Andy Warhol
Wayne Koestenbaum
New York: Lipper / Viking (Penguin Lives), 2001.
$21.95, 230 pages, ISBN 0670030007.

Andy Warhol
October Files #2
Edited by Annette Michelson
Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002.
$40.00, 142 pages, ISBN 0262134063 (hardback).
$14.95, 142 pages, ISBN 026263242X (paperback).

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

This is the second Warhol-related review I’ve written for Cercles, and presumably it won’t be the last, as there is plenty of room for more: how can anyone hope to produce the definitive analysis and / or biography of someone who has reached such a flabbergasting mythic status? How can any muckraker and / or academic ever hope to become a universally acclaimed authority on Warhol’s (private) life and / or artistic production?

Andy Warhol
by Wayne Koestenbaum has a superb cover, there is a circular hole in the dust jacket that allows you to see a black & white picture of Warhol’s face, and underneath there are interesting graphics. The publisher has given other celebrities the same treatment, but it is particularly fitting for Warhol, as this presentation is somewhat Warholian.

Wayne Koestenbaum is a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. I have yet to read his poetry—which I am told / sure is rather good, but I have read and enjoyed his non-poetry works. He has already delighted readers with books like Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics (2000), The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire (1993) and Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon (1995). The latter in particular demonstrated Koestenbaum’s rare talent for camp scholarship (no, that’s not an oxymoron). That book is an extraordinary mixture of politics, psychology, sociology, media studies, cultural studies, Queer Theory—you name it. Oh yes, and biography. Some of its lines will forever remain associated to Jacqueline Kennedy, at least in my mind. When I first went to New York I was mesmerized one morning by a T-shirt in a Christopher Street shop-window. Of course, the owner of the place had been clubbing all night and only opened at lunchtime, so I came back in the afternoon to buy it. The front bore a picture of Jackie, sporting an amazing bouffant hairdo, and the back quoted “what has my hairdo got to do with my husband’s ability to be president?” I decided there and then that I would teach at some university when I grew up, just so I could teach a course on the Kennedys and talk about Jackie’s hairdos (since I could not be a Kennedy). Years later, I read in Koestenbaum’s book:

These are excessive hairdos. In their artifice, they are nearly obscene: or their monumentality surpasses the “proper” function of a hairdo. So large is the hair, it seems a mission. Looking at photos of Jackie with her hair at its hugest, I marvel at the willpower and audacity implied. Who but Jackie could have carried it off?

That text is extracted from a chapter which is actually entitled “Jackie’s hairdos”. Who but Koestenbaum could have carried it off? He is totally unembarrassed to tell us that he first dreamed about Jackie when he was nineteen: they kissed, and “tresses of her bouffant got tangled in [his] mouth”. He also writes, memorably:

I suppose that her hairdo is a sexual object, or that I am treating it like one, though I am not aroused by her hairdos. I admire them; they blur the distinction between real hair and wig, an ambiguity that advertises her superior sense of irony, as if she were getting away with petty theft. […] I am tempted, watching the progression of Jackie’s hairdos, to see them as […] allegories for her movement through life’s rigmarole—each hairdo a Station of the Cross. […] Each year her hair grew larger, reaching its climax in the late 1960s; ever afterward it remained a fortress, inviting us to lionize it. I consider her hairdos to be like Zeppelins or Goodyear blimps. Her hairdos are hyperbolically sized and they encourage, in me, exaggeration.

Indeed. The rest is just as good, with sections entitled “Jackie and Liz”, “Exotic Jackie”, “Jackie’s sunglasses and scarf”, “Dream Jackie”, etc. Plus historical depth and analytical insight. And, I am rather glad to say, Andy Warhol has been given a similar treatment in Koestenbaum’s new book. Camp scholarship again, again fitting the subject like a glove. Although I suppose this book is less flippant than the Jackie book; and you can read it on its own, as it were, whereas it does no harm to read Jackie Under My Skin as a companion piece to a “classical” History book on the Kennedys. Besides, you feel that Koestenbaum does not admire Warhol quite as much as he admires Jacqueline Kennedy.

It is adequately divided into three parts, “Before”, “The Sixties”, and “After”, and the middle part is adequately longer than the others. Koestenbaum does not linger on Warhol’s early or 60s paintings, yet details his 70s and 80s paintings. He has a lot of stimulating things to say about Warhol’s films though, and about daily life at the Factory. I am not entirely sure I agree with him as far as distinguishing between private and public life is concerned; indeed at some point he uses the phrase “home life” (as opposed to private life), as he himself knows that with Warhol, things are not so simple. He writes for instance:

The split between public and private operated as surgically in Andy’s case as in the career of a proper Victorian gentleman named Oscar Wilde, whose wife stayed at home while the aphorist invented decadence at dim hotels.

To me the distinction should be at least threefold, and not simply twofold: Wilde’s private life #1 as a married man, Wilde’s private life #2 as a voyeuristic aesthete / homosexual, and Wilde’s public persona, gracing salons with his wit and lilied lapels. Likewise, Warhol’s private life #1, close to his mother, possibly not bewigged, church-going, bourgeois homosexual, etc., Warhol’s semi-private semi-public life at the Factory as a voyeuristic aesthete / homosexual, in total Warhol gear but “grooving” on all sorts of shenanigans involving sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; and Warhol’s public life. And I am grossly oversimplifying. I regret one thing: that Koestenbaum is very much an opera buff and not a rock ‘n’ roll guy, so he does not make much of The Velvet Underground, candidly telling us that it is not exactly his cup of tea and so we should not expect analytical feats in that area of Warhol’s endeavours. Call me a sectarian, but to me Lou Reed and Nico provide a much better soundtrack to Warhol’s works than La Callas.

Otherwise, Koestenbaum duly records the excesses of the compulsive shopper, the antics of the collector (of antiques and other “stuff”), the groupie tactics of the star-struck stargazer (in every sense of the word), the editorial policies of the Interview guru and the nightclubbing of the Studio 54 patron. His book has become my new favourite Warhol book, and God knows I’ve read plenty (Warhol is actually one of the closest things to God in my universe). I recommend it warmly (in spite of its lack of index) for some of its tremendous pronouncements, like:

I don’t know how someone who turned thinking into sex, and sex back again into thinking, could be called asexual. If anything he was ur-sexual.

How gay was Warhol? As gay as you can get. […] Like another wig artist, Mae West, he infused sex into every sigh.

Perhaps Andy needed to put “feelings” behind him if he wanted to turn, like Lana Turner or Henri Matisse, into a myth.

Warhol appreciated any immediately recognizable image, regardless of its value. In 1963, when he began wearing a silver wig, his own appearance (documented in self-portraits) acquired the instantaneous legibility that he demanded of Pop objects.

Of course, in a Warholian perspective, it is the fact that they are immediately recognizable that gives those images their value.

Among the new Warhol books, Andy Warhol, intelligently edited by Annette Michelson (with a very welcome index), does not fail to inspire either. It was released in March 2002 but it is a collection of five essays that came out after the Pope of Pop Art’s death: Benjamin’s H.D. Buchloh’s “Andy Warhol’s One-Dimensional Art 1956-1966” (1989), Annette Michelson’s “Where Is Your Rupture? Mass Culture and the Gesamtkunstwerk” (1991), Thomas Crow’s “Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol (1996), Hal Foster’s “Death in America” (1996) and Rosalind E. Krauss’s “Carnal Knowledge” (1996). There is also an interview with the king of the postmodern conducted by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh in 1985.

Hal Foster is often remembered as the editor of The Anti-Aesthetic (constantly reprinted since 1983, notably as Postmodern Culture), a book of essays that are very helpful if you try to define the postmodern. Foster, who calls Warhol “the great idiot savant of our time” begins “Death in America” with a J.G. Ballard quote, from The Atrocity Exhibition. That’s pre-The Empire of the Sun Ballard, when he was still young and British and subversive and hadn’t yet been Hollywoodized and French-Rivierized into distressing harmlessness. That quote says it all, and in a twelve-page article and sixty-one notes (!), Foster calls upon Barthes and Lacan and Ballard again to address notably Warhol’s “morbid” paintings in an engaging—sometimes practically engagé—way, pointing out how some may project all sorts of things onto the smooth surface of Warholand. One of the things I like about Foster is that he does not take all that Baudrillard-the-image-as-simulacral-and-nothing-else thing as Gospel, unlike others. If you are interested in the way Warhol’s works and Ballard’s reflect each other, incidentally, I strongly suggest you read Jeremy Reed’s novels, especially Diamond Nebula (1994). You also get Bowie and Madonna and Marilyn for the same price. Reed’s novels are to fiction what Krauss, Crow and Michelson are to criticism.

Buchloh’s piece deals with the (lack of) opposition between Warhol the business / low art artist and Warhol the museum / high art artist: “Toward the end of his career, Warhol seems to have successfully integrated the two halves of the dialectic of consumption, his existence between what he once called ‘his favorite places to go’, the department store and the museum.” Buchloh speaks of Warhol’s “strategically brilliant blagues” and strives to determine what the painter’s schemes owe to modernism. He wonders about techniques as much as subject matter and sometimes seems to be defining the postmodern without actually saying that’s what he’s doing—which is postmodern I suppose. In his article as well as in his interview of the Factory master, Buchloh seems amusingly desperate to verify that Warhol was influenced by John Cage, but Warhol was so good at resisting theory, even if he is a perfect support for theory… Warhol is surprisingly articulate in the interview, but then it dates back to 1985, when he no longer sounded so much like a cross between the village idiot and an inspired centuries-ahead-of-us alien.