The Importance of Being Andy

Considering Andy Warhol on the 25th anniversary of his death; considering how Hitch considered Warhol in 1996 (when this now out-of-print article was originally published).

Christopher Hitchens was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Slate, and the...

| | Lola Landekic

In Graham Greene’s novel Travels With My Aunt, which was written in 1969, the narrator is Henry Pulling, a grey, inoffensive and reclusive former bank manager. Thanks to an aunt who will brook no disagreement, perhaps because she is really his mother, he finds himself on the Orient Express between Venice and Belgrade. Through no fault of his own, he has become the confidante of a dangerously innocent young American girl named Tooley. Thrown together in a couchette, they improve the shining hour with an interlude of mutual incomprehension:

‘Julian did a fabulous picture of a coke bottle once,’ Tooley said.

‘Who’s Julian?’ I asked absent-mindedly.

‘The boy-friend, of course. I told you. He painted the Coke bright yellow. Fauve,’ she added in a defiant way.

‘He paints, does he?’

‘That’s why he thinks the East’s very important to him. You know, like Tahiti was for Gauguin. He wants to experience the East before he starts on his big project. Let me take the Coke.’

There was less than an hour’s wait at Venice, but the dark was falling when we pulled out and I saw nothing at all- I might have been leaving Clapham for Victoria. Tooley sat with me and drank one of her Cokes. I asked her what her boy-friend’s project was.

‘He wants to do a series of enormous pictures of Heinz soups in fabulous colours, so a rich man could have a different soup in each room in his apartment- say fish soup in the bedroom, potato soup in the dining room, leek soup in the drawing room, like they used to have family portraits. There would be these fabulous colours, all fauve. And the cans would give a sort of unity- do you see what I mean? It would be kind of intimate- you wouldn’t break the mood every time you changed rooms. Like you do now if you have de Staël in one room and a Rouault in another.’

The memory of something I had see in a Sunday supplement came back to me. I said, ‘Surely somebody once did paint a Heinz soup tin?’

‘Not Heinz, Campbell’s,’ Tooley said. ‘That was Andy Warhol. I said the same thing to Julian when he first told me of the project. ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘Heinz and Campbell are not a bit the same shape. Heinz is sort of squat and Campbell’s are long like English pillar-boxes.’ I love your pillar-boxes. They are fabulous. But Julian said that wasn’t the point. He said that there are certain subjects which belong to a certain period and culture.

Like the Annunciation did. Botticelli wasn’t put off because Piero della Francesca had done the same thing. He wasn’t an imitator. And think of al the Nativities. Well, Julian says, we sort of belong to the soup age- only he didn’t call it that. He said it was the Art of the Techno-Structure. In a way, you see, the more people who paint soups the better. It creates a culture. One Nativity wouldn’t have been any use at all. It wouldn’t have been noticed.’

Graham Greene was a passionate if unorthodox Roman Catholic. That is the only resemblance that I can unearth between him and Pittsburgh’s most famous son. Yet this extended piece of aesthetic bafflement, with its brilliant Warholian aperçu “One Nativity wouldn’t have been any use at all. It wouldn’t have been noticed,” is testimony to the way in which Andy Warhol permeates our culture. Writing of Thomas Carlyle in 1931, George Orwell described him as enjoying a “large, vague renown.” I thought of annexing this phrase for my title, but I decided instead on “The Importance of Being Andy” because, if dear Oscar’s admirers will not find the comparison to be blasphemous, it can be argued that Warhol only put his talent into his works, while reserving his genius for his life.

There was a time when I would have laughed pityingly at anybody who attempted such a comparison. I may have been jaundiced by the fact that I came to live in the United States at the beginning of the Reagan era; that period of what Robert Hughes scornfully termed “supply-side aesthetics.” Not only had Warhol been to dinner at Ron and Nancy’s infamous table—at a banquet for Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, which must have made it the most intense shoe-fetishist soirée in recorded history—but Interview magazine had published a conversation of excruciating falsity and embarrassment between Andy, Bob Colacello, and the brittle first lady herself. Following as this did so hard on the heels of Interview’s Peacock period, when it was too breathlessly impressed by that supreme patron of the arts the Shah of Iran, this was to much for friends of mine like Robert Hughes and Alexander Cockburn. In fact, Alexander published a spoof Interview conversation, in which Andy and Bob took Adolf Hitler for a sustaining lunch at Mortimer’s restaurant on the upper East Side. Since I used later on to write a book column for Interview myself, I know for a fact that this parody had the effect of seriously upsetting its targets. And you can see why from this extract:

Bob: Don’t you wish you’d been able to spend Christmas in Berchtesgaden?
Hitler: Yes, it would have been fun to go along there and see them light up the tree and all that sort of thing. Do you spend a lot of time in Europe, Andy?
Andy: Gee. Maybe we should get a waiter and order.
Hitler: Just a salad for me, thanks. What about you?
Andy: I’d like a medium cheeseburger and French fries and a lot of ketchup. Tom Enders was saying the other day that the Polish thing shows what a lot of trouble the Russians are in. 
Hitler: Here fate seems desirous of giving us a sign. But by handing Russia to Bolshevism it robbed the Russian nation of that intelligentsia which previously brought about and guaranteed its existence as a state. It was replaced by the Jew. And the end of the Jewish rule in Russia means also the end of Russia as a state.
Bob: Did you enjoy being Fuhrer?

The conversation winds through swathes of Mein Kampf which neither interviewer recognizes, until the desultory finish:

Bob: Is there still pressure on you to think of your image and act a certain way?
Hitler: I don’t think of image so much anymore. I really don’t, Bob. 
Bob: Well.
Hitler: Have I stopped you cold?
Andy: Well, no. It’s just that it’s interesting to be here, that’s all. This is very exciting for us. 

That parody of atonal fascist chic summarized for many people the amoral, spaced-out, affectless and cynical chill that seemed to emanate from the Warhol world and was caught so crisply by Warhol’s self-description of his wan “blank, autistic stare.” In a recent conversation, Bob Colacello—Andy’s Boswell in both senses of the term—made to me a point which may be helpful in explaining my own reconsideration. Warhol, he stressed, was never verbal. Indeed, much of the time he was almost monosyllabic. Gee. Great. Really up there. These were his superlatives. Really, really, really great might describe a transcendent experience, such as meeting Jackie Kennedy at Studio 54.

Warhol’s mother never broke out of the linguistic ghetto of her Ruthenian background. We may thank her for ensuring that Andy spent so many hours of his boyhood gazing at the vivid colours of the Catholic iconostasis, and we may thank her also for helping give him the idea of borrowing someone else’s signature. But it is salutary to bear in mind that Warhol was semi-articulate and also partly dyslexic. Essentially non-verbal and quasi-literate, he had to realize from the first that he would communicate though images.

This makes the durability of some of his cryptic sentences the more remarkable for their brevity and pith. Not just “…I want to be a machine,” or “when I have to think about it, I know the picture is wrong,” or even the imperishable remark, usually misquoted, that “In the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.”  This appeared in the catalogue of his first retrospective, which was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm in February 1968. Just a few weeks later, Andy was pronounced clinically dead at Columbus-Cabrini Hospital in New York, after taking three bullets from Valerie Solanas. Her list of non-negotiable demands it may be recalled, ran as follows: She wanted an appearance on the Johnny Carson show, publication of the SCUM manifesto in the Daily News, $25,000 in cash, and a promise that Andy would make her a star. She might have better luck if she hadn’t made her démarche on the day that Bobby Kennedy was blown away in Los Angeles. When Warhol came to and saw that the Kennedy funeral on the TV, he thought he was watching his own obsequies.

Robbed of that particular 15 minutes by the coincidence, he nonetheless contrived another terse one-liner. When Ultra Violet asked him why he’d been the one to get shot, he’d been at the wrong place at the right time. Today, Los Angeles, the city of which Andy said in that same Stockholm catalogue that “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic,” is the setting for the national Warholian Kabuki drama. Bridget Berlin, Andy’s collaborator in early reel-to-reel tapings, evolved with him the postmodern pastime of watching TV on the telephone. The brilliant nullity of this was somewhat in advance of the nullity of either medium; soporific separately and narcotic together. Recently she was talking to Colacello about the old days and said that the O.J. Simpson affair had made her miss Andy more than ever. “He would have thought it was just so really, really, really, great.” Pity the luckless network or Hollywood underling who draws the job of making a mini-series or a drama out of the black man in the white bronco. It has all, from the very night of the crime, been on screen already. And so, all unconscious, an ungrateful nation honours Andy Warhol in its daily devotions.

But this is to keep us in the area of the large, vague renown. In 1987, the American artists David McDermott and Peter McGough, who operate as a daubing duo, painted a tribute to Warhol in an atrium. In what might be termed a post-Raphaelite or neo-Victorian manner, they mimic the passing of a nineteenth-century polymath and omnivore. The muses are all represented, or almost all. Art. Music. Journalism. Theatre. Society. Photography. Philosophy. Literature. In strict conformity with their anti-anachronistic project, they omit Film.

But the medium of film meant more than most to Warhol. Though his films never had the success he yearned for in America, being confined mainly to cult houses in New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco, in Europe they often did fantastically well and could also be said to have exerted a wide influence.

In 1971, in Germany, Trash very nearly outgrossed Easy Rider, and we might not have heard as much from Rainer Werner Fassbinder in later years if this had not been so. Godard’s practice of having people orate directly into the camera is a tribute of a kind and, if you ask me, one that could have been made more sparingly. Bernardo Bertolucci freely admitted that he took the idea for the climatic scene of Last Tango in Paris from Warhol’s Blue Movie where Viva and Louis Walden divide their time between coupling and discussing the war in Vietnam.

Blue Movie, of course, was banned in the United States. It also tempted Warhol out of his usual costive or cryptic syntax. Generally, when quoted on matters filmic he would be himself, saying for example that, “The best atmosphere I can think of is film, because it’s three-dimensional physically and two-dimensional emotionally,” or, “All my films are artificial, but then everything is sort of artificial. I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts” (as if anybody does by the way). On Blue Movie he came dangerously close to actual enthusiasm. “I think movies should appeal to prurient interests. I mean, the way things are going now—people are alienated from one another. Movies should—uh–arouse you. Hollywood films are just planned-out commercials. Blue Movie was real. But it wasn’t done as pornography—it was an exercise, an experiment. But I really do think movies should arouse you, should get you excited about people, should be prurient.” Wow. (That’s me talking.) Gee. Warhol on engagement and authenticity can be infectious. How wise he was to make sure that such moments were rare, and collector’s items. I specifically like the bit where Warhol attacks Hollywood for its commercialism.

To take the other muses in order, then. In January I went to the gala opening of the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Mario Botta’s edifice is so arranged that one can start at the top, at an atrium lit mostly by natural means, and work one’s way down. On the top floor, in an airy wasteland of Koons and Kiefer, you are suddenly arrested by National Velvet, Warhol’s 1963 homage to Elizabeth Taylor. The references are all filmic. For a start, the painting is a silver screen. The use of different pressures and consistencies gives the effect of different and partial exposures to the forty-two separate frames, which include some very worn ones and some blank ones too. As a sort of grace note at the end, the frames betray a slight but unmistakable flicker.           

On a lower level, we find Lavender Disaster 1964, the Electric Chair and the red and black Atomic Bomb, where the bottom line of the multi-exposure chessboard is almost black. Foucault wrote of this period of Warhol’s paintings in the following terms: “the oral and rich quality of these half-opened lips, these teeth, this tomato sauce, these hygienic cleaning products, equality of a death inside a ripped-open car, high up on a telephone pole, between the blue-sparkling arms of an electric chair. If we study this unmitigated monotony more closely we are suddenly aware of the diversity that has no middle, no up, no beyond.” Though he does not cite it, this was the sort of encomium that irritated Robert Hughes in his batteries against Warhol in the famous New York Review of Books polemic in 1982. Read with care, this essay is not actually an attack on Warhol as a painter but on Warholism as a cultural influence.

“To the extent that his work was subversive at all (and in the sixties it was, slightly) it became so through its harsh, cold parody of ad-mass appeal—the repetition of brand images such as Campbell’s soup or Brillo or Marilyn Monroe—a star being a human brand-image—to the point that a void is seen to yawn beneath the discourse of promotion.”

Yes, yes, I said to Hughes a few days ago, but what about the pictures? Not altogether grudgingly, he conceded that much of the work between 1961 and 1964 was very impressive. He specifically cited the Electric Chair. Let’s build on this moment of consensus for a second. Look at the electric chair, or call it to mind. It sits untenanted, with the restraining straps dangling suggestively in an almost sado-masochistic fashion. But what remains on the retina the longest? To speak for myself, I would say that it is the word that appears on the wall of the cell. The word is SILENCE. That single injunction of admonition has a tremendous latent power. It expresses simultaneously the absolutism of the process, and also its futility and limitation. (Who cares about the noise?) It also anticipates the banalisation of capital punishment as we have come to know it. I have made a number of visits to Death Row, and on each of them have had Andy Warhol strongly in mind; another testimony to his potency. “He was in our minds at all times,” says Ralph Ellison of a character in Invisible Man, “and that was power of a kind.” 

On music I am less qualified to pronounce than many who will come after me, but I know that Warhol’s encouragement of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, apart from its well-known consequence of sponsoring a genre of later punk, had the effect of preserving the lyrical aspects of Delmore Schwartz for a generation that might not otherwise have bothered with him as a poet. And I agree with Mick Jagger that Warhol’s album cover for Sticky Fingers is one of the best such things ever doe. Blondie and The Cars perhaps owe more to Warhol, being ahead of the game on video, while Madonna the Material Girl is a Warhol kid in more ways than one. 

Journalism, in a way, speaks for itself. Some people believe that the resolution of contemporary journalism into celebrity coverage, gossip and ahistorical amnesiac media events is Warholian. By this common attribution, they cannot presumably mean that the networks and the news magazines have actually modeled themselves on Interview. The question, rather, is whether Warhol had a finer instinct for the idea of celebrity narcissism than the omnivorous media do today. Bear in mind that when he decided to focus on Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe he had no way of knowing that they would have become iconographic figures a full generation later on. (It might, for all we knew, said one of friend’s to me once, have been the Everly Brothers.) Bear in mind also, in an age when journalism is dominated by fact-checking and the literal mind, so that the press conference and the interview are means whereby frauds and murderers may seize the megaphone, that the idea of the tape-recorder anticipates the practice of the edited or unedited transcript; the gross raw material of today’s coverage.

Today’s coverage is only self-satirizing by accident. Warhol’s reporters occasionally knew what they were doing. When Warhol took Jackie Kennedy Onassis to the Brooklyn Museum with Lee Radziwill, the following exchange occurred as narrated by Bob Colacello:

After the usual greetings, Mrs Onassis’s first words were, “So tell me, Andy, what was Liz Taylor like?” I couldn’t believe it. Here was the only person more famous than Elizabeth Taylor and she wanted to now what Elizabeth Taylor was like. Her first question was right out of an Interview interview. And what’s more, it was asked in the voice of Marilyn Monroe. 

Some like to sneer at Warhol’s pathetic attachment to stardom and celebrity. Seeing Greta Garbo at a party when he was young, he drew a paper flower and wordlessly pressed it on her. When she left it behind, all crumpled up, he signed it and entitled it Flower Crumpled by Greta Garbo. Here we have the boy who wrote from the Ruthenian quarter of Pittsburgh to 1930s screen goddesses. And of course he was much too thrilled to be included in a 1957 volume entitled One Thousand New York Names and Where to Drop Them. But remember that at this stage one of his body and soul jobs involved having just his hands made up so as to draw clouds on the weather map of a local TV station. After that, it might seem more justifiable for him to say, as he did to one of his amanuenses, “You should write less, and tape record more. It’s more modern.” And so, in a way, it is.

Here one can be brief but perhaps, with luck, also pungent. In 1953, Warhol fell in with a reading and writing experimental theatre group—Brechtian in its initial character—which paged through everything from Dylan Thomas to Kafka to the Elizabethans and Jacobeans. The chronicler of this period, a rather lugubrious German named Rainer Crone, records in a mirthless manner that “some of the plays written by members of the group were actually performed.” Set designs and illustrations were supplied by Warhol, whose collages and Japanese screens embodied a consistent admiration for Bertolt Brecht. If this had been a strong motive, we would have known more about it.

Here Warhol knew what he wanted. He wanted to be “right up there” or “way up there” in his favourite vernacular, and he also wanted to have a nostalgie de la boue. He got his way both ways because, as a close comrade once told me, he knew that everybody was secretly corrupt. The anomic space debris of the imploded sixties went on a whirl with the spoiled kids and rich Eurotrash of the catch-up generations. Any fool can become master of this subject in a few hours. Someone has to be responsible for the sub-Weimar impression given by this period, and Warhol was chosen by the media to be the exemplar. But we still postpone the question of who was laughing at whom. Suicide and drugs and despair played their part, but they had been cast in it already this as not known as being non-judgmental.

Warhol restored the idea of portraiture, and this achievement ought not to be denied him. He grasped the idea of the Polaroid and the rehearsal shot, and encouraged newcomers like Robert Mapplethorpe. He knew that the cheapest and most instant techniques could set a pose or capture a moment of character. It didn’t always work. Andy and Mapplethorpe together, both with Polaroids and one with a tape-recorder, were almost defeated by Rudolf Nureyev. To quote the opening of the interview:

Andy: What color are your eyes?
Nureyev: The interview is cancelled.

In the end, Nureyev executed major dance steps while Warhol and Mapplethorpe competed with Polaroid flashes to catch the scissoring of his limbs. 

Or you could say that every painter who has incorporated the negative into their own work—Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat—is a linear descendant. The completion of Ed Ruscha’s long mediated project—a three-dimensional unspooling of the entire length of both sides of Sunset Boulevard at all times of day through video, photography and film—will, in fact, mark the culmination of a Warholian venture.

Was Warhol just lucky? His earlier remark about being in the wrong place at the right time was actually a satire on his ability to know which people would be said to matter, whose fame was going to last, and when to show up or be seen where. For example, in Couch there exists the only known image depicting Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg within the same frame. I don’t think that this is really just luck.

I think we’ve done philosophy, if not from A to B to back again. The philosophy is connected on the surface to the idea that nothing strenuous or arduous is worth the anxiety or the excitement or the naïveté. It is so laid back that is almost falls out of the shot. It is, in an inverted and perverse way, also connected to a religion of abjection and fatalism and surrender. John Richardson says mistakenly that only when Andy died did people understand what an intense and devout Catholic he had been. I disagree. Twenty years ago, I was mentally scanning the title Pop-ism and inwardly translating it as Pope-ism. A friend of mine was hired onto Interview because he had reviewed Trash as a Catholic reworking of Jean Genet’s version of Our Lady of the Flowers. Cultish Catholicism, with its hints of camp and guilt, were of the essence. Walter Benjamin once defined surrealist art as a series of “profane illuminations.” “Profane Illuminations” was another title that I considered for this evening, until I realized that the subliminal trope was the sacred and not the profane.

The above makes it the more interesting that William Burroughs never guessed the truth about Andy’s religiosity. But in his own ‘cut-up’ style of composition, he clearly acknowledged a prosaic debt, not to mention an attitudinal one. Perhaps they both owed it to Jean Genet; at all events one can trace a lineage of obligation here. Here we also find Warhol’s greatest disappointment. He admired Truman Capote with an almost adoring consistency. He designed a shoe for him, in gold. He tried to catch his attention. He understood at once the idea of the non-fiction novel, because it comprised one of his own definitions of film. But he was repeatedly snubbed by Capote, who once said that Andy was a “sphinx without a riddle.” Warhol’s own later comment, that Capote said he could have anybody he wanted while Andy didn’t want anybody he could get, is one of the best definitions of thwarted homosexuality that has ever been compressed into a phrase.

Uneven as this all is, it manifests an amazing touching of bases. If it is undervalued—at least aesthetically if not commercially—it may be because Warhol always spoke with a flat, defiant economism about the subject:

Business Art is a much better thing to be making than Art Art, because Art Art doesn’t support the space it takes up, whereas Business Art does. (If Business Art doesn’t support its own space, it goes out-of-business.) 

He made the same unhypocritical and down-to-earth point in a different tone of voice when he said “Rich people can’t see a sillier version of Truth or Consequences or a scarier version of The Exorcist. The idea of America is so wonderful because the more equal something is, the more American it is.” I think he must have thought about this paean to conformity and sameness a lot, because it appears several times in interviews throughout his life, often with tiny variations (such as the President having to relish the same cheeseburger as the rest of us) but always making the same celebratory point.

Here is a style that is often held against him, like his obsessive parsimony and his preoccupation with accountancy and his anal-retentive attitude towards savings and collections and even time capsules and souvenirs. But of what does it remind you? The answer should not, in a city of industrialism and abundance like Pittsburgh, seem very surprising. The voice that is speaking is the voice of that great artist and innovator Henry Ford. The Henry Ford who said that history was bunk. The same Henry Ford who announced, this time really anticipating Andy, that any colour was fine as long as it was black. Warhol’s achievement was to define aesthetics of mass production, not to be a business artist. Business artists are more common than we want to think or like to believe. Michael Fitzgerald’s new book on Pablo Picasso, Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Market for Twentieth Century Art, has more tales of painterly stock manipulation and artistic insider trading than Warhol had cans of soup. The thing is that Warhol cheerfully and in a way challengingly affirmed what the “community” of painters and dealers was at some pains to muffle.

Don’t knock business art unless you are very sure of yourself. Anthony Powell once wrote that he never did his insurance policy without imagining it landing on the desk of Aubrey Beardsley before being passed to that of Wallace Stevens and eventually landing up in the in-tray of Franz Kafka. And if you think these insurance men are scary, think of the ad-business. Public relations as an American science was pioneered by Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Salman Rushdie began his career as a writer of enticing ads and jungles. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg also worked in what was politely termed “commercial art,” but (of course) only to support themselves while they did the real stuff. Only Andy Warhol proclaimed that there was no difference between the two things, except in the way you did them, and thus opened the question of whether there was or is an artistic way of making or finding art. Partly, this was his settling of accounts with Picasso, of whom he said, “When Picasso died I read in a magazine that he had made four thousand masterpieces in his lifetime and I thought, ‘Gee, I could do that in a day.’ You see, the way I do them, with my technique, I really thought I could do four thousand in a day. And they’d all be masterpieces because they’d all be the same painting.” More insulting still, Warhol used to say that the same faculty would have made him into an ideal Abstract Expressionist. More is involved here than being a fool for God.

Having been pronounced clinically dead twenty years too soon, Warhol was pronounced actually dead several years too early. He survives in our references, in our imagination, and in the relationship of his own sense of timing to ours. Just because he knew the price of everything doesn’t mean he didn’t know the value of some things.


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