Dec/Jan 2010

Factory Hand

J. C. Gabel


With so many books about Andy Warhol already in print, one can reasonably ask why yet another should make its appearance now. What more can really be said about a man—and a mythos—that all but defined modern-day media culture? From the early assembly-line silk screens of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor through the manufactured celebrity of latter-day It Girl Edie Sedgwick to the machinations behind the partnership with proto-punk darlings the Velvet Underground—all these stories have been told so frequently that it's difficult to distinguish truth from fairy tale.

Surprisingly, Pop, the first major biography of Warhol in twenty years, makes a compelling case for its own existence. Not only is it well written and researched, it manages to unearth details that reframe the debate about Warhol's real importance as an artist. The book ends with the twilight of the 1960s, as Warhol's celebrity-obsessed vision of the future effectively ushers in the tabloid culture of today. It's a fitting moment of closure, even though Warhol continued championing the Pop worldview, and its celebrity underpinnings, until his death in 1987. He had always been a voyeur and provocateur, and he possessed an ability to document the world around him—through a shifting prism of paintings, photos, and films and, later, in the pages of Interview magazine—better than any other artist of his generation.

This is not to say that Warhol was an artist in the European old-master sense. Tony Scherman and David Dalton bolster the case that his genius came not so much from his formal skill as an artist as from his capacity for embracing "mistakes" and using every medium at his disposal, churning out anything that seemed interesting to him at the time, regardless of who came up with the idea. His artistic outpouring in the 1960s—fueled partially by a diet of amphetamines—captured the unmistakable antiestablishment mindset taking shape in America, and most especially in New York City. "The times were ripe for artistic innovators whose work embodied the era's obsessions: pop culture and rebellion," Scherman and Dalton write. "With the soup can as his inanimate alter ego, Andy became the standard-bearer for perhaps the most crucial event of twentieth-century culture: closing the 'unbridgeable gulf' between high and low, refined and commercial."

Scherman and Dalton, both veteran journalists, have spent much of their careers documenting the early days of rock 'n' roll—which provides a natural point of affinity for their chronicle of Warhol's role in the Pop revolution. A founding editor of Rolling Stone, Dalton has written extensively about art—and as a teenager, he assisted Warhol on his early paintings, giving him an insider's view of the artist before his fame. Scherman, meanwhile, is a former editor at Musician and was for many years a contributing editor at Life.

Unlike past Warhol biographers, Scherman and Dalton had unfettered access to the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Beinecke Library at Yale and drew on scores of new sources and more than one hundred new interviews to paint a more accurate picture of his life and art. The book follows much the same loose structure that Warhol adopted for his largely ghostwritten autobiography POPism: The Warhol Sixties—pieced together by Pat Hackett and published near the climax of his career as a culture impresario in 1980. Beginning with a straight chronology, Scherman and Dalton revisit Warhol's life in New York City as a struggling commercial artist in the early '50s and then supply an account of his rapid rise to fame during the '60s. But Pop reconstructs those crucial years without the innocence and revisionist glow that illuminate the pages of POPism. These are the same oft-told stories, but here they're told firsthand by family members, friends, fellow artists, gallery owners, curators, musicians, critics, admirers, and, indeed, pretty much everyone who happened to come by the Factory in that era.

Some of the testimony here stresses the predatory nature of the Factory scene, which brought out the seamier side of Warhol's obsessions. "Everyone was standing around talking, and then suddenly Andy and his chosen few were in the elevator and the doors closed and they were off," said painter Christopher Scott, then partner of Henry Geldzahler, an arts impresario in his own right who would become New York City's commissioner of cultural affairs. "The others were left behind. It was the way high school cliques operate, and it was ugly and destructive."

Pop, like POPism, concludes with the shooting of Warhol by the deranged writer and activist Valerie Solanas—author of the famed scum Manifesto—in 1968. Warhol nearly died from his wounds, and the episode marked the same sort of abrupt end for the arts scene of the '60s that the assassination of Robert Kennedy, which occurred two days later, did for the world of Great Society liberalism. By the time the reader has reached the epilogue, the usually accessible Warhol—who had always opened his workplace to everyone from fearless freaks to the fine-art establishment—has retreated deeper and deeper into his own world. His newly reclusive life, of course, owed a great deal to a vivid fear of death—but more than that, Warhol had to have known that the amphetamine-fueled insanity of the Factory years couldn't go on forever. Still, as Scherman and Dalton note, the artist's legacy was secure—at least as secure as an intentionally Pop-derivative body of work can ever be. "Warhol may not have had many original ideas himself," they observe, "but for him that was never the point."

J. C. Gabel is the editor of the magazine Stop Smiling.

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March 25, 2013
5:27 am

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