I thought I knew everything there was to know about Andy Warhol, yet endless streams of books constantly emerge about him. Warhol’s life and work are undoubtedly overly examined subjects that only Bob Dylan enthusiasts can relate to. With memoirs, anecdotes, and scholarship, new information is always popping up in the New York Times book reviews. I know all this and yet I still can’t get enough of Warhol.
On&By Andy Warhol is a survey of essays, divided into two sections. The first part is Warhol in his own words, mostly through interviews, his books, and transcripts. The second and less engaging part is various essays about Warhol.
For On&By Andy Warhol, Gilda Williams took on what must have been a massive undertaking of sorting through the endless scholarship. She compiled a wide range of diverse voices, from fictional conversations with the artist to feminist critiques of his work. Warhol was super-humanly prolific, yet made himself appear blank enough for viewers to be able to project their own interpretations of him and his work onto that blank exterior. His work and persona begged us to ask, what’s behind the mask?
In RE/SEARCH Volume 11: Pranks musician John Cale, in discussing Warhol, states, “Andy has a great gift of being able to make aphoristic statements about anything.” Indeed, the first half of On&By Andy Warhol is full of these philosophical aphorisms. Warhol’s dualistic worldview tends to jam difficult subjects into pithy single thoughts. He never claims to know anything while playing the observer. For example, “The interviewer should just tell me the words he wants me to say and I’ll repeat them after him. I think that would be so great, because I’m so empty I just can’t think of anything to say.” It’s very charming.
When a 23-year-old Gretchen Berg interviewed Warhol in 1966 for The East Village Other, it was far from predictable that it would become one of the seminal interviews in the Warhol library. Oddly enough in On&By Andy Warhol, Berg’s 1966 interview appears early in the book, yet the actual transcript, which was found in one of Warhol’s time capsules, appears near the end of the book. I’m guessing that this was due to the chronology of the book, being that the transcript was discovered in 2008. The transcript of the famous interview shows that Warhol’s aphorisms were not as sharp as retellings have made them; rather, his aphorisms were a combination of clever editing and questioning, e.g., “I’m just doing work. Doing things. Keeping busy. I think that’s the best thing in life. Keeping busy.”
Williams wisely included some negative things written about Warhol, which are very revealing of where his reputation stood in the ’60s through to the present; for example, venerated minimalist Donald Judd wrote a very bitchy review that thinly veiled his jealousy. It was clear Warhol hit the zeitgeist as minimalism was receding into the shadows of postwar art history. Pop Art was clearly a threat to many of the ruling intellectuals.
Benjamin Buchloh’s “An Interview With Andy Warhol” is a lot of fun in that Warhol doesn’t take the mask off. This article is clearly a case of the critic trying to bait the artist to further his own career. Much like Judd’s review, there seems to be some agenda. I’ve always thought that most critics can’t create so they try to destroy art, as if they are doing culture some big favor. Warhol sees through Buchloh’s game and wins by not caring. It should be noted that this 1985 interview didn’t surface until 2001. I wonder if Buchloh feels a little embarrassed by it.
Donna DeSalvo’s essay, “Success Is a Job in New York” renders a portrait of a young, ambitious Warhol fresh from Pittsburgh. He becomes a romantic figure when we see how malleable he made his drawing style in order to become a successful illustrator. This essay came about on the occasion of a more intimate Warhol show that ran concurrently with the reportedly whitewashed 1989 Museum of Modern Art blockbuster following the artist’s death. I didn’t see the show, but critics have made it seem like that show tried to cover up Warhol’s homosexuality and overall otherness.
Several takes on Warhol’s role in defining identity politics are addressed. Jennifer Doyle’s “I May Be Boring Someone”, Simon Watney’s “Queer Andy” and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick’s “Warhol’s Shyness / Warhol’s Whiteness” all bring his sexuality to the front to give us a perspective on how his personal life shaped his art and where women fell into the context of his work. I get the impression that there was a time when Warhol’s sexual identity had been something of an open secret.
It’s certainly de rigueur to quote Roland Barthes and other French semioticians in academic writing; however, philosophical writing about Warhol seems to miss the point. Warhol said everything he needed to say simply and was very easy to understand. While Barthes is a very important thinker his writing on Warhol falls short. Scholarly writing by the likes of Barthes, Thomas Crow and Frederic Jameson come off as incredibly dull and intellectually dishonest. Anthony Grudin’s essay “Except Like Tracing” desperately points to obvious class distinctions in Warhol’s work.
In the Artforum vernacular of art-speak, it’s common to hear Marxist/Late Capitalist interpretations almost as much as one hears Walter Benjamin’s tired ideas echoed throughout this group of essays. Certain forms of discussing art have become an intellectual cliché. The economics in Warhol’s work are self-evident. He painted dollar signs. None of this is as interesting as the transcript of Warhol interviewing Alfred Hitchcock towards the beginning of this collection.
Williams delivers an investigation of Warhol’s famous quip, “If you want to know about Andy Warhol; just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There is nothing behind it.” Williams takes this metaphor and investigates it in literal terms. She talks about how there’s a frugality and thinness of surface. Screen print uses very little paint. The cow wallpaper is paper-thin. Even Warhol’s skin is thin. It’s an interesting idea. It made me think of Seinfeld; the most popular show in television history that jokingly refers to itself as a show about nothing. The blankness in Warhol’s work is what we project on to it. Seinfeld isn’t really about nothing. The viewer knows Warhol isn’t blank, but for some reason this is an appealing bit of show business. Hell, he predicted Seinfeld decades prior: “As I said, I want a show of my own called Nothing Special.”
What makes Warhol endlessly fascinating to me is the sheer inventiveness of his work. Warhol was a genius by making it appear that he wasn’t a genius. He reinvented every medium he touched: screen printing as serious painting, banality as depth, the rock impresario as artist, 4,000 audio recordings, 492 screen tests, 70 films, television, the TV appearance, the interview format, etc. The work is still fresh, Warhol’s color schemes and compositions are still visually attractive and intellectually seductive. The paintings particularly embody boldness of decision and are aging well and expensively as a result.
The theme that returns throughout the book is what I think of as the Warhol paradox. Warhol seemed to always have it both ways. He was able to play high against low, simple against complex, present and yet far away, sexual/asexual, etc. The dualities in his work speak to the paradoxical nature of the universe. I think human beings carry much of this paradox around, and so few people know how to own it, much less embody it.
As a culture we are still flailing at trying to figure Warhol out today. One-thing historians seem to agree on is that he would have loved the 21st century. He was always right there as a practicing futurist in front of the “new” of his time: “If I had a good computer I could catch up with my thoughts over the weekend if I ever got behind myself. A computer would be a very qualified boss.”
On&By Andy Warho is the rare reference book that can serve as an introduction to the wide range of Warhol’s work and influence on contemporary culture, as well as a deeper investigation for Warhol enthusiasts like myself, who are always looking for that hidden anecdote to reveal more about this near mythical figure who dropped jewels like: “If you watch your weight, try the ‘Andy Warhol New York City Diet’: when I order in a restaurant, I order everything I don’t want, so I have a lot to play around with while everyone else eats.”