Stray Thoughts on Andy Warhol (and Art and Celebrity)

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was a virus, a pseudo-living entity concerned primarily with self-replication and whose effect on other humans could be toxic, occasionally even fatal. Speculation that he was of alien origin would not be far-fetched, and may possibly be correct. America absorbed him like a virus, reflects him, emulates him, was altered by him, and now IS him. I am Andy Warhol; and so many people I know are Andy Warhol, and to one degree or another, it’s more than likely that you are too.

The subject of Andy Warhol is too great and complex to be approached in an essay form. It has too many entry points; too many simultaneous, overlapping facades. The shape is wrong; it wouldn’t describe him. So I am going to write about him in a shotgun blast of fragments, ideas, memories, observations. Many or most (but not all) will honor him by being completely solipsistic, as much about me, or how he affected me, as about him.

  • Warhol is vaudeville, a mighty act of self-creation. He was the son of Slovak immigrants; his father was a coal miner. But in a very real sense Warhol is the spiritual son, the product, of Pittsburgh tycoon Andrew Carnegie. It was not only Carnegie who wrote the influential The Gospel of Wealth, but also he who endowed The Carnegie Institute of Technology, where Warhol studied to become an artist. Andy Warhol, wealthy celebrity and artist, is the creation of humble Andrew Warhola, who through his own exertions (and the organized exertions of others), pioneered new fields, and built an empire.
  • Warhol remained a devout Catholic all his life. This is significant because Catholicism is largely a religion of forms, rituals, phenomena, and works. The religion influenced his art most deeply in the form of the mass production of silk screen paintings that fetishized pop culture and commercialism, which seems to mimic the generation of Christian religious icons (literal icons) in Eastern Europe.
  • I was deeply involved for a number of years with a woman whose parents were among Warhol’s oldest friends, fellow art students from Pittsburgh who moved with him to New York and were his first room-mates. I heard a lot about the early years from them. The person I was involved with was also part of the Ridiculous theatrical movement, which also owes its origins ultimately to Warhol. All roads lead to Warholia.
  • My dad was an aspiring commercial artist in his youth. It’s made me more interested than I otherwise might be in Warhol’s early art, which was strictly work-for-hire advertising consumer goods. My dad’s working class assessment of Warhol’s art was predictably dismissive (“Sure! Looks enough like a Campbell’s Soup Can!”) and is no doubt the prevailing opinion on Warhol in American mainstream culture, which I find hugely ironic but telling. On the one hand Warhol embraces, deifies their own culture; in return, the public scorns his work as crass, ignoble, and unworthy — a swindle. There is a hypocrisy to that stance, I think.
  • This produces the inherent contradiction of Warhol: in so many ways, no one is more democratic, “of the people”, or unpretentious than Andy Warhol. On the other hand, he is one of the elect, the wealthy elite. This makes him just like the movie stars, celebrities, and rock stars he fetishizes.
  • Since I was a teenager I’ve been obsessed with the 1960s and have been enthralled with the people who galvanized all that rapid cultural change: the Beats, rock stars, political figures, avant-garde artists. Warhol, of course was pre-eminent among these, with many tentacles radiating outward from his centralized monster-brain. There’s his project the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground and Nico at its center, which then gave rise to Glam Rock and Punk (and even disco, which partially evolved out of the former). There were his underground films. I’ve gotten to know a few of his Stars over the years: the late great Taylor Mead; Randy Bourscheidt, whom I worked with at Alliance for the Arts; and the great Penny Arcade, who continues to be a generous mentor and inspiration. The films, in turn influenced theatre in the form of the Ridiculous movement, a chain that goes from Ronald Tavel to John Vaccaro to Charles Ludlam, to the many subsequent artists they spawned and inspired. John Waters and his Dreamlanders are also a major offshoot. The gaggle of friends and colleagues known as Art Stars has been principally influenced by all of these. My friend Rev Jen lives this life to a Pataphysical degree. Glam Rock, the films, and the Ridiculous all heavily incorporate drag performance, which of course ties in strongly to vaudeville.
  • For another tie-in between vaudeville and Warhol’s Factory scene, read my piece about a guy who played a role in both: Paul Swan, The Most Beautiful Man in the World.  
  • I’m told that quotes from my book No Applause were used in wall text in Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum
  • When I was starting my company Mountebanks, the book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol was an influence, largely for its ornery and perverse defense of commercialism and capitalism, and his Oscar Wilde style provocative paradoxes.
  • Warhol also founded Interview magazine. I got to meet its editor Ingrid Sischy and Elton John once professionally. Read of that episode here.
  • In 2001, I reviewed a production of Up Your Ass, the play Valerie Solonas shot Warhol over in 1968. (He’s misplaced the only copy of the play, which she’d given him to read in hopes that he would fund a production. This made her very, very mad). At around the same time I also saw (not sure if I reviewed) Carson Kreitzer’s play Valerie Shoots Andy at the Present Company Theatorium.
  • I am an avid fan of Jean Stein (and George Plimpton)’s book Edie, an oral history about the troubled life of Warhol Superstar Edie Sedgwick. More on Stein and the book are in my tribute to the late Stein here.
  • For a real weirdie, check out the Warhol-produced movie Cocaine Cowboys (1979), an appropriate trash-fest, in which Warhol plays himself. He also played himself in an episode of The Love Boat. Life imitating art? Nay, delicious trash imitating a life that imitates art imitating life!
  • Some cool movies about the Factory: I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and Factory Girl (2006). Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), in which David Bowie plays Warhol, is also highly relevant. I once played Julian Schnabel in a play that was produced in a Soho art gallery, and I believe that brings us full circle to myself, which is where I will now leave you, in hopes that it will inspire you to contemplate me. 
  • (worried expression). Um…gee! 

 

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