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Brigid Berlin, Untitled (Self-Portrait with Lipstick I), ca. 1971–73, Polaroid, 3.3 x 4.2". Courtesy: Invisible-Exports, New York.
Brigid Berlin, Untitled (Self-Portrait with Lipstick I), ca. 1971–73, Polaroid, 3.3 x 4.2". Courtesy: Invisible-Exports, New York.

Brigid Berlin (1939–2020)

Brigid Berlin, the wayward ex-debutante who rose to Superstardom as a denizen of Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory—voraciously documented in thousands of her Polaroids and recordings—has died at age eighty. Born into New York high society, Berlin made her way to its underground by the mid-1960s, becoming Warhol’s closest confidante. He debuted her in his breakthrough film Chelsea Girls (1966), in which she played a loquacious lesbian drug dealer. She took a job as a secretary at the Factory and, like many there, began compulsively recording its goings-on; her taped phone conversations with Warhol provided a bulk of the material in the artist’s 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B & Back Again (she was the B). She carried her recorder everywhere, from the back room at Max’s Kansas City to the Waldorf Astoria for tea with the Duchess of Windsor. “Berlin wasn’t recording for posterity; she was recording for the present,” wrote Rachel Churner in a 2015 Artforum review. “Capturing it all was a means of validating her presence.”

Born in 1939, Berlin was the third and eldest child of Richard E. Berlin, the longtime chair of the Hearst empire, and socialite Muriel “Honey” Berlin. The couple’s orbit included some of Hollywood’s biggest names, European royalty, and a handful of American presidents. “My mother wanted me to be a slim, respectable socialite,” Berlin once said. “Instead, I became an overweight troublemaker.” After scandalizing her parents by marrying (and quickly divorcing) John Clark, a gay window dresser, Berlin took up residence at the Chelsea Hotel in 1964. That year, curator Henry Geldzahler took her to Warhol’s aluminum-walled loft on Forty-Seventh Street, where she soon became a fixture known for her exhibitionism and intravenous speed habit, which earned her the nickname “Brigid Polk.” In addition to becoming a lifelong friend and attaché of Warhol’s, she went on to appear in several of his films, including Imitation of Christ (1967), Women in Revolt (1971), and Bad (1977); in Edie Sedgwick’s final film, John Palmer’s Ciao! Manhattan (1972); and in John Waters’s Serial Mom (1994) and Pecker (1998). She was an editor at Warhol’s Interview magazine into the 1980s.

In 1969, Warhol infamously told Time magazine that Berlin was the creator of all his paintings—a joke he quickly retracted due to his work’s instant decline in value. In fact, although Berlin has gained recognition in recent years as an innovative conceptualist in her own right, she repeatedly rejected the term artist. Even so, she helped shape the Warholian canon and was a vital presence at the Factory. She became known for her “Tit Prints,” 1966–96—canvases onto which she stamped her paint-dripped breasts—and for outrageous performances that featured her on the phone with unsuspecting callers, including her mother. Berlin also organized The Cock Book, a legendary three-volume scrapbook, eventually bought by Richard Prince for $175,000, of penis drawings by Jasper Johns, Jane Fonda, Larry Rivers, Leonard Cohen, and several others. Her witty, deadpan snapshots and double exposures inspired many, including Gerhard Richter—he included them in his epic “Atlas” project—and introduced Warhol to the Polaroid camera, which would famously accompany him everywhere.

“I got into Polaroids even before Andy got into them because of some pictures I saw in Vogue in the early ’60s by Marie Cosindas,” Berlin explained in a 2015 Artforum interview. “She was one of the first photographers to use Polaroids seriously. I wanted to take pictures like hers.” In 2015, some of these images were compiled by Reel Art Press into a book, Brigid Berlin: Polaroids, and shown at Invisible-Exports gallery on the Lower East Side. “I had access to all these people because I was a peer, I was considered one of them,” she said of her subjects, a who’s who of the ’60s and ’70s New York art world. “I was never a groupie.”

For the past couple of decades, Berlin lived as a self-described recluse in her apartment near Gramercy Park, going out only “on the phone.” She worked on digitizing her trove of recordings, stitched exquisite needlepoint pillows of tabloid covers, starred in a 2000 documentary by former Warhol studio manager Vincent Fremont titled Pie in the Sky, doted on her various pugs, and binged cable news. “I don’t regret anything,” she told Interview in 2015. “I mean, what’s the point of it?”