In his interactions with the media, the famous artist and provocateur offered only what enhanced his persona, not what the interviewer wanted to hear. Watch the master at work in these classic clips…
Interviews, at their most basic level, are fact-finding missions. When public figures and celebrities are interviewed, we expect to gain insight into their behavior, garner their opinions on current events and/or uncover secrets about their private lives. We expect truths—knowledge that somehow brings us closer to breaking down the public, media-driven persona and getting to know the “real” artist, actor, politician. Yet, while we accept that media can manipulate the identities of those being interviewed, we sometimes forget how easily the tables can be turned.
Andy Warhol was a master at turning the tables on the media. He had toying with the media down to an art form, simultaneously denying the notion that there is anything special or unique about artists while reinforcing that very myth. While some artists choose to forgo giving explanations to their ideas and methods by becoming reclusive, Warhol was very much a public figure. His apparent disdain for the media during interviews and reticence when asked about his art or himself only served to garner more attention. With his reluctance to engage, it becomes up to the viewers and consumers to decide what to believe. We’re forced to form our own opinions—about art, artists, and the media—which isn’t a bad thing.
Here are some examples of the master at work:
“This show has been compared to the collision between the Titanic and the iceberg. What makes it that explosive, do you feel?” Silence.
In late May of 1966, Andy Warhol and his multimedia show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, headed west to San Francisco where they were booked to play three nights at Bill Graham’s Fillmore. Apparently, their arrival warranted a press conference. Thankfully, a brief clip of Andy, Nico, and Gerard Malanga being interviewed by KTVU reporter Carlton Cordell has survived. Warhol’s ability to make it seem like the interviewer has just asked the most obvious and superfluous of questions is quite something to see in action. Clearly, people were expecting someone outrageous and were stumped when presented with the sheepish, reticent artist.
The EPI promised music from The Velvet Underground and Nico, screenings of Warhol’s films, dancing and sadomasochistic miming from the likes of Mary Woronov, Edie Sedgwick, Malanga and other Factory darlings—all set to a uniquely engineered light show. Or, as Malanga puts it when the goofy trio is pressed to describe what they actually do: sing and dance, and hum, and project movies, and uh, a lot of strobe light effects.
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was originally booked for three nights, May 27-29. But, they proved too punk for the counterculture scene that was a year away from the Summer of Love. On the second night, the band walked off stage having left their instruments leaning against their amplifiers, and unimpressed with the “barrage of sonic feedback,” Graham nixed the third show.
“Are you interested in making any conventional-type movies?”
“Oh yes, that’s all we’re going to do right now, is make, uh, conventional movies.”
Hosted by David Silver, a Tufts professor originally from England who loved Shakespeare and rock n’ roll, What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? ran for two years starting in 1967 on WGBH in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Director Fred Barzyk was pushing for more avant-garde programming at the station, and under his eye the show blended guest interviews with cuts of old commercials, newsreels, overlapping musical tracks, and trippy animations. Silver and Barzyk were aware of Andy Warhol’s experimental films and were thrilled when they found out he’d be in town with the Velvet Underground and was interested in appearing on the show.
The interview was shot in a room above the Boston Tea Party concert hall, one of Lou Reed’s favorite places to play. Nico and director Paul Morrissey join Warhol and Silver, adding commentary about what kinds of “conventional” movies they plan to make.
To Silver’s credit, he seems unflappable when Andy’s answers proved short and somewhat uninformative; he keeps the questions firing at a steady pace. But compared to some other of the show’s interviews, Silver is the one doing most of the talking here. Leave it to the Factory crew to make an experimental television show even stranger.
“Andy, do you feel that the public has insulted your art?”
“Uh, well I hadn’t thought about it.”
“It doesn’t bother you at all then?”
“Well do you think they’ve shown a lack of appreciation for what Pop Art means?”
While this exchange between Warhol and a female reporter has been quoted many a time, nothing beats seeing a young, sunglass-adorned Andy rattling off a series of “uh yes” and “uh no” responses to a series of questions that seem to warrant more than yes or no answers.
The footage is from Warhol’s 1964 show at Manhattan’s Stable Gallery, where his infamous Brillo boxes stood on display. Next to him, trying to keep a straight face, is Ivan Karp, the famed cigar-chomping New York art dealer and gallerist who helped Pop Art take off.
In a rare moment about 20 seconds in, Warhol almost breaks form as he looks to stifle a giggle after being asked, “Do you think that Pop Art has sort of reached the point where it’s becoming repetitious now?” It’s the kind of ingenious tick that breaks down the fourth wall, ironically pointing out that the only thing more repetitive than mass producing artworks is the insistent questioning by the reporter and Warhol’s monosyllabic responses.
Whether you love or hate Andy Warhol, you have to acknowledge how adept he was at interviews and that these clips are pretty hilarious to watch. They remind us that, when it comes to getting a rise out of an audience, silence can be an even more effective tool than the verbal diarrhea spewed by the most powerful provocateurs on camera today. Speaking of which, I can’t help but think of another guy with a very apparent hair-piece that loves the spotlight as much as he loves to belittle the press. And like Warhol, Donald Trump’s “disdain” for the media only seems to bring him more attention.
In an essay titled “They Think They Can Bully the Truth,” Rebecca Solnit discusses the manipulation of the press by powerful men like Trump, Putin, and Harvey Weinstein: “When you’re a star, they let you do it, and the size of your stardom can be measured in how much you can force people to accept—or pretend to accept—contrary to their own intelligence and orientation and ethics.” This can also apply to Warhol, though in a much more innocuous fashion. He proved that art can be mass-produced, that the everyday object can be considered high-brow, and that despite having less than compelling things to say on camera, he’d always be a coveted interviewee.
Looking back on these videos, we can see Warhol’s tactics as a performance and we’re able to understand that what he says (or doesn’t say) is serving his own agenda. But in the midst of our current barrage of 24-hour media coverage, where the separation between personal and private has all but disappeared, where people speak (or tweet) before they think, Andy’s nuanced silences and calculated coyness are like a breath of fresh air.