Sunday, October 28, 2007

How Much Did I Love Thee, Andy Warhol?

The only way to describe the feeling I have right now is: tarnished. I've just read another book about Warhol and his gang in the 60s, Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties. And it's left me feeling a bit depressed.

Why? Because it exposed the tragic, dangerous and nasty truths about those Factory years in the 60s. Starkly. It's a catalogue of every player in every aspect of Warhol's artistic output from 1960 to the end of the decade: from film, visual art to theatrical and rock and roll collaborations. The collective wallop of the stories left me feeling saddened and deadened.

All those desperately drugged people, all that waste and excess are detailed down to the minutae. It's mostly a strict retelling of facts and quotes: This thing happened, then this thing happened. This person said this. One one hand fascination, yet often horrifying and saddening. The sheer volume of drugs ingested daily by everyone, including Andy himself was detailed. Amphetamines mostly: Huge quantities. Daily. Constantly. Andy took speed, but a little less of it, all prescription.

As a callow 18 year old aspiring artist, I once said: "The only thing sacred are the early works of Andy Warhol." Elegant, and punchy. Mad colours. Sexy. Also this: Often funny. (See "Tunafish Disaster". Just the word tunafish is funny. That he picked that article out to use in his art. Well, you had to love the guy.)

I adored his Marilyns, his Liz, his Elvis. Seeing a Flower painting in the 70s was a religious experience, the same kind of feeling I had seeing on Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art. Yes, I was a serious Fangirl.

I'd almost forgotten about my Warhol worship. I'm kind of an art dropout. Art and Preoccupation with Art has been on the back burner for me for a good (bad?) long time. The back burner element is broken, needs replacing. Many reasons for that, which I won't go into now. So it was very exciting to revisit Warhol, the art, the time period, the friends and collaborators. I stumbled upon Factory Girl. It had been panned (20% on RottenTomatoes) but I was curious to see it because it was Warhol. How could I not?

While the film is no masterpiece, it was a thrill to watch, particularly the beginning. The combination of the music, the fashions, the people, the art, and (virtual) Andy himself gave me a buzz. Warhol was personified amazingly well by Guy Pearce, the best on-screen creation of the man I'd ever seen. Not that there are many real documented versions of Andy to compare it to.

The focus of the film is meant to be Edie Sedgwick, who has been resurrected as a modern day figure of fascination - the idea of her has captivated a whole new generation, if youtube tributes are anything to go by. Sienna Miller did a wonderful job of portraying her, the beauty and vulnerability, her distinctive scratchily-soft speaking voice. The flavour of the times, with the exception of a couple of questionable casting choices (Jimmy Fallon as Chuck Wein was clunky- However, unlike most, I actually didn't mind Hayden Christensen as Bob Dylan) was well captured.

Hearing certain songs from the mid-sixties juxtaposed with certain visual cues gets my blood going. I was too young to really be "in" the sixties in the sense of acting or participating - but I was old enough to be sponging it up through my ears and eyes and through the air. It was a time of great energy, great fun, great possibility, great hope. My character came into being during that age.

Seeing Factory Girl was a poignant reminder of all that. The stuff that I was missing in my life. Creativity. Enthusiasm. In addition, there was a new piece of the puzzle to explore. I hadn't known anything at all about the Bob Dylan/Edie Sedgwick connection, so I was compelled to revisit the time period.

I got the book out of the library. I had high hopes of drinking it all in, being voyeuristically immersed in that era again, but instead of getting inspired, the more I read, the more down I got. I stopped reading for awhile because clouds of dull lurking depression were forming around me; but I had finish it to find out what happened. It was the book version of not being able to look away from a car crash. (Am I not the essence of a perfect Warhol fan?)

This isn't the first time I've experienced Andy angst. I read the Diaries when they came out in the 80s. Compulsively. With each entry, his sheen was peeled off. The Diaries gave me a new understanding of the man, as a fallible, worried human, which helped soften any disillusionment. The fact that underneath his cool exterior lived a creature full of -- if not self loathing, at least major self doubt. The fact that he mostly felt like a "nobody", (his word) no matter what success and adulation he acquired. He definiely fits the pattern for creative types. Self doubt is usually us. So this warmed me to him.

The thing that turned me off was his new business model for art in the 80s. Art had become "Just business" and making money. "Friends" were kept for what they could do for him financially. It was so calculated.
That seemed a loss. Admittedly, he could have been making his "just business" pronouncements for effect: to cover up his ongoing lack of inspiration. For years, he just did the portraits, and coasted. But, that's speculation. On the face of it, it was his abandoning of pure art that saddened me. I became less of a fan because of it.

My love affair with Andy fell away in dribs and drabs. He was part of my past. But then a portrayal of Warhol would pop up in a movie, Basquiat, for example, and it was always exciting to be reminded of him. David Bowie's portrayal was full of fun, and a self deprecation. But the film ultimately made Andy out to be a creep, a bloodsucker, user - fitting of his nickname, "Drella". (Dracula and Cinderella) But the beauty, intelligence and humour of his early artwork were always there. No amount of personal creepiness could take that away.

Reading Factory Made I discover that Warhol switched to serious paintings mostly on the advice of Henry Geldzahler. Prior to that, he had been making art, getting "known", but hardly ever selling anything. Then, when he finally got his first show at the Castelli gallery, when he "made it" into this prestigious space, Geldzahler told him "Lighten up, you need to do something lighter", and that led to his Flower series. They sold like crazy. Is it true? Maybe it's just Geldzahler saying it, and Andy would have made these creative decisions on his own, but I found it dispiriting to read. It appeared to be a confirmation of the Art as Business Andy.

On the plus side, Andy was a sponge. He knew what advice to take and what to ignore. And on the minus side, Andy was a sponge. He knew what advice to take and what to ignore. He made business descisions. In his professional and personal life he absented himself. He abdicated. People suffered.


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