PRINT October 2004


Peter Halley

IN THE EARLY ’80S, THERE WERE PROBABLY A HALF DOZEN artists, all of them very different from one another, who claimed a relationship to Warhol. I thought my work had something to do with Warhol, but so did Julian Schnabel. Warhol was one of the first artists to see the photographic image as the subject of a work of art. He was virtually unconcerned with anything tangible, real, or lived. For him, the photograph became reality, or his touchstone to reality.

I read Interview religiously in the ’70s. I was fascinated by it—both the idea of the interview and the range of people the magazine covered. Warhol barely edited, he pretty much printed whatever he had on tape. Warhol always said that if you wanted to stay in circulation and have people notice you, you had to have something to offer them. In a funny way there’s a nice moral there: If you want people to do anything for you, you have to be generous toward them. It’s a lesson that has allowed me to engage with film, architecture, fashion, and music through Index. By covering these worlds in the magazine, I’ve had the chance to learn about them. Specifically, it was a strategy of getting myself out of the art world in the early ’90s, at a time when New York had become boring and depressing.

Interview defined journalism in terms of letting the subject speak in his or her own words rather than through reportorial intervention. I found this tremendously important. It related to Warhol’s approach to photography, and to recording in general. In a funny way it’s the single thing that made Interview worthwhile: You heard people’s own voices rather than what journalists had to say about them.

I also see Warhol as a social theorist and activist in his approach to public life. The sociologist Richard Sennett has written that experience has become privatized and that public life diminishes from the nineteenth century onward. He describes how Western society has seen the disappearance of public interaction, defined as the opportunity for an individual to be part of a spontaneous, heterogeneous group. In contrast, Warhol seemed determined to live an extremely public life. I was always impressed that, in his later years, he not only went to parties and invited people to his studio but even spent every morning walking down Madison Avenue popping into shops. In contrast to his passivity about his subject matter, this was a real activist stand.

Warhol further radicalized his public persona by mixing in much of what we usually consider private—like sexuality or personal psychology—into his public life. His audiotapes and films are all about that. In The Fall of Public Man: The Social Psychology of Capitalism, Sennett wrote that what enabled people to live publicly in the eighteenth century was the fact that they saw themselves as actors on a stage and that the personae they presented in public were formalized and expressed through accepted or shared codes of behavior, dress, and speech. With his wig and the rest of his “costume,” Warhol was presenting himself only slightly less formally than an eighteenth-century gentleman. Intuitively or by design, he somehow revived this technique for dealing with contemporary public experience. In his embrace of dandyism, and perhaps even in his emphasis on gossip and fey humor in all kinds of encounters, he corresponds very well to a figure from the eighteenth century.

As told to Eric Banks

Peter Halley is a New York–based artist and publisher of Index magazine.

Eric Banks is editor of Bookforum and a senior editor of Artforum.