PRINT February 1976


The Story of “A”

Andy Warhol, The Philosophy Of Andy Warhol (From A To B And Back Again) (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), 241 Pages.

If I were writing obituaries or 99-cent supermarket encyclopedias, my précis on WARHOL, ANDY (b. Warhola, 1930, att. Carnegie Institute) would run thusly:

Effete former 5th-Avenue shoe illustrator who became, in the early ’60s, the definitive Pop artist, with silkscreen repetitions of Liz and Campbell’s soup cans and static films like Empire and Sleep. His total Pop lifestyle, however, is what finally distinguishes him from his contemporaries Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, both of whom maintain the fine artist’s traditional antipode from the world they depict. Warhol’s studio loft—“The Factory”—turned out experimental films, rock music, and instant “superstars” née debutante dopers, as well as numberless Pop objets-d’art. With an impeccable sense for the right “wrong” move, Warhol hired an actor to impersonate him at a dozen college lectures, freely franchised his name to Grade-B movies, and fashioned an indelible image of the consummately naïve yet all-knowing kitsch androgyne. He was critically shot in 1968 by a deranged Lesbian actress who thought he possessed “too much control” over her life. Recovered, but scarred, Warhol gradually metamorphosed his epicene hipness into a metaphysic and, in 1975, issued his apologia, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again).

Andy Warhol used to be quite conventionally bright.

Someone said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. But Brecht wanted to do it through Communism, in a way. Russia is doing it under government. It’s happening here all by itself without being under a strict government.

It confuses me that people expect Pop Art to make a comment or say that its adherents merely accept their environment. I’ve viewed most of the paintings I’ve loved—Mondrians, Matisses, Pollocks—as being rather dead-pan in that sense. All painting is fact, and that is enough; the paintings are charged with their very presence. The situation, physical ideas, physical presence—I feel that is the content. (“What Is Pop Art? Interviews with Eight Painters,” by G. R. Swenson, Art News, November, 1963.)

The literary style of Philosophy illuminates Warhol’s ascension from a mere “sharp” artist who chose media banality as his territory to compleat, urbane, camp atavism. The book reads like it’s straight off the dicta-phone, transcribed in Lindy ballpoint drone, as though by an overweight fifteen-year-old White Plains schoolgirl, in one of those quilted pink diaries with stick-figure lovers and musical notes on the cover, and a gold lock. Steinian run-on sentences, dreadfully serious about trivia and shrilly trivial about serious things (your #1 high camp mannerism), relentless restatement, really overusing “really” and always overusing “always.” This is, of course, simply Applied Pop, and Warhol has never been precious about it. Part of Warhol’s genius is, in fact, an appetency for dead-panning thundering clichés, as though he were a Scarsdale matron assigned a Pop project in evening art class, and making them revelatory—the perfect smart-ass riposte. By such gambits he obviates the art-world paranoia about trade secrets. You wanna know how he paints? He’ll tell you.

I look at my canvas and I space it out right. I think, “Well, over here in this corner it looks like it sort of belongs,” . . . So I look at it again and I say, “The space in that corner there needs a little blue,” and so I put my blue up there. . . . And then it needs to be more spaced, so I take my little blue brush and I blue it over there, and then I take my green brush and . . . I green it there . . . (p. 149)

None of this is new, but rather a permutation of the ’50s artist-as-blue-color honest labor fetish, e.g. “I don’t give a good goddamn about ‘fine’ painting. I just smear it around until it works, then I pour me a bourbon and forget about it.” Such posturing would grow quickly tiresome, even for Warhol, if there weren’t a weltanschauung behind it.

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. (pp. 100–101)

Warhol standardizes another commercial product, Art, but he continues the hierarchies of fame and price. (Admittedly, ’twould be out of character for Warhol to crank out egalitarian-activist editions of millions to be distributed to la gente for a few bucks each. And there are, to be sure, nuances of conception and handling in a Warhol portrait which, to the connoisseur, are worth the extra bread.) The pressures of trendy-book writing (or an overambitious ghost) drive him to such infrequent standard bullshit as, “The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonalds/The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonalds/The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonalds/Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet” (p. 71), but he otherwise strikes the mark at an amazing clip. What he hits is, at least in terms of the in-house art history to which we are all such lickspittles, staggering. Consider: Douglas Huebler’s reputation gets a lot of lift from the 1970 pronunciamento, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting, I do not wish to add any more.” (Ergo, the ultimate radical esthetic—the elimination of art objects in favor of art ideas.) Warhol’s oeuvre says in effect, “The world is full of tastes and ideas, more or less interesting, I do not wish to add any more.”

I’m not saying that popular taste is bad so that what’s left over from the bad taste is good: I’m saying that what’s left over is probably bad, but if you can take it and make it good or at least interesting, then you’re not wasting as much as you would otherwise. You’re recycling work and you’re recycling people, and you’re running your business as a by-product of other businesses. Of other directly competitive businesses, as a matter of fact. So that’s a very economical operating procedure. (p. 93)

Warhol doesn’t piss around with artists’ textbook-tough breast-beatings, nor does he proceed by halves in negating poor ol’ defenseless objects; he goes right to the nut, thought. All ideas are interesting, all tastes, all feelings, all philosophies, all stances, everything, so why not make conventional things in the easiest way, or refuse to make them (if that’s your bag) in the easiest way (by having someone else do it)? As sheer strategy, it’s wonderful, but it would have the same disadvantage of the cliché without the weltanschauung: tiresomeness. Fortunately, Warhol is firmly grounded in an infirm sensibility: the quasi-disadvantaged quiet kid from the Slavic side of a Pennsylvania coal town has contracted a severe reverence for brand-name respectability, for the reassuring litany of product-label catechism, for an inverse consumer snobbery. Moreover, Warhol possesses a muttish clairvoyance, an unerring antenna for the correct detail (especially in the ’60s, when outraging middle classness became a tenet of the middle class): sexy, faggy, homely, and unimportant, e.g. pimples, underwear, and diets.

My favorite thing to buy is underwear. I think buying underwear is the most personal thing you can do, and if you could watch a person buying underwear you would really get to know them. . . . I think the strangest people are the ones who send someone else to buy underwear for them. I also wonder about people who don’t buy underwear. I can understand not wearing it, but not buying it? (p. 229)

But if you do watch your weight, try the Andy Warhol New York City Diet: when I order in a restaurant, I order everything that I don’t want, so I have a lot to play around with while everyone else eats. Then, no matter how chic the restaurant is, I insist that the waiter wrap the entire plate up like a to-go order, and after we leave the restaurant I find a little corner outside in the street to leave the plate in, because there are so many people in New York who live in the streets, with everything they own in shopping bags. (p. 69)

In the last item Warhol treads an almost invisible boundary between chic inanity and amoral irresponsibility. As there had been a “banality of evil,” so we can conceive of an “evil of banality.” Warhol unsheathes a deliberate insensibility unredeemed by his carbon-tipped “innocence.” He “recommends” a “diet” involving buying and wasting overpriced restaurant food, then bleats a weak retrieval by saying he leaves it (Litter New York City? Heaven forbid!) for street people (who have learned, if anybody has, if you eat something dead-dropped in Manhattan, you’ll be shitting razor blades in five minutes). Warhol’s floating roster of “superstars” who’ve OD’d or been committed, the roll-call of nubile young boys who’ve fled the Midwest to reach, via The Factory, the whips and studded bikinis of the East Village rough trade, and Philosophy’s self-serving account of the thinly disguised, pathetic “Taxi” (Edie Sedgwick), raise the question: if you can do passive Good (by lying in front of the bulldozer), can you do passive Bad (by feigning obliviousness to the wormy milieu you’ve chaperoned)? My answer is, although not provable in criminal court: Yes. Warhol intuits the problem and, in the book, begs us not to ask him about it because he’d be the last person to understand what went on, anyway.

Warhol says, in short, he cannot be held responsible; he’s a walking case history for Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Warhol is nature’s locus for another art-fashion, serigraphy’s way of invading painting, or a camera’s way of obtaining more film, etc. Why then, you ask, is Warhol the necessary agent for all of this, why do all the fame and money accrue to him, rather than to anybody/everybody else? Because, Warhol himself implies, it still takes a certain talent which,within this limpid behavioralism, assumes the form of psychic short-circuitry. Warhol isn’t an automaton, because he just can’t proceed straight from A to B and back again; something always seems to go haywire in between.

I was doing a commercial the other day for some sound equipment, and I could have pretended to say all the words they gave me that I would never say that way, but I just couldn’t do it. (p. 83)

Still, what of the consequences? Warhol can see them coming—he ain’t dumb—so isn’t he just as guilty? Well, guilt requires an embedded history; the mind must extend temporally backward to apprehend the deed. This requires, at the least, recollection.

I have no memory. Every day is a new day because I don’t remember the day before. Every minute is like the first minute of my life. I try to remember but I can’t. That’s why I got married—to my tape recorder. That’s why I seek out people with minds like tape recorders to be with. My mind is like a tape recorder with one button—Erase. (p. 199)

(Thought I had him here: “Record”—gather indiscriminately and never play back—is the button he wants. So much for the Grand Analogy, I mused, the strained Summing Up. Then it dawned on me: tape recorders erase while they record. The guy doesn’t miss a trick.)

We now stand at the crossroads: the ambitious fabricator of department store bagatelles stumbles along as the perfectly imperfect machine, stamping out clogged, slipped silkscreens, shaky-tripod movies, and vapid safaris into celebrity land. If Warhol had intact his 1949 ego (the year he came to New York), if he could peer out through the same “lazy eyes” (which required goofy pinhole spectacles), from the same unbreakable self and say, “There, I made it,” we would be at dead end with him, that is, back only with the original gambit. But Warhol’s self has always been a little translucent, precarious, ready to waft out under the museum door and blend with the winds.

Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there—I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in the movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen to you in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television—you don’t feel anything. (p. 91)

Here, Warhol exposes more than an ability to crib from Understanding Media; his greatness resides in his Buddha-like passivity, deliberate, refined, probably painful psychic near-invisibility. Warhol isn’t there. Through the conscienceless manufacture of oversize Brillo boxes, cow wallpaper, modular portraits of upper-class shrikes, detumescent sex movies, and a volume of “philosophy,” equal parts Aubrey Beardsley and Kathryn Kuhlman, he sacrifices.

Two friends of mine, one a museum curator who mounted a Warhol show and the other a newspaper critic who attended a book-signing party for Philosophy, attest to his genuineness-to-the-point-of-sainthood. The critic accidentally encountered Warhol waiting for an elevator and asked if he could ask a few questions. Of course, Warhol replied, but he couldn’t guarantee any coherence, since he was temporarily “lost” without his entourage around him. Apparently there is a benign corpus containing the physical and aural characteristics of the vidette of Pop Art, but there is no Warhol.

Still, slim traces of his visceral existence do exist, and Warhol, always willing to be difficult, readily brings up the most troublesome: sex.

The most exciting thing is not-doing-it. If you fall in love with someone and never do it, it’s much more exciting. (p. 41)

After being alive, the next hardest work is having sex. Of course, for some people it isn’t work because they need the exercise and they’ve got the energy for the sex and sex gives them even more energy. Some people get energy from sex and some people lose energy from sex. I have found that it’s too much work. . . . I’m an energy-loser. But I can understand it when I see people around trying to get some.

I have a hard time allowing that this will-o’-the-wisp Warhol has the luxuries of specific age, parentage, address, schooling, shoe size, and active sexual preferences. But goddamnit, his “energy-loser” story doesn’t ring right. So I’m stuck with Where, Who, and, most titillating, What? Warhol provokes it by dropping hankies like “bedroom,” “affair,” and “married.”

So in the late ’50s I started an affair with my television which has continued to the present when I play around in my bedroom with as many as four at a time. But I didn’t get married until 1964 when I got my first tape recorder. My wife. My tape recorder and I have been married for ten years now. When I say “we,” I mean my tape recorder and me. A lot of people don’t understand that. (p. 26)

When we discover his amour is a small appliance, we suspect a decoy. So Warhol goes a little further.

I think I’m missing some chemicals and that’s why I have this tendency to be more of a—mama’s boy. . . I think I’m missing some responsibility chemicals and some reproductive chemicals. If I had them I would probably think more about aging the right way and being married four times and having a family—wives and children and dogs. I’m immature . . . (p. 111)

We get what smells like Truth—an unflattering revelation on the plane of learning that Mike Nichols has no hair or Roy Rogers is actually Leonard Sly, but the odor is also of cop-out, tossing off what looks, on all accounts, like a very visible, stylized homosexuality, as if a couple of ounces of gland secretion would turn him into a suburban paterfamilias.

A great deal of the public fascination with Warhol (he is one of a few serious artists to fascinate the public —who would go see a Francis Bacon movie of Frankenstein?) concerns his apparent, blithe gaiety. His art is, to a large extent, his person (who cares what Lichtenstein does at night?) and his person prompts the imagination. Does he fuck, suck, get fucked, or get sucked? Now I admit to over-average prurience: I’ve always wanted to see a dirty movie starring Eric Sevareid and Pat Nixon, and my circuitous route to work fortuitously includes a junior high school or two. Nevertheless, the violence of my query is handmaiden to Warhol’s passivity. Blank paintings (like Ad Reinhardt’s) are the ones most often vandalized, and vacuous people unwittingly bring our attack bile to a boil. Somebody did try to murder Warhol and now (the curator tells me) there are bodyguards wherever he goes. Just as Warhol’s art transcends fashion into structure (i.e. it doesn’t simply succeed as sophisticated modern art, it subverts all modern art), his campy mien transcends decadence into a weird Nonviolent Resistance.

Warhol, the “energy-loser,” looks terrible, like he won’t last another ten years; Calvin Tompkins called him an “angel of death.” If we wouldn’t go so far as to assassinate him to loosen his “control“ (Valerie Solanis was probably steamed at Warhol’s maddening self-control), I wonder if, on his deathbed, he’d cool it out to the end, like ask for a toothpick . . . or a cup of soup. It probably aggravates several among us that he’s been to the wall and sure comes off better than John Connally.

No doubt about it, Warhol is a genius, the true American Duchamp. Warhol succeeds by guilelessly making the best “art” he can (thus questioning the whole modernist premise in actuality), whereas Duchamp did it theoretically by self-consciously attempting to overcome his own beaux-arts inculcation. Duchamp points out the dichotomies; Warhol lives them. Strategically, Warhol’s effect has been greater because, unlike Duchamp, he’s totally outflanked corruption; there’s nothing Warhol could do—endorse oil paints, host a TV art-appreciation show, open a chain of sleazy tux rentals, or hire on as official White House photographer—that would diminish his reputation as a serious artist. He’s the opposite of Lichtenstein, who laboriously curates the tension between high-art context and low-art draftsmanship; Warhol removes the tension, makes it easy, and makes making it easy respectable. (In the 1971 Art and Technology exhibition, for example, Warhol’s ridiculous flower/rain machine was a silly failure, but it dovetailed with the inevitable silly failure of the whole show, thereby making a kind of Warhol-work out of it. Lichtenstein’s film, on the other hand, tried hard to be Pop-techno-beautiful according to the prospectus, and sank without a trace.)

We remain interested through all the ploys because one question still remains: does he mean it? Does he truly think Liz is lovely and a Police Gazette ugly-chrome is the way to display it? Does he really aver that metallic hair and powdered acne pits improve his looks? All of which amounts to: are we actually in the presence of weird and original passion, or are we being conned? We knew that Duchamp meant it because he welcomed no imitators. Warhol’s hospitality to hangers-on, sycophants, emulators, and freaks in general confuses us. If he is such a bloody marvel, why does he suffer a floodtide of colossal bores like Gerard Malanga and Viva? Over the last dozen years Warhol’s form (ego) has evolved to match his concept (banality). This confluence indicates a reverse development—like a great biologist growing to resemble the earthworms he’s studying. It makes sense in a flip-flop way, like slides of Mondrian’s work shown chronologically backward to a painting class—the gridded asymmetric building blocks finally triumphing as windmills at sunset. And sure enough, it contains a final paradox.

I loved working when I worked at commercial art and they told you what to do and how to do it and all you had to do was correct it and they’d say yes or no. The hard thing is when you have to dream up the tasteless things to do on your own. When I think about what sort of person I would most like to have on a retainer, I think it would be a boss. A boss who could tell me what to do, because that makes everything easy when you’re working. (p. 96)

It’s the wonderful puzzle of determinism and free will. In Pauline Réagé’s The Story of O the heroine makes a free choice to be totally submissive to her lover, who eventually and permanently abandons her to another, more vile, man. Since the choice is made out of “love” for her lover and since it results in her being irrevocably deprived of him, there’s a cosmic non sequitur in it. “The most exciting thing [about love] is not-doing-it.” Warhol, in making a free choice to help himself as an artist, would choose to place himself in obedience to a “boss” who would then deprive him of the sine qua non of the artist, creativity. He would cancel the artist but ensure the objet-d’art, just as ‘O’ cancels the love but insures fidelity.

Warhol was not always merely in an abstract, logical position. He was that conglomerate of fears and hopes and taste buds and indigestion we call a person. Once, early on in the book, there is a glimpse of him.

When I think of my high school days, all I can remember, really, are the long walks to school, through the Czech ghetto with the babushkas and overalls on the clothesline, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. . . . I wasn’t very close to anyone, although I guess I wanted to be, because when I would see the kids telling one another their problems, I felt left out. . . We passed a bridge every day and underneath were used prophylactics. I’d always wonder out loud to everybody what they were, and they’d laugh. (p. 22)

Whether the person therein has totally disintegrated in the cause of Pop, or has just happily cut loose from the moorings of personal anxiety, is beyond me. But I know it’ll be a while before an artist walks that road again.

Peter Plagens