Diary

Christopher Hitchens

The intriguing thing about the opening night of the Andy Warhol retrospective in Manhattan was its tameness. MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) can seldom have looked so respectable while being at the same time, in a faintly macabre way, en fête. I could have got in without a black tie, but would have looked wildly conspicuous in mufti and was glad to have observed the protocol of the invitation. The event had the feel of a fundraiser for the Republicans (or, admittedly, in these days of high-tab politics, the Democrats). Since Warhol had in his time – then just drawn to an end – been sounded out for the post of Jimmy Carter’s official photographer, and gone on to grace the glitz-infested dinner table of Ronnie and Nancy, this didn’t seem inapposite. The pictures on the walls looked as familiar and predictable as the people. Surely that’s Marilyn. And look – there’s Jackie. There, reassuringly, is the Campbell’s soup can. In fact, there it is again – and again. It’s barely even a shock to see the late Andy Warhol himself, holding a small crowd in the angle of the staircase and sporting that unmistakable silver wig. Those who cluster round are careful to betray no sign of excitement, engagement or curiosity. Could this impersonator be the renowned Alan Midgette, who in 1967 ‘stood in’ for Andy at the University of Utah, of all places, and had the students demanding their thousand-dollar fee back? Warhol’s hope had been, ‘Maybe they’ll like him better than me,’ but surely there was some faint private relief on his part that this particular con didn’t work.

It’s a warm evening and MOMA has thrown open her garden. No sweet scent of the exotic cheroot taints the air; there are scarcely even any smokers and no one seems to be employing the men’s room either to take on fuel or to make a brisk exchange of spermatozoa. It was in MOMA’s hitherto demure garden in March I960 that the Swiss ‘happening’ artist Jean Tinguely exposed his Homage to New York. The exhibit consisted of a vast Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg device, fashioned from old bike parts, player-pianos, fans, balloons and other detritus. In the presence of Governor Nelson Rockefeller and many other big bananas, Tinguely threw a switch and set the heap on course to clanging, twanging self-destruction. All three networks solemnly recorded the event, which for many people inaugurated the period of ‘non-judgmental’ art criticism. Marcel Duchamp, Warhol’s original Pop guru, commented approvingly that there was merit in the movement to ‘destroy art before it’s too late’. Warhol’s biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles[1] remarks elsewhere that his subject’s Pop creations ‘were more Duchampian than anybody’s. If a machine could have created silkscreen paintings of coke bottles, soup cans and dollar bills, Andy would have paid its inventor to set the thing up in his studio.’ But, back where we started 29 years ago in MOMA’s garden, art seems lifeless but by no means dead. On the contrary, it is revered, fetishised, taxonomised – and valued on a scale that Nelson Rockefeller would have gruffly appreciated.

Reporting to lawyers and crime-beat journos about the latest in gang-rape, racial murder or crack-habit dysfunction, the New York City Police Department talks in low tones about something called ‘lack of affect’. In this phenomenon, those arrested show no emotion, display no awareness of guilt or shame, in general maintain a scary cool. This in turn leads to worried speculation, much of it profitless, about animal nature, barbarous youth and bad seed. I’ve often thought that the dense, autistic stare popularised by Warhol was the ur-type of this amoral, disaffected style. He seems to have tried for a synthesis of the sado-masochism of Dali and Céline, yet to have strained out any relish or abandon from the mixture. He took his pleasures sadly. Impersonalised or even brutalised gay sex, while it had been tried before all right, was something he both cottoned to and helped to proselytise for. The essential figure in the world of the Factory was either a runaway boy or a drifter, joining a Legion where no questions need be asked. That’s why William Burroughs was such a tangible influence on Warholism. And speaking of the feral, affectless manner, I can never forget Burroughs telling a film interviewer that, when he was a boy, mothers would warn their children against playing with him. ‘They said I looked like one of them sheep-killing dogs,’ he reported, as tonelessly as he dared.

As the Diaries show,[2] however, once Aids began to stalk his world, Warhol took fright, and distance. He would avoid restaurants where, as he put it, ‘fairies’ were handling the food. He cold-shouldered friends who tested positive, shunning their society at parties and refusing to ride in taxis with them. His discovery, Ultra Violet,[3] now born again in a tiresome way, recalls that at their last meeting she teased him without success about his reported meal with Liberace, saying: ‘I hope you didn’t french-kiss him at lunch.’ He writhed away from the subject.

Yet it is now given out that Andy was judgmental all along, nipping off secretly to Our Lady of the Perpetual Whatever to abase himself weekly, and helping out with soup-runs and such whenever he wasn’t over-committed elsewhere. At his memorial in St Patrick’s Cathedral, some of the better-heeled mourners made much of this life of occluded sanctity, though it was noticeable that they had defended him for his ‘do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ when he was among the quick. Claus von Bulow was first at the communion rail. ‘Amazing Grace’ was sung. Warhol’s final painting, The Last Supper, done all in red, was apparently described by him as having been ‘serious’. Thus we have the perfect kitsch of the amoralist who turns to the Cross at the last. As he would have said – Gee. Wow.

Still, and despite his pose of deep-seated indifference, Warhol did have some capacity for love, and for attracting it as well as needing it. It’s commonplace to hear his circle described as hangers-on, cronies, sponges and nature’s damaged dependents. But I’m impressed by the number of people who appear sincerely to miss him and to stay loyal to him and his memory. This is exactly why the Diaries are such a source of fascination. They seem designed to go off like a posthumous stink-bomb in the faces of those who thought themselves secure in friendship, or at least secure in first-name acquaintance. Jean-Michel Basquiat would not have been thrilled, had he lived anything like his natural span as the handsome, patronised black boy, to read for Tuesday, 2 October 1984: ‘Jean-Michel came over to the office to paint but he fell asleep on the floor. He looked like a bum lying there. But I woke him up and he did two masterpieces that were great.’ Yeah, right. This laconic entry tells you most of what you need to know about the burn-out that overcame Basquiat, yet there is nothing hateful or gloating about it, only the recurrent suspicion that Warhol never quite ‘bought’ any of the stuff he was apparently marketing.

Otherwise the Diaries are a combined exercise in Dada, minor betrayal and the care and feeding of the dreaded Internal Revenue Service, which likes tidy records of incidental expense. ‘Bernard went and got lost, talking to Susan Dey at the bar. He’s a would-be star-fucker. Susan Dey was emotional about the play and said she was protesting war now. I don’t know which war. Nicaragua, I guess.’ ‘And Steve Rubell was there and he wasn’t that friendly. I mean, he was really friendly, but sometimes he’s really really really friendly. So he wasn’t friendly enough.’ ‘Paramount was having a screening of Mommie Dearest (cab $6).’

Pat Hackett, who devoted so much of her life to getting all this between covers, also edited The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, in which appears the thought: ‘Some critic called me the Nothingness Himself and that didn’t help my sense of existence any. Then I realised that existence itself is nothing and I felt better.’ Could this have been put better (as a nihilist statement, I mean?) But then, why the relentless cabbing and socialising and partying and self-publicity? It’s too trite to say that he wanted to reassure himself that he did exist. As this vast telephone record shows, he could get all that reassurance at home.

It has now become quite impossible to think about publicity as an end in itself without Warhol’s name surging into one’s mind. The nada style of late post-Chabrolian violence, for example, surely owes a great deal to Valerie Solanis’s list of ‘demands’, issued once she had shot Warhol and nearly killed him. The demands were: an appearance on the Johnny Carson show, publication of the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) manifesto in the Daily News, $25,000 in cash and a promise that he would make her a star. This got her bail raised. She might conceivably have had better luck if she hadn’t pulled her act on the day that Robert Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles. When Ultra Violet asked Andy the stupid question ‘Why were you the one to get shot?’ he replied brilliantly: ‘I was in the wrong place at the right time.’ This ad-man’s gift for tags and phrases, perhaps honed by his trainee period as a successful and gifted commercial illustrator, impelled him to propose a television series, to be hosted by himself and called Nothing Special. I would have watched it. (Updike wrote somewhere that the show was one of Warhol’s few unfulfilled ambitions.) I’m also not yet bored by the line about fame and however many minutes it is. How many throwaway lines come back to you, perforce, as you read today’s newspapers? As I write, there is to be a party at Mr Chow’s on West 57th Street, to celebrate the publication of an index to the Diaries. (Mr Chow’s is mentioned 29 times – the most of any restaurant.) With the appearance of this piece of guerrilla free enterprise, nobody need read the book at all. They can just use it as it was meant to be used. The magazine that came up with the idea is called Fame, which avoids any ambiguity – at least Warhol’s first job was on a magazine modestly called Glamor. The invitations to the party have a space for the page number on which the invitee is given a mensh. There is no such thing as notoriety in the United States these days, let alone infamy. Celebrity is all and Warhol saw it coming even before Tom Wolfe did.

Ultra Violet, to whom I keep on giving menshes, has asked all who were seduced and profaned by the Sixties to join her in repudiating drugs, sex and parties. She urges Scripture, and tells us of her dreams. (‘Once I broke through to acceptance of God, my immune system rallied and healing began.’) She is a drag now, and seems to have been a drag then. But she does tell us something of a topic which gets more and more absorbing as one thumbs through the post-Warhol texts. Did he abolish the concept of the fake? For example, his book Popism, also edited by the tireless Pat Hackett, came out in 1980. Ultra Violet told Andy that it contained several errors. He replied: ‘Not my fault. I never wrote it, never read it.’ She also tells us, perhaps as part of her born-again repentance campaign but somehow very believably, that

authentication is at best nebulous for Andy’s silk-screen works, especially since Andy’s non-touch policy sometimes disinclined him to put his signature on a canvas. It became normal practice for anyone who happened to be around to sign his (Andy’s) name on ‘Brillo Boxes’, ‘Marilyns’, various versions of the soup cans. I myself took my turn at signature duty. Gerard, in charge of all the mechanics of the Pop production, ordered the silk-screens, stretched the canvases, applied the screens, mopped on the paint, and, on various occasions, wrote Andy’s name.

‘Mopped on the paint.’ That gives me the same petty thrill as I feel when a wine-label scandal reveals that oenophiles have been savouring the residue of old umbrella-handles and banana skins. Not that even the Factory world can quite dispense with the idea of the genuine. Dorothy Podber, a survivor of the Fifties avant-garde, fired a gun in Andy’s studio long before Valerie Solanis did. But she only aimed at Warhol before swivelling to the stack of Marilyn Monroe portraits against the wall and pressing the trigger. As Ultra Violet breathily recalls, ‘she put her pistol back, pulled on her gloves, gathered her followers, and left. This stylish event was regarded as an art happening.’ As she also recalls, ‘the bullet penetrated six paintings, which are now called “shot-through Marilyns”. They are more valuable than ordinary Marilyns because they are indisputably authentic.’

Post-Modernism à la Warhol or indeed à la Baudrillard is very often another way, as if we needed one, of saying ‘I don’t care’ or ‘Who cares?’ or ‘It doesn’t matter.’ Nothing fresh or original or worthwhile is likely to happen again. A perfect instance of the power of this narcotic but gripping thought occurs in Loner at the Ball, when Warhol decides to take a few friends to see his movie Sleep at a downtown cinema. The film, which shows John Giorno slumbering almost motionless for six hours, is technically unwatchable. On arrival at the cinema, the party is told that it is empty and that the movie has started, but they press on undaunted. Inside they find the solitary figure of John Giorno, star of the flick, fast asleep. One could hardly get more affectless than that.

[1] Loner at the Ball: The Life of Andy Warhol by Fred Lawrence Guiles (Bantam, 402 pp., £16.95, 12 October, 0 593 01540 1).

[2] The Andy Warhol Diaries, edited by Pat Hackett (Simon and Schuster, 807 pp., £17.95, 19 June, 0 671 69697 1).

[3] Famous for Fifteen Minutes: My Years With Andy Warhol by Ultra Violet (Methuen, 274 pp., £12.99, 25 May, 0 413 61530 8).