all his imaginary friendships – with Errol Flynn and Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper and Gary Cooper – and the only thing he craved in those Pittsburgh days was the chance to be as lovable as Shirley Temple. The adult Warhol looked as much like death and lived as much by desire. A mobile presentation of 20th-century estrangement. A man in a wig in a season in hell. ‘A sphinx without a secret,’ said Truman Capote; ‘the Ecce Homo of modern exhibitionism,’ said Stephen Spender. For his own part, Warhol was intensely reasonable: ‘I just want to be a machine,’ he said.
There were many Andies: the Andy who brought cruelty back into art; the Andy who worried about ‘boy trouble’; the Andy who saw to the heart of advertising, and who fashioned the media that fashioned him; the Andy who knew how to use the delinquent energies of those around him, but who was scared of getting close to folk in case they got ill; the Andy who was bored like an old stuffed aunt; the Andy who went to Mass at St Patrick’s every Sunday; the Andy who made new things fabulous and fashionable and more interesting than they were; the Andy who sucked up to Imelda Marcos and took tea with the Shah of Iran; the Andy who knew how the Bomb had maimed us, how television had made us, how money was everything, and everything was glorious. Warhol became a virtual-reality show starring himself: Andrew Warhola playing ‘Andy’ better than Norma Jean Baker ever played ‘Marilyn’. In 1968, while Soviet tanks prepared to roll into the Czechoslovakia of Andy’s origins, Warhol was writhing in agony on the floor of his New York studio, shot by Valerie Solanas, a funny woman who had appeared in one of his movies. By that time Warhol had come to represent what Don DeLillo has called ‘the revenge of popular culture on those who take it too seriously’.
Warhol outlined a new sort of wanting. America is there in his paintings, and the things people wanted – a Coke, a perfection, a quick end – are documented in a manner which suggests both the campness and the terror of mass production. For all his dazzling befuddlement, Warhol had a clear notion of what was happening in his time on that continent of big wishes, and he made stuff out of it – pictures and movies and boxes and versions of himself – that will always say something of what it was like to be alive in those specimen days, those bright-eyed years running to madness after the war. His weird albino mentality stands behind the notions we have today about the value of disposable objects, and the meaningfulness of celebrity, and it is Warhol’s signature that sits on the lips of that ironic smirker, the contemporary Artist-Personality, with his vast narcissism, his love of being cool, his pose of knowing nothing you couldn’t know yourself if only you weren’t so knowing. Warhol’s thinking is everywhere now: his rinky-dink voice is trapped in the general formaldehyde.
But the career started in shoes. Warhol caused a bit of bother at college with some George Grosz-like drawings of little boys with their fingers stuck up their noses. Grosz’s notion of Dada – ‘the organised use of insanity to express contempt for a bankrupt world’ – was evidently Warhol’s for a minute or two, but the American boy was not the type to bandy words with a world that was bankrupt, and in time he’d find better uses for insanity. But first he wanted to be rich. Warhol’s attitude to money was a cross between Jay Gatsby’s and Holly Golightly’s – he yearned for the world where money allowed you to be whoever you wanted to be, where money was confidence and confidence was character, and where each day was a promise of diamonds as big as the Ritz. Carmel Snow, who edited Harper’s Bazaar during the Fifties, told a story about Warhol turning up at her New York office, and when he opened his portfolio, a cockroach crawled out from beneath the folds. The art director of Glamour magazine asked him to draw some shoes and he brought her in a whole load the next day. Warhol’s shoe drawings were an original and sexy mixture – bang-on for the time and the venue, with their cool lines and blurred edges and stylishly camp gold-leaf and delicate water-colourings. Warhol started doing shoes for a weekly advert in the New York Times. Shoes, Shoes, Shoes brings together some of the best of those commercial drawings, which were collected once before in an equally delightful portfolio called A la Recherche du Shoe Perdu.
Warhol’s pretty shoes, we gather from other sources, may in fact be inky revelations of something fairly robust in the artist’s character. He was a foot-fetishist. The New York poet John Giorno, an old boyfriend of the bewigged one, gave an account several years ago of what his pal liked to do on his nights in. Just to get you in the mood, here’s his account of what he and Andy did on the day John Kennedy was shot.
We heard Walter Cronkite say ‘President Kennedy died at 2 p.m. on November 22nd, 1963.’ We started hugging each other, pressing our bodies together and trembling. I started crying and Andy started crying. We wept big fat tears. It was a symbol of the catastrophe of our own lives. We kissed and Andy sucked my tongue. It was the first time we kissed. It had the sweet taste of kissing death. It was all exhilarating, like when you get kicked in the head and see stars.
But this was only the beginning of the ways in which this nimble pair would express the catastrophe of their own lives. They grew in fact to quite like their catastrophe. And Andy was never one to take his mind off his work:
There was Andy Warhol on his hands and knees, licking my shoes with his little red tongue. Too good to be believed! I thought, with a rush, ‘He’s sucking my shoes!’ It was hot. My shoes were covered with saliva. I got some poppers to make it better.
Warhol took his first faltering steps out of the commercial market with his Foot Book, a collection of drawings of his friends’ feet, and then he broke through with a show called Crazy Golden Slippers, a bunch of lacquered shoe drawings, where each shoe was called Mae West or James Dean or Elvis Presley or Julie Andrews.
As a strictly commercial artist Warhol not only knew how to make things pretty: he had the knack – the New Yorker-ish knack – of making style a matter of poise and clarity and simplicity and self-concealment. He learnt what he could from the great fashion illustrators, the society cartoonists, Aubrey Beardsley and Max Beerbohm, but he got most of what is fresh in his drawings from a New-York-in-the-Fifties world of homosexual felicity, a literary world of gentle other-persuasion, whose emergent prince was Truman Capote. In Style, Style, Style, beside a drawing of a portly lady in a yellow dress and a pink umbrella and a green fan, it says: ‘Fashion wasn’t what you wore someplace anymore; it was the whole reason for going.’ And this was the first of Warhol’s very good perceptions: fashion is about event and situation and attitude. It is about how people are in a given moment. Warhol realised that personality was as natural as a pair of polka-dot Chanel gloves. For him, everything that was interesting and stylish, everything involving taste, had to do with artifice. And so, in his way, Warhol predated all the pink thinkers on Camp sensibility. It would be 1964 before Susan Sontag emerged with her ‘Notes on Camp’, which read nowadays, in their arch solemnity, like some kind of ambush on the tendency itself, and which must be among the least effectively stylised pronouncements on the virtues of American stylisation. However, I’d sooner, by a thousand times, have Sontag’s notion of how ‘one is drawn to Camp when one realises that “sincerity” is not enough,’ or Warhol’s sense that throwing on a dress is never bad for a laugh, than have to put up with one more word on the subject from the contributors to Who is Andy Warhol?, a book so deeply off you wouldn’t feed it to Oscar de la Renta’s dogs.
Here’s Matthew Tinkcom. ‘Camp is the alibi for gay-inflected labour to be caught in the chain of value-coding within capitalist political economies... I would suggest that Camp is more productively seen in relation to what it says about bourgeois representation (and its tendency to exclude gays) than in whatever help it lends in the formation of identities.’ This is just one of the papers presented at the opening of the Andy Warhol Museum in April 1995. I’m sure everybody had a nice day out, but why must the speeches then be collected in this way? No good comes of it. Colin MacCabe tells us in his Preface that ‘it is not clear that Warhol’s prodigious output has ever been satisfactorily described, still less understood’ – which is true enough, and might be a good reason to throw a conference, to commission a proper book, or to put together a documentary film. But it’s an interest not at all well-served by the flinging together of a batch of four-year-old conference papers, some of which might have been funny and erudite from the speaker’s platform, but which now lie on the page gasping for breath. The book has an ugly cover, is unevenly set, has poorly reproduced illustrations, is badly proofed and, most depressing of all, is made up of the sort of itchy, perfunctory essays which, in this format, do few of the authors any favours at all.
Mercifully, there is one essay here, by one of the editors, Peter Wollen, which is useful in helping you get the connection between Warhol’s commercial drawings and his big silkscreens, between the fashion pages and The Factory, and the role he came to assume there as Svengali-producer and artist-voyeur. Clement Greenberg ‘saw painting as an activity which existed within the limits of its own world, self-validated and self-contained’, says Wollen.
Warhol, more than anyone else, broke open this enclosed world of ‘ambitious art’, a world in which art had become a kind of substitute religion with its substitute theology and clerisy. The Warholian Renaissance indeed repeated, in miniature, many of the features that Burckhardt saw in the Florentine Renaissance – a breaking-down of cultural barriers, an exuberant neo-Paganism, the rise of the artist as celebrity, a fascination with a certain kind of court culture.
Warhol was to become the most accompanied, the most surrounded, of all contemporary artists. Not only did he like people to give him ideas, and often to do the work, but he had something in him which liked to push people to the furthest extremes of their personality, where he could observe them, and film them.
The director Naomi Levine once said that Warhol ‘provoked people with his passiveness into becoming freaky’. People were attracted to The Factory – dopey socialites, beautiful kids, energetic misfits, hip weirdos, and the conventionally famous – by Warhol’s name, and by his odd ability to create a scene which seemed both open and closed at the same time. A salon of reprobates, it was vaguely countercultural, full of drugs and hurt and paranoia, but still it managed to be a place where work got done. The people who went there were thinking differently – the Sixties were truly underway – and they needed a place to explore their energy, a place that could exploit their manic sense of being anything rather than their parents, and Warhol maintained the conditions, paid the rent, provided the logo, dominating everything with his few words, his great curiosity his non-judgment, his ambient coolness, his sadistic glee. One of those nicely deranged kids was Billy Name, who painted the place silver, and who said that the Factory was like ‘a big box camera – you’d walk into it, expose yourself and develop yourself.’
Billy Name used to cut hair at The Factory, and he took a lot of colour pictures with his Olympus Pen-F, a smart little camera, before retreating into a dark room at the back of the studio, where he mumbled happily to himself and never saw a soul for a full year. The pictures have now come to light in All Tomorrow’s Parties, the best and most intimate photographic record of Warhol’s empire there has ever been: the people here have real colour (or blusher) on their cheeks; all the purple and yellow of those days is evident on the scratchy, vivid surface of these pictures. They are glorious in a way. David Hickey, in his Foreword, speaks of how the pictures ‘restore that scene to us where its surface shines and wrinkles, in the midst of New York weather and Sixties fashion, in the tactile grunge of downtown Manhattan and the quotidian tumult of quarrels, messy lunches and spilled drinks’. Joe Dellasandro in a turtleneck looking at some prints; Brigid Berlin running in with milkshakes; Susan Bottomley cuddling a stuffed camel; Viva showing off her knickers; Taylor Mead sticking out his tongue in Max’s Kansas City; Lou Reed checking his buttonhole at John Cale’s wedding. One big silvery moment in the history of Pop Art, or the history of Nothing.
For all Warhol’s love of crazy girls in their posh frocks, and his growing curiosity about the higher society, his first impulse as an artist was basically democratic; he believed that anybody could be beautiful or interesting – ‘if everybody’s not a beauty, then nobody is’ – though he also believed that money made people better people. The older he got, the more he wanted rich people around him, and shopping became his only love. But at the time of his best paintings Warhol was attracted to the idea that consumerism was the great leveller. Buying makes us all free. A pair of jeans is a pair of jeans is a pair of jeans, you can only wear one pair at a time, and that is what Warhol adored about America. He liked to imagine everyone being subjected to the same repetitive imagery – soup tins, Liz Taylors – and imagine that modern iconography made us all the same, all answerable to our desires, all open to the lure of the available, and all capable of becoming a famous image, for 15 minutes, in a future nobody knows. Such faith in democracy is essentially heartless, and he knew that too. Choice isn’t everything. And some people don’t have it. Most people could buy a box of Brillo pads, but hardly anybody could buy one of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. Warhol’s democracy had boring limitations: he trusted to the Art Market, not the supermarket.
Pop Art was, for a time, a good joke at the expense of the more traditional art world, but it also managed to turn a strobe lamp on the wider culture, making all manner of products and personalities go suddenly slow, and suddenly stark. In this light, the most familiar contemporary objects seemed alienated and strange, and a sensibility emerged that was all to do with time and place. Fifties domestic inertia – the tyranny of the pedal-bin – lay suddenly exposed in those vast and gaudy paintings of Campbell’s soup and Coca-Cola; and the face of Marilyn Monroe, the most innocent and disconcerting of the Fifties fluff, and stone dead, reminded the world how easy it was to be blown away, how certain it seemed that death was the most common currency of them all. Death is cheap and easy to produce. Everybody can afford one.
Someone read out a dreadfully funny thing at Andy Warhol’s funeral. ‘When I die I don’t want to leave any leftovers,’ they quoted Andy as saying: ‘I’d like to disappear. People wouldn’t say he died today, they’d say he disappeared. But I do like the idea of people turning into dust or sand, and it would be very glamorous to be reincarnated as a big ring on Elizabeth Taylor’s finger.’ A decade before Warhol disappeared, he spent his afternoons in business meetings, and his nights at Studio 54. A bedlam of cocaine and orgasms and famous names and Quaaludes and tears, Studio 54 was the endzone of the New York world that Warhol had first come in search of – a Stork Club or El Morocco for a new generation looped on Saturday Night Fever. The not at all unfeverish Anthony Haden-Guest, in his book The Last Party, offers the view that Studio 54 was the apex of everything good and optimistic and various in that famously golden age, the late Seventies. To our man, the disco was a libertine harbour of top Rabelaisian fun, a place where Balzacian monsters could frug the night away, hoovering the family fortune up a hole in their faces, and all the happy people could spin through the palace, so pleased, so lucky, allowed at last to the Jacobean masque. Other people say it was just a sweaty dump full of idiots shouting at each other, but Mr Haden-Guest is a social historian.
Warhol by that time was glazed with celebrity. For someone who never had much to say, but who somehow managed to say it, he suddenly didn’t have much to say. He had never been right since his brush with death. The crazy people were kept at a distance – even the crazy person he was himself was kept at a distance – and he simply liked to drink a few vodkas and take snaps from the balconies of rubbishy discos. Most of his instincts were gone, but still he liked to look at the dancefloor, and the dancing people, with their dancing feet, each little toe there trapped in a golden shoe.
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