PRINT January 1998


A few hours after dawn I went to Rite Aid to research Andy Warhol.

I was pleased to be up and about so early in the day.

I discovered objects, variously priced, brightly boxed.

I bought two rolls of Polaroid film and went home and took pictures of the interior of my medicine chest. They came out ugly and unfocused. To take a good Polaroid is more difficult than is commonly acknowledged.

I visited Rite Aid because Warhol’s cosmetics and toiletries are on display in a vitrine at the Whitney Museum’s show, “The Warhol Look/Glamour Style Fashion.”

If he used these products to prep his face for his Polaroid drag “Self-Portrait,” 1981, then the toiletries are source materials for art. Otherwise we are in the happy, confused position of simply looking at toiletries.

Warhol’s toiletries are now dusty and dated. They don’t look chic. Some still have price tags: Duane Reade. I know Duane Reade. But the tags aren’t artful allusions to Duane Reade. The tags are tags.

I can never get enough of a celebrity’s toiletries, because I can go anywhere with them.

Here is a list of his toiletries (a similar inventory appears at the conclusion of Bob Colacello’s invaluable Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up).

Gelly’s Color Enhanced Styling Gel.

Fostex 10% benzoyl peroxide cleansing bar.

Glycel Cellular Treatment Activator by Christaan Barnard, M.D.

Senokot natural vegetable laxative.

Neet lemon-scented cream hair remover.

Propa pH Acne Cover-Up Stick.

Aspergum (orange flavor).

Vidal Sassoon Hair-in-the-Sun Hair Protector.

Glycel Cellular Night Creme by Christaan Barnard, M.D.Clinique soap.

Vitamin A capsules.


Aapri Apricot Replenishing Lotion.

H pour hommes Fixateur.

Preference L’Oreal Permanent Creme-In Haircolor, 9A Light Ash Blonde.

Lubriderm Lubath for dry skin care.

Maybelline lipstick, shade unspecified.

Clinique dramatically different moisturizing lotion.

Citrus aftershave balm.

Face Pack Liquid.

Visine Eye Drops.

Neutrogena imperial bath size soap (dry skin formula). Grey Flannel co]ogne.

Liquifilm Tears.

I am fascinated by the Liquifilm artificial tears. They introduce the theme of fake pathos, of a person unable to cry yet able to look clearly and unsentimentally—to the point of pain—at objects and at famous and rich people, who can be, as Warhol knew, objectlike, because they spend much time in the company of commodities, and so grow, deliriously, to resemble them.

Here is an edited list of my current toiletries and cosmetics. Melatonex dietary supplement for a natural sleep cycle; Elastoplast (twelve fabric stretch plasters); Brioschi for Upset Stomach; Neo-Synephrine Mild Formula Nasal Decongestant Spray; Kiehl’s Ultra-Moisturizing Concealing Stick #2.; The Body Shop Under Eye Cream; Trazodone; Grey Flannel deodorant stick.

I’ve done an artful thing. I’ve listed toiletries.

Warhol did an artful thing with his toiletries, too. He saved them, and he became a museum that allowed them to be exhibited and pondered and written about.

Looking in someone else’s medicine cabinet, or in one’s own, produces epiphany. But if one never speaks or writes about the experience, never photographs the objects, never displays them, then the toiletries, like bodies not stellar enough for porn, sit unobserved, unframed, unfetishized.

I pity Warhol’s toiletries, puny and useless, but I feel more sorry for toiletries that never make it into art.

The Whitney show features a wall of publicity shots of Elizabeth Taylor, collected by Warhol.

Liz knows a thing or two about toiletries.

Her scents are sold at Rite Aid.

I am interested in the ordinary fan who cuts out Liz pictures but never makes a silk-screen to justify, retroactively, the industrious clipping and collecting.

I am interested in the Warhol who never graduated from “fan” to “artist.”

I am interested in the drag queen who doesn’t have the looks, ambition, genius, and good timing to become Candy Darling.

I am interested in the lazy nobody who dreams of stardom but never finds a cooperative patron to film a screen test.

Warhol’s toiletries pose (but do not answer) the question of the slob and the shut-in, the question of whether one who lives outside of the art act may take aesthetic credit for using makeup and collecting star pix.

If we want to follow Warhol’s example we must not only pay attention to beauty; we must attend to plainness and antiglamour, to ignored bodies and slapdash outfits.

I’m thinking of Richard Billingham’s recent photo of his mother, Elizabeth, published in Ray’s A Laugh (Scalo). She wears a floral print housedress that no fashion magazine editor would find beautiful. I am not a fashion editor, and I find it beautiful. On the table before her is an unfinished jigsaw puzzle and a pack of “Sky” cigarettes. Her arm tattoos rhyme with the patterns of puzzle and housedress.

The photo turns Elizabeth Billingham into a Superstar. She’s no longer just a puzzled woman with poorly parted black hair; she’s a performer, collaborating with Richard the photographer.

Looking at the photo, I think: “I always knew there was something arresting about a listless woman in a housedress. Others might have said she was unglamorous, but I knew she had a lazy, easy stylishness.”

I once knew a lady who looked like Elizabeth Billingham. Her name was Meredith, and she lived across the street from me when I was a kid in the early 196os. Meredith’s “Superstar” status was a secret. She had all the qualifications to be a Divine, Elizabeth Billingham, or Holly Woodlawn, but there was no one to discover her, to send her into the art orbit, to lend her the legitimating context of performance. (In exchange for the privilege of looking at an early photo of Meredith, taken during college, before her descent into booze and desuetude, I agreed to strip for her bullying son. He was seven, I was five.)

Warhol owned a velvet evening gown once worn by Jean Harlow. The dress qualifies as a source of cultural interest. But what if nobody signed or designed it, and Harlow never wore it, and Warhol never collected it? What if I saw it in Elizabeth Billingham’s closet? What if I—with my mania for authorization and legitimacy—never saw the dress at all? Do garments unseen by curators and critics still participate in art?

I don’t want to “lift” fashion into art. Clothing doesn’t need the boost. It offers its own pleasure, which is the joy of useful material in the process of being used, like cardboard boxes before Robert Rauschenberg discovered them and turned them into artifacts, or the pleasure of the orange cotton turtleneck I’m wearing while I write this essay, a turtleneck you will never see. Unexceptional, it keeps me warm, and gives me adjacency to the presence of orange I’ve seen verified by magazines this season.

Because Warhol owned the bottle of Liquifilm Tears, we can interpret it. We can see it as a symbol of his affectlessness. We can say, “Warhol couldn’t cry real tears. He turned himself into a mannequin.” But if the bottle of Tears were sitting mute in your medicine chest or on a pharmacy shelf, would it give you a significance shiver, an aesthetic tingle? (It might.)

Like Warhol, I take objects literally. I take the bottle of tears as a bottle of tears. The advantage of literality is that I can go somewhere else with the tears. I can think about Warhol weeping or not weeping. I can think about his bodily fluids. I can think about vision, the need to lubricate the eye to keep the retina honest. I can think about Elizabeth Bishop (now connected to Elizabeth Billingham and Elizabeth Taylor) and her “Sestina,” with its references to “equinoctial tears,” and “the teakettle’s small hard tears,” and the “teacup full of dark brown tears,” and the “buttons like tears,” and the “little moons” falling down “like tears.”

Looking at Duchamp’s Fountain (urinal), or one of its reproductions, I take the urinal literally: “Urinals are really beautiful.” I don’t think, “Isn’t it interesting that Duchamp brought a urinal into the museum?” Instead I think, “Urinals are pretty. Their porcelain is shiny.” Similarly, looking at Warhol’s Blue Liz as Cleopatra, I don’t exclaim, “Wow, Warhol transformed a found image.” Rather, I muse, “Cleopatra was a great movie. With every passing day this is becoming clearer to the general public. I’m glad that Warhol foresaw the truth, and made the truth blue.”

I want to encourage any attempt to look seriously and playfully at clothing, to talk about it with the slow care that certain persons have reserved for art and literature. I want to see clothing turned into discourse: not into languages already coined by the trade, but into whatever kinds of speech we want—litany, gossip, complaint, diatribe, digression, autobiography, commandment, description, psalm, testimony. . . . Clothing astonishes not because it’s more aesthetically resonant than other objects but because it’s ordinary as can be—enigmatically self-explanatory, like sex and waterfalls and forests and other wild habitats. Some clothes are ingeniously or expensively made. Some provoke envy or fatigue. Most clothes are shorn of commentary, and therefore open to all corners. Let pour upon the following Warholian indeli-bilities the cold water of your awe: the wig, the Liquifilm Tears, the blow job, the Empire State Building, the wrecked car, the face of the Most Wanted Man, the voice of Diana Vreeland . . .

Clothes are interesting because they are passive and wilting; they need a body to fill them up, just as pellets, to become sea monkeys, need immersion in water. Warhol’s wig depended on him. Abandoned in the vitrine, the prosthesis looks like a flattened jellyfish, a splayed broom, an apology.

I haven’t said anything yet about Joe Dallesandro’s oft-seen cock.

Like Warhol, I am interested in nude photography not because nudes look good in art but because nudes look good: such an attitude—such a resistant, impious addiction to things as they are rather than to things as they are represented, if there is entirely a difference—might seem to give short shrift to artfulness, to the large-souled paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, also on display at the Whitney. But Warhol’s Liquifilm Tears cleanse the sight: after seeing his toiletries I am newly attentive to Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series, willing to absorb its lessons about color, subdivision, and duration (“suspend time whenever possible,” the paintings advise). Warhol has put me back inside my clothes and my tears; he’s extended me a gift certificate for an hour or two of embodiment, though the penalties for abusing the privilege are dire. One needn’t love Warhol in order to acknowledge that he made looking at the evidence (clothes, genitals, cremes) as philosophical an endeavor as Cézanne looking at the mountain, or Troy Donahue looking in the mirror.

Wayne Koestenbaum is a frequent contributor to Artforum.