[31 August 2010]
Perhaps consistent with the aesthetic approach of the book’s subject, The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol features no statements by the Pop artist himself. Instead, the book is a set of interviews with friends and associates conducted by the British-born journalist John Wilcock, co-founder of the Village Voice and Warhol’s Interview magazine.
Originally published in 1971, the updated version has been edited and re-released by Christopher Trela and now includes vibrant full-page photographs and images of the Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor silkscreens, among other famous Warhol works. Although the collection does contain some gossip about his private romances, the anecdotes and analysis contained in The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol consist mostly of the interviewees’ impressions of Warhol’s inscrutable persona and speculations about what the long-term impact of his work might be.
Keeping in mind that the interviewer was by no means a detached observer, the conversations between Wilcock and key figures in Warhol’s life will fascinate those interested in the Pop icon and the art worlds to which he contributed throughout his career. While Marisol and Nico offer mostly one-line answers to Wilcock’s questions, Lou Reed, Ronnie Tavel, and Ultra Violet, among others, offer longer and fascinating characterizations of the swirl of relationships and ideas that made up Warhol’s world. Although interviews with the Warhol Superstars are among the most interesting, students of urban art history will certainly enjoy the insights of Leo Castelli, Sam Green, and Ivan Karp into the norms and protocols of New York’s gallery system during the period.
There are really three themes running throughout the interviews: the nature and source of Warhol’s creativity, the personal mystique of impenetrability he built around himself, and the dynamism and delirium of the Factory, Warhol’s artistic laboratory and base of operations. Expressed in different ways, most positive assessments of Warhol’s art seem to converge around a two-part view of his creative vision. Along with a willingness to be a receptor or sponge that drew in all kinds of artistic ideas and influences, he also had a desire to endlessly improvise with the ideas and artifacts of modernity as he experienced them. As his cameraman Buddy Wirtschafter explained, “He’s highly flexible and subject to change, so he’s without the anxieties that some Abstract Expressionist painters have. He can assimilate more, innovate more.”
Like several others, Wilcock is also curious about Warhol’s often unreadable demeanor, which apparently came across as a mix of icy aloofness and intensely sensitive shyness. His close friend Brigid Polk said that he was “like a child and the most fabulous personality I’ve ever known”, and doubted that he was actually gay. Taylor Mead recalled thinking of him as “the Voltaire of the U.S.”, while Ultra Violet referred to him as “quite plastic,” “a computer,” and “the open door to invention, intuition, movement, to the beauty of movement”. According to Viva, the actress to whom Gerard Malanga and Ronnie Tavel both ascribe a certain sway over Warhol, he had no sex life at all.
The degree to which the Factory is discussed in conjunction with Warhol leaves the impression that it was a kind of sentient creature that he spawned and then had trouble controlling, a Frankenstein covered in silver and glitter. The Factory and the careers it nurtured were nonetheless vital to Warhol’s work and the larger Pop ethos he championed. For some, it was a place where Warhol manipulated immature young artists, described as “fallen angels” by the photojournalist Gretchen Berg. Others saw it as a workshop where aspiring cultural producers actually learned valuable lessons about their craft.
Factory assistant Gerard Malanga described the scene as “a power thing, because it’s like [Warhol] can look down and watch it all happening. Like a chess game, he can move the people around.” Lou Reed provides a less Machiavellian assessment, one which could serve as a rousing reminder to today’s young artists: “One of the things you can learn from being at the Factory is if you want to do whatever you do, then you should work very, very hard all the time, and if you don’t work hard all the time, well then, nothing will happen. And Andy works as hard as anybody I know.”
I was intrigued by the degree to which Wilcock and his informants would repeatedly return to the issue of whether or not Warhol was a “put-on”, a subject that reflects a concern about authenticity that has much less currency in the cynical and desensitized world of today. The current age of reality TV, viral YouTube videos, and ever-tweeting celebrities means that whether or not something is a “put-on” is much less important than how interesting or artful the artifice is.
Warhol’s commercial success demonstrates that plenty of people saw real power and beauty in his aesthetic despite the hostility of some critics. When accounting for Warhol’s impact in the long run, though, perhaps saying less is indeed saying more, in which case tight-lipped Nico put it best: “Andy made it possible to do things.”