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Andy Warhol

October 13, 2017

Warhol Bowie


New York City late 1964 Dorothy Podber arrived at the Warhol “Factory” on East 47th Street clad in black motorcycle leathers and wearing white gloves. She was accompanied by a couple of friends and her Great Dane: Carmen Miranda. After theatrically removing her gloves, she pulled a small black gun out of her pocket, and aimed it at Warhol before turning to a stack of four paintings propped against the wall and pulling the trigger – shooting Marilyn Monroe through the head four times.

I’m starting this talking page with a confession. The other day I was located in this gallery of the Boiler House and was tasked with monitoring two positions A & B. The truth is I never moved from position A – which is where we are approximately now standing. I sat looking at this work, noticing the subtle differences; the painterly qualities of the left coloured panel, familiar things, variations in hair and lips and the extreme fades from near white out to black on the right panel. I wondered who had just caught the bottom of the canvas with a daub – was it Warhol or Gerard Malanga, the poet who knew how to silkscreen? I had seen all these things before, but I never get tired of them, like listening to Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones or when I used to smoke – the satisfaction of inhaling stubby American Marlboro’s, each one tasting as good as the last.

The Marilyn diptych visually emotes an almost ecclesiastical Byzantine presence and whilst these are not the shot Marilyn’s – also referred to as the Lifesavers alluding to the candies similar to British Polo fruits, this piece of work does share the same geographical, edgy and glamorous providence of being created in the East 47th Street Factory. The two-hinged tablets in this case equal in size but differing in colour. The cinematic Technicolor film frames of this work flipping to black and white. The black and white of classic Hollywood – shot on cameras freighted from warehouses in a cold New York City to the Californian sunshine – the deterioration of beauty and don’t forget Jean Harlow. A parallel possibility – more filming with more sunshine – more work with more amphetamine…

Religious iconography has its roots in Warhol’s childhood in Pittsburg. His mother Julia, always a solid presence throughout his life, was a deeply religious woman and the young Warhol would have been exposed to the interior of churches in her company and later in life through commitment to his own faith. I once heard Will Self say on Question Time ‘Politics is show business for ugly people’ I would posit: Churches were show business for poor people. Warhol grew up in an area where the main industries were coal and steel, just to give you a flavour of the place the local football team is called the Pittsburgh Steelers. I think he found respite within the sacred, absorbing ecclesiastical adornments such as the rich brocades of the priests, in sharp contrast to the anthracite grey and the soot black environment of the industry he was surrounded by.

I grew up in Torquay, a South Devon coastal resort. My journey to the work of Andy Warhol and the richly related social history commenced in 1972. That April David Bowie played live in Plymouth and my pal Martin drove me to the concert in his blue Mini, assuring my mum he’d look after me. Later in July the same year I watched Bowie sing Starman, this time in Torquay. I bought his album The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and the earlier album Hunky Dory. I went to a secondary modern school and the one beacon of light was the bearded art teacher Paul Donoghue. On a student trip in his younger days he’d drank with the writer William Burroughs in bar in Tangier. Donoghue allowed us to bring our vinyl albums to class and play them while we worked. David Bowie’s Hunky Dory had a track on it entitled Andy Warhol and he brought in some magazines with some of Warhol’s work. This was the first time I saw the Marilyn’s – even though I prefer brunettes – I’ve always made an exception with Marilyn. Bowie singing about an artist – Warhol – who had been around for ten years at this point – “Put a peephole in my brain two new pence to have a go – like to be a gallery put you all inside my show” – This wasn’t intellectual curiosity – it was spectacle. I read in New Musical Express or somewhere, that Warhol had covered his working space in silver foil – this was an idea he’d gotten from Billy Name – who was to become the Factories official photographer caretaker and resident speed fiend. Warhol had been invited to a haircutting party at Names loft apartment and asked him to decorate the Factory in the same silver style. My bedroom ceiling was covered in silver foil and I painted a wall purple. I had an International Times annual with a silver foil cover. Later I was to discover Warhol had said silver was the future it was space age, astronauts wore silver suits, films had been projected on the silver screen and for the purpose of narcissism mirrors are backed in silver.

Teenage years are so significant, and the memories and inspirations fix hard to the future. Bunking into the local cinema – hitting the exit door at right angle and springing it – under age and watching Midnight Cowboy, somebody mentioning the trippy party scene was to do with Andy Warhol’s Superstars. I bought the double album compilation of Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground Featuring Nico. The album cover artwork and inside gatefold sleeve feature Warhol’s Coca Cola paintings. Look carefully at these images, especially the lips. Whoever you were, from a princess to a pauper, this democratized beverage will taste the same; try thinking that next time you see the image. I think John Pasche the English art designer who created the Rolling Stones iconic lips logo certainly did. Back to the album and the familiar – Coco Cola, together with the unfamiliar music of Lou Reed and the malodorous droning of Nico.

The information comes through in dribs and drabs over the years, no social media and instantaneous results. Access to a certain level of education and the rude interruption late 1973 of a care home, taking my Velvet Underground and supplanting Bowie for a double Rolling Stones Hot Rocks album with me. The Warhol connection always near – a 1971 album in 1973 was hardly considered old. Discovering the Stones album Sticky Fingers and the risqué zip up jeans artwork by Andy Warhol. The years roll on the scratch static crackle amplifying. Bianca Jagger riding a white horse on her 30th birthday through Studio 54 Manhattan. This club was to burn bright for 33 months until the IRS and narcs started sniffing around – sex and death – celebrity and money. The Mick Jagger screen-prints – selling Jagger to Jagger. The polaroid bright bulb flash shots instantly whiting out and eradicating any time telling lines and sags. Images to reflect the dysfunction of time – as if Warhol knew beauty couldn’t last – all was becoming disposable. Liza with a Zee, (daughter of movie director Vincent Minnelli and Judy Garland) hoof posing against a blank background after Cabaret it could have been her future. The effortless translation to canvas and eternal youth and Warhol sells America back to the Americans through product: Old Smokey the electric chair, Elvis, Marilyn, Campbell’s, Brillo and the guest list of Studio 54. No surprise, there is quite a lot of documentation of Warhol and Mick together. Could it be a mutual admiration for an extremely skillful economy of cultural movement? Lets talk about Monroe and walking on Snow White and New York’s a Go Go and everything tastes nice as the great and the good are immortalized, some greater than others, such as Mohammed Ali. Let’s consider the Rolling Stones selling the Blues back to America.

The vanity of the 1970 and 80s was it ever thus? NYC club scene – this was Warhol’s time – cultural commodification. The entire product generated and the guest list of Studio 54 being swiped under a squeegee – skills that had taken a lifetime to refine and importantly delegation and quiet collaboration. Seeing Warhol interviewed, the monosyllabic responses, the otherness. I’ll be your mirror. The cold detachment of a voyeur – the clues are all there, the films without soundtrack – the Empire State waiting for the tip to light up and round to dawn. The hours of taped phone calls, the constant entourage of dysfunctional and marginalized individuals – just watching them.

A gallery space is predominately white and the assistants usually dress in black. This is the convention. This is how it works. The work speaks for itself with minimal distraction. Warhol was white and he was the gallery, putting you all inside his show. Words as hooks: “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”. A performative phrase, in itself a self-fulfilling prophecy. Images for eternity – these magnificent Marilyns with the off registered colours suggested to me a hallucinogenic experience – Haight – Ashbury, San Francisco everyone wearing a flower in their hair. But the Marilyn’s were created four to five years before the Merry Pranksters of Ken Kesey got on the bus sharing their LSD sugar cubes. It’s almost as if Warhol visually captured the Zeitgeist before it happened.

Conjure up Weegee the 1930s 40s photographer? He liked a big boofing cracking flash for the jumpers and stabbings and shootings and hookers. He was called Weegee because of his almost psychic ability to be where it was happening, where the action was. Andy Warhol just watched and considered. John Lennon, the Beatle, had once uttered: “If there hadn’t have been Elvis – there wouldn’t have been the Beatles”. Consider R.Mutts Fountain – Duchamp’s decision to select an everyday item and present it as art. Would there have been Warhol without Duchamp? Warhol anointed celebrity as object. He recognized just how loaded with cultural reference the famous and infamous can be. Remember, Marilyn had sung for a President. Watching a re-run of the Elvis 1968 Comeback Special I realised I’d seen that stance before. Warhol had swiped the pistol-toting King across a silkscreen in 1962. Who are the chosen two holograms elevated to almost Papal reverence in the 2017 film Bladerunner 2049? Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley – Warhol’s ghostly hand… from celebrity to high culture. Status – yeah, wow.

Warhol had a work ethic that deserves utmost respect. You have to look hard for any real intimacy in his life; it was mostly lightweight, genteel and unrequited. But the work never stops coming. Check out Songs for Drella (Warhol’s nickname, a play on Dracula and Cinderella) this insightful homage by Lou Reed and the Welsh musician John Cale. They eulogize, in part, his work ethic fabulously, taking a journey though his life so beautifully, so New York matter of factly – with some brutal street honesty. Every artist should listen to this record and read Patti Smith’s book M Train.

There were three Factories – the first on East 47th Street, Midtown Manhattan and this was the venue where the Marilyns were created. However the smell of cordite from the shot Marilyn’s followed him to the next Factory in the Decker Building, Union Square West. A woman called Valerie Solanas waited for him one day, shot at him three times and hit him once. The one bullet was to cause devastation and leave him in discomfort for the rest of his life. All over a perceived slight, a ‘handbags before dawn’ artistic difference that escalated. Another woman with a gun. The subject matter he had dealt with in his art practice segued into life, his life – not just the dysfunctional around him – the death was now real.

The investment needed protecting from itself – ‘Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art’ said Warhol. The final Factory was more corporate, more business orientated. The Street never got through the door again.

Interestingly one of Warhol’s first ever exhibitions was a window display at Bonwit Teller, a large sophisticated retail store – its frontage adorned in an art nouveau style and located on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, New York City. He was in good company – in 1939 Salvador Dali designed a window display featuring a bathtub lined with Persian lamb.

In 1980 Donald Trump demolishes the building – destroying artifacts – the limestone dancing women – he’d previously said he’d give to the Metropolitan Museum. The Gotham City edifice that is now Trump Tower rises out of the rubble. I think Warhol would have appreciated the irony – in a Presidential monosyllabic fashion.

I am drawing this piece to a conclusion with the words of Professor Michael Craig-Martin. He articulates so much better than I could what I have endeavoured to put across.

“I have learnt that the visual had it’s own terms and criteria of intelligence, that art could be talked about in straightforward and understandable terms, that art needed to be rooted in the very experience of ordinary life I had thought it sought to escape, that contemporary art existed in a context as demanding and complex as that of any earlier historical period. I also learned the obvious; that, for an artist, art needed to be approached as work”

(Goldsmith University, London, Inaugural Lecture, ‘Giving Permission’ February 1995)

Gerry King ©

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