Using The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again as his template, poet/playwright/performer Billy Hough patches together a quilt that covers the body of work created by the elusive Andy Warhol, the man who is ‘everywhere and nowhere,’ complicated and simple, and still influential more than three decades after his death.
The American artist, Andy Warhol, came from a Polish household in Pittsburgh. He moved to New York City and began his career as a “commercial artist” drawing and painting shoe advertisements. Already successful, he achieved worldwide fame (if not universal admiration) in 1961, and never ceased to make waves or create controversy until his death in 1987.
“IN THE FUTURE…”
Thirty-odd years later, Andy still dominates conversations about art (his own as well as that his protégées), music (his involvement with the Velvet Underground and Rolling Stones), film (his early experimental ones, as well as those he produced that were directed by Paul Morrissey), his own celebrity (public appearances on television, and his constant socializing at hot spots like Studio 54), and the very nature of celebrity itself (by founding Interview magazine and the “Factory Superstars”). That’s a lot of conversation starters, and in many respects, it was Warhol’s own take on these things that is still pervasive. I’m going to try to unpack the ways in which our culture was changed, and eventually re-made in Andy’s image.
When you consider how many tropes of the 1960’s have long since fallen away, it’s stunning how much of Warhol remains relevant in our present culture. His reflections on our prurient desires, our consumerism, and our love of celebrity, are less debated than they are accepted as “conventional wisdom.” Cultural ideas change constantly, yet somehow Andy still speaks directly to the present, arguably responsible for more of our mutually accepted philosophies than anyone since Freud, Marx or Darwin.
FLOATING SILVER PILLOWS
Think about it: Who else can we quote so often about so many things? Susan Sontag’s ideas about photography, illness and camp are still with us, as is Nietzsche’s post-God take on Western Civ. Elie Wiesel and the Buddha are both here—watered-down and transformed into competing self-help books—books about trying to get beyond the need for self-help.
Right there: the idea of ‘self-help books about breaking a dependence on self-help books’ is a moment of perfect irony, a kind of one-cell comic that brilliantly encapsulates one of those things we all feel, but haven’t figured out how to describe yet—like deja vu before we named it. It’s a perfect one-cell comic, a moment where pop eats itself. That’s something we all laugh at in the same way—we see it that way (humorous, ironic) because Andy Warhol showed us how.
THE SHOES: “COMMERCIAL”
The idea of dividing the world into “commercial” artists and “serious” artists is still prevalent—ie: we don’t view our manga artists or animators in the same way as we view Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst (two modern protégées of Warhol’s example). In the 1950’s, Andy moved to New York after art school. He quickly established himself as an illustrator of (mostly) shoes for many of the largest stores and individual labels of the time. Because it was “work for hire” and because he was paid well for his drawings, he was considered a “commercial” artist.
His instantly recognizable pictures were often accompanied by the elaborate calligraphy of his mother (Julia—who moved in with her son because of financial necessity). Warhol painted shoes in a non-realistic, though highly detailed style that fetishized them as objects.
THE SHOES: “SERIOUS”
He would later aim that same level of fetishization at celebrities, criminals, violent news stories, money and, most thoroughly, himself. So if there is a through-line from Warhol’s early shoe drawings and his later work, it is in the idea of creating something iconic and worshipful out of something we had previously taken for granted.(see: “Cans, Soup”) Warhol’s increasing visibility eventually enticed Leo Castelli—the “God-Maker” gallery owner of the early 60’s—to come to Andy’s studio, where he was greeted with a large, silk-screened painting of a single cell from a newspaper comic strip.
POP! BAM! POW!
This would have already been shocking, as it was a reproduction of another artist’s work (a cartoonist). Furthermore, Warhol’s reproduction made no effort to satirize or decontextualize, or even comment upon, the original comic frame. It simply…remade it—bigger, and with Warhol’s own name at the bottom. But Castelli was shocked for another reason as well.
SINGLE CELL DIVISION
Castelli, like modern gallerists and art world movers and shakers, made a habit out of touring the studios of the broke but prolific. Always in search of the “nobody has seen this yet”/ “next-big-thing” young artists. In doing just that he had recently visited the studio of Roy Lichtenstein, a peer of Warhol’s, though the two didn’t know each other. In Lichtenstein’s studio, Mr. Castelli had seen reproductions of single cells from newspaper comics. Now, did these two artists approach the canvases with the same idea? Was this an instance of Carl Jung’s “synchronicity”? Do painters need to have a philosophy behind what they paint? And if so, how much does that matter?
Warhol began silkscreening Campbell’s soup cans, each with a different flavor on its label, but otherwise identical. The enormous 1961 show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles is considered the first “Pop Art” show on the West Coast. Was Andy trying to tell us that these everyday items should be considered art? By taking something so banal and seemingly uninspiring, was he making the statement that art takes itself too seriously? It was these unanswered questions that made “Pop Art” the movement du jour and that made Andy Warhol world famous. (see: “Smalltown”)
Next came endless reproductions of commercial ads and coke bottles—ubiquitous corporate images everyone saw daily, and of seemingly no artistic merit. Next came his exact reproductions of Brillo boxes— practical items, now removed of all purpose. Was he making fun of us? Was he making fun of art? Why was he doing this (aside from the fact that it all sold like cocaine)?
INTERVIEW: ANDY WARHOL’S
You could ask him, but he would not tell you. I mean he would tell you, but in every interview he gave he sounded like a clueless idiot-savant, completely disinterested in art theory. Was he “in character” all of the time, or did he really think so little of himself and his gifts? We don’t know. Warhol was—whether by design or default—a cypher: unwilling or unable to tell us how to view his work. But was that really the result? If Warhol had very quickly challenged the world’s concept of what was considered art, he was about to change the whole game.
Andy stopped drawing original images and focused solely on silkscreening photographs of electric chairs and race riots from newspapers, or other people’s photographs of celebrities (Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley). He employed assistants (Gerard Malagna chief among them) to do much of the work, with no indication of which pieces Warhol had any hand in creating. He called his studio “The Factory,” and emphasized the impersonal assembly-line production of his work. He often said his goal was to diminish the role of the artist in production, churning out “product” at a remarkable rate.
THE SILVER FACTORY
By telling the world that art was unoriginal and uninspired, Warhol created some of the most original and inspired art in the world. And through his self-professed attempt to diminish the role of “the artist,” he became the most famous artist in the world. However, if Warhol was trying to convince the world he had no interest in making an “artistic statement,” he was about to leave his mark on nearly every other medium: film, books, music, theater and live performance. The original “Silver Factory” (1964-1967), where everyone gathered every night, was where the magic happened.
ANDY’S CHEST: MUSIC
Warhol’s specific style was much in demand for album design. A cursory scroll through a collection of his covers (for mostly jazz records, pre-dating the VU) make a pretty strong argument for Warhol creating the visual aesthetic for jazz in the 1960s. Then come the Velvets, who caused little stir at the time, but have become regarded as the most influential rock band of all time, and the beginning of everything that isn’t the Beatles or Carole King. In 1971, Warhol shot a fat cock in white briefs, and covered that up with a “zippable” pair of bulging jeans for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. (see: “Penis, Dallesandro’s, Joe”)
SONGS FOR DRELLA
Andy Warhol famously “found” the Velvet Underground playing a tourist trap in NYC where they were about to be fired for playing “Black Angel’s Death Song” twice in one set. He took them home to the Factory where they played strange music as Warhol showed films on top of them. It was Andy who suggested the addition of Nico to the band, Andy who paid for their first record, and Andy who gave them the cover art for their groundbreaking debut (a yellow banana on white background that could be “peeled” off, revealing a pink, phallic banana underneath). He also gave them their second album cover, a black biker tattoo on a black background for their second groundbreaking album, White Light/White Heat.
That Andy Warhol acted like the Velvet Underground wouldn’t have made it without his help always pissed off Lou Reed. The Velvet Underground wouldn’t have made it without Andy Warhol’s help.
ANDY’S CHEST: MOVIES
Andy made a series of experimental films on his own. Empire and Sleep were just that—the former, an 8-hour film of the Empire State Building, and the latter, and nearly 6-hour recording of John Giorno sleeping. Blow Job is also exactly what it purports to be: but Warhol shot only the face of a handsome man receiving a blow job and having an orgasm (both below the screen). This was both a brilliant way of being completely subversive (for the times—this is still the mid-60s when that kind of stuff could get you arrested or worse) but in such a way that you couldn’t prove or disprove anything lascivious was happening.
ANDY’S CHEST: SEX
Blow Job was already groundbreaking because of its subject matter, title, and execution; but with it, Warhol gave a patina of credibility to the “dirty art film”—basically a stag film for the Sotheby’s crowd. Society ladies and art mavens could now be in the same room with a film called Blow Job without besmirching their reputations. Warhol also teamed up with director Paul Morrissey to create full-length films that showed the young straight (?) gay hustler, Joe Dallesandro, fully nude, often fucking men, women, and men-playing women at a time when pornography was still contraband, and when it was still illegal to be gay in New York City and homosexuality was still considered a mental illness by the medical community.
Joe Dallesandro was butch, beautiful, hung and built in a way most young guys were not then (though many are now). “Little Joe” had been a ‘physique magazine’ model—black and white pictures of young boys with muscles, posing in see-thru briefs, all in the service of encouraging “fitness.” (Though it’s obvious today, these rags were quite common in the era, as they provided one of the only ways gay men could look at other men without ‘blowing their cover.’) Dallesandro had been turning tricks for dope on the streets, so he had no problem stripping, fucking, or shooting up on camera. And he did.
JOE DALLESANDRO’S PENIS
Joe Dallesandro’s penis starred in three early films produced by Warhol and directed by Paul Morrissey: Flesh, Trash, and Heat. These films have much to recommend them, though (being mostly ad-libbed) they also can tax the patience. Morrissey feels under-credited by history for his actual contribution to film—basically inventing the branch of American Independent Cinema from which John Cassavetes, Dennis Hopper and John Waters all seem to sprout. (This is not untrue, though those four—with Meyer and Romero— actually did invent American Independent Cinema as we know it). Morrissey feels that Warhol got all the credit, which is also not untrue, though without Warhol…(see: “Reed, Lou”)
ANDY’S CHEST: GAY SEX
After BlowJob there were movies about gay characters: Lonesome Cowboys and My Hustler. Then the Morrissey films (see: “Penis, Dallesandro’s, Joe”) featuring the “Warhol Superstars” who were often men in “drag” (a word that comes in and out of favor, yet was one of the only ways of referring to “men-dressed-as-women” in the mid-60’s. By using the term, I mean no offense nor diminishment). Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, however, were something altogether different. These were young men who weren’t ‘dressing up’—they lived their lives as women. And they weren’t impersonating anyone—they were simply themselves. And they were beautiful women, capable of being hysterical comedians (remember, these films were ad-libbed) and touching actresses (watch Holly Woodlawn in Trash and get back to me).
ANDY’S CHEST: SUPERSTARS
In the 1950’s, movie stars were all the rage: Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean—these were the Gods. Movies were much bigger then—physically and metaphorically. Firstly, television was in its infancy, and even by the mid-50’s (when everyone in the country watched Lucy and Ricky have their baby) there was only programming on for a few hours each day so movies (if you didn’t live in New York) were the primary source of entertainment. There were also hugely popular gossip rags like Photoplay, filled with stories about “Monty Clift and Liz’s Love Affair”, or “Rock Hudson’s Cute Young Wife.” Movie stars were American ‘royalty.’ If you weren’t a ‘star’ but behaved like you were, you were either delusional, or a character in a Tennessee Williams play. But that was before the Factory.
“SUPERSTAR” ROLL CALL
Warhol’s Factory was packed to the gills every night with personalities. It was common to bump into Lou Reed, John Cale, Mo Tucker, Nico, Holly Woodlawn, Edie Sedgwick, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, Joe Dallesandro, Viva Superstar, Wayne (now Jayne) County, Penny Arcade, Mary Woronov, Gerard Malagna, Taylor Hicks, and Billy Name on any given night. Outside of the “cultural mainstream” and at a time when much of the country was in synch with West Coast vibes (free love, LSD, folk music), the New Yorkers at Warhol’s Factory comprised a mix of the young, openly gay, transgender, drug-loving, radical thinking culture maven, who lived on their own terms. They didn’t like the “Laurel Canyon Soft Rock” shit, so they made their own music (see: “Drella, For, Songs”). They didn’t like weed and acid, they did heroin and speed. They didn’t watch F-Troop, they made their own movies. And if you didn’t like who you were? You reinvented yourself. And if you adopted a persona, or simply blew your own up to epic proportions, you were a “star” (and far more interesting than those on the boring old pages of Photoplay.)
Warhol’s most successful film as a director was the 3-hour Chelsea Girls. Starring almost all of the people I listed above, the film captures the denizens of the infamous Chelsea Hotel going about their business, mostly on speed. With the brilliant Nico theme song, the actors in the film basically play enhanced versions of themselves. For in this bubble they were stars, and if you never left the bubble, you were always a star. Knowing that they were quite intentionally not the stars of their parents era, Warhol coined the moniker “Superstar” for these wild and rare birds. You too could be a “Superstar” if you kept Andy’s attention—if you provided him with ideas, outrage, glamour, trouble—then you could hang around. And if you hung around long enough…
EDIE SEDGWICK (AN AMERICAN GIRL)
God, it feels like we have to deal with the “Vampire” Theory of Warhol—ie: “he was just living off the blood of talented, beautiful people”—well sure. It’s true. Of course he did. And if you could you would too. Talented, beautiful people are wonderful. But remember, these kids were locals who felt like stars, and Warhol said, “You are Superstars!” And then they were.
‘EDIE: AN AMERICAN GIRL’
Edie is maybe the “exception that makes the rule” (or maybe “the lie that proves the truth”). The biography about her changed everything and nothing. “Nothing” in the way that some beautiful young girls, talented and ambitious, and their male counterparts, still leave almost any nest (whether wealthy like Edie’s family, or poor like Andy’s) to DO SOMETHING with their lives and then they die. “Everything” in that it is credited with perfecting the “Oral Biography”: using only the words of witnesses from interviews, arranged into a narrative to tell a story exclusively from the words of people who were there. The book started a trend, the best and most famous example of which is ‘Please Kill Me’ (for which I write but pop will eat itself).
Andy and Edie sabotage Merv Griffin, 1965:
DEAD “AMERICAN GIRL”
Edie overdosed, but her life as a self-invention (or co-invention), was deemed serious enough for George Plimpton and Jean Stein to not only tell her story in a book, but to reinvent biography writing for her.
DEAD AMERICAN GIRL
At 83, author Jean Stein committed suicide by jumping from her balcony in New York City. (George Plimpton died of a heart attack at 76, also in New York City.) (Andy Warhol died after gall-bladder surgery that had gone well.) In the later 1960s there were a lot of overdoses and suicides in the “Factory Crowd,” and Andy was often implicated, if by nothing else, his proximity to them all. But his proximity to Edie was pervasive, and he loved her.
The difference between an assassination and a murder (whether attempted or successful) seems to be: whether or not one knows one’s intended target. If someone is killing someone else to make a “statement”—that sounds to me like assassination. Valerie Solanis blamed Andy Warhol for not letting her be a Superstar and she shot and nearly killed him. According to many, it was the end of the “party” atmosphere at the Factory, and Warhol’s health never fully recovered.
Warhol was very generous with many young artists but he loved Jean-Michel Basquiat. Some accuse him of latching on to Basquiat’s “buzz.” (see “Girl, American, An, Sedgwick, Edie”) They collaborated on canvases together and then they pissed on them. This was not a calculated economic friendship. Don’t be so cynical.
Of course we love Marilyn and Elvis and we all drink Coke and use Brillo pads. Of course Mickey Mouse. Why not race riots and electric chairs and Studio 54? It all feels so obvious, but was it? Was he just a second ahead of the rest of us in seeing what was coming? Or did he call us out on our rampant consumerism and celebrity worship? Did we just give in to our baser urges, like a child just eating ice cream every meal?
Andy was as calculated about his image in his books and novels as he was in his life. Yet Popism: The Warhol Sixties feels more personal than anything he ever wrote again. A time capsule of the Factory’s heyday, the book seems accidentally confessional, like he would never intentionally be so nakedly honest with us. But he is. And if you can feel like you know someone you’ve never met, Popism is the “lie that makes the truth” (see: “Girl, American, Edie”)
‘ANDY WARHOL’S INTERVIEW’
Andy admitted to being a Photoplay-reading, movie-star-struck child. You can almost see his love of that Hollywood fiction-as-journalism, in the celebrity-focused, gossipy style of his Diaries. It seems to me that if he’d wanted his diaries published he would have done it himself. It is his most widely read book and it works (for me) better as another “experiment” (a-la the transcribed rants of his friends on speed-as-novel which is a: a novel) than some of the more personal writing he was capable of. (see: “Portrait, Self”)
a: a novel
You can also try to fill in some of Warhol’s persona by playing “association games”—who he knew, what he touched. The three previous pieces I’ve written for PKM were about William Burroughs, John Cale and Nico. John Cale and Nico both connect to Warhol directly, but Burroughs does too. In Victor Bockris’ With William Burroughs, numerous tape recorded dinners at Burroughs’ Bunker in New York are transcribed. Warhol was an occasional guest, and you can hear him holding forth on a number of topics that might surprise you. Burroughs suffered no fools, and these conversations prove that Warhol was no fool.
Victor Bockris himself began his career at the Factory and was an early and regular writer for Interview magazine. He later wrote about Lou Reed and co-wrote John Cale’s autobiography. (see: “Eat Itself, Pop Will”)
Andy’s experimental approach to every possible media left a specific mark on everything he touched. Interview was Andy’s foray into journalism, and it shook up magazines, and gave a very specific audience exactly what it wanted: sex, art, cool kids, sex, fashion. It gave the rest of the world an idea of what those cool kids wanted. And the covers were tits.
This article is based on the physical structure of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. It’s an inside joke: the kind of meta-double-reference Warhol might have used, though certainly I am no Andy. Because I told you I knew what I was doing.
LEAVES OF GRASS
Truman Capote was a sensation: young, Southern, and as close to openly gay as you could be in the 1940s. His photo on the back of his first novel featured the handsome, blonde author with a “come hither” look, lying prone on a couch. Capote was a hero of Warhol’s, and Andy often said it was in hopes of meeting his idol that he moved to New York. They met.
NOBODY BUT YOU
If you want to learn about Warhol, he is both everywhere and nowhere. His artwork is so pervasive, you could go to three different exhibits in a day and see only a sliver of his work—the early shoe drawings or the cow wallpaper, the floating silver pillows or the icon series, death and disaster silkscreens or the Basquiat collaborations. Each piece adds to both the mystery and its solution. The Morrissey films will fill in another color, as will the Velvet Underground, and the film Edie: Ciao Manhattan yet again. You could go to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh or read the diaries, but in a sense each of these things will only complicate the picture of a man who (according to himself, also not completely reliable) was trying to keep everything ‘simple.’
SILVER CAR CRASH 47 TIMES
It seems to me the best way to “find” Andy is just like that—in a series of flashes. The man would keep directing you back to the work, but the work leads you directly back to the man. After his death, Lou Reed and John Cale got back together to record for the first time since 1968’s White Light/White Heat album by the Velvet Underground. Lou had become estranged from both Cale and Warhol, but he felt like he had unfinished business with his early mentor.
TROUBLE WITH CLASSICISTS
Reed and Cale wrote and recorded Songs for Drella as a song-cycle composed from Warhol’s perspective. The songs give a remarkable reading of Warhol’s work ethic, early years in New York with his mother, the Factory Superstars, and the blame and pressure Warhol got when his self-destructive entourage began to self-destruct. Reed’s anger at Valerie Solanis is palpable (see: “Assassination”), as is his apology for letting his own ego end his friendship with a man he obviously looked up to. The final song “Hello It’s Me” is a heart-breaker, and it expresses the kind of eternal guilt we all feel for people who leave us before we can say goodbye.
THE 1980s: SAYING GOODBYE
The 1980s seems to be the most “Warhol” decade of the 20th Century—fashion, arrogance, pop art, pop music, Madonna, hip-hop—you know, there’s nothing I can think of that doesn’t seem to me to either reflect Warhol, or wasn’t “created” by him. Who the hell else can you say that about? Reagan?
THE 1980s SAYING GOODBYE: PART TWO
The reason I separated the two centuries is that the entire 21st is out of Warhol’s head. His “15 minutes of fame” is social media’s lure as well as its danger. His feeling that “Making money is an art form” is why we have people who feel justified in cutting their aunt’s Social Security in order to pay no taxes on their yacht. (Oh, and why we currently have such terrible art.) “It’s not who you are. It’s who they think you are.” That quote would have applied only to public figures—artists, athletes and politicians—when Andy said it. Now everyone’s mother thinks that every morning before curating our “public” selves. We are all personas now. We all feel like “Superstars.”
POP EATS ITSELF
Maybe we are. Maybe we fucking are. Goodnight Andy.