DEFYING ALL THE LAWS of celebrity, Andy Warhol has not yet entered the realm of nostalgia. His silver-sprayed hair and leather-jacket look, the drug and rock-inspired cavortings of his superstars and his notoriously banal paintings, prints and films are certainly a permanent part of '60s legend. But while the Beatles and John Kennedy's Camelot are forever history, Andy, artist as supercelebrity, lives on, still a regular in Womens' Wear daily and People, perennially of the "in" list. If, as this icon of Pop has taught us, "in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," then Warhol, with characteristic shrewdness, has managed to outsmart the clock.
Testifying to the vigor of the Warhol persona is the recent, nearly simultaneous publication of three books about the artist. There is now a sizeable volume of literature on and by Warhol, a fact which strikes this reviewer as a considerably curiousity. It has always seemed to me that it was much more worthwhile to think about Warhol as a phenomenon than to look at his pictures or to read his books. This perspective, however, does not seem to be shared by the publishing or museum community nor by the artist -- hence, the current onslaught.
The most ambitious of these three efforts is the one with the peculiar title of POPism, a surprisingly personal and coherent (for Warhol) memoir of the artist's life during the '60s. Obviously made by transcribing bits of taped recollections, it is well-edited, and the material, presented in short, almost cinematic sequences, moves along rapidly. Its story begins with Warhol's transition from a successful commercial illustrator to a painter whose Campbell soup cans and likenness of Jackie, Marilyn and Elvis find an audience in museums and "high art" galleries. Only in this early phase of the book is there much mention of the visual arts community. Here, all too briefly, are glimpses of Laryy Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, dealers Leo Castelli and Ivan Karp, curator Henry Geldzahler. Success comes soon, and with it Warhol's world becomes more insular and eccentric.
Thus, most of the book is devoted to life at the Factory Warhol's studio, and to the sometimes amusing, generally bizarre activities of Andy's cohorts. Drugs, rock music and "no-fault pit-ons" are the leitmotifs that hold the narrator together. Occasionally, occurrences outside the Factory will impinge on the story, like a newsreel thrown in to mark a moment in time, but, even then, events are seen from an oblique angle. For example, Warhol calls the Pope's visit to the U.N. in 1965 "the most Pop public appearance tour of the sixties" and summarizes the Pontiff's speech this way:
"Essentially he said, 'Peace, disarmament, and no birth control. . . . When the reporters asked him what he liked best about New York [the Pope said], 'Tutti buoni' ('Everything is good') which was the pop philosophy exactly."
If everything was so good, it is difficult to account for all the breakdowns and overdoses that are a recurring theme of this memoir. During the 60's, the Factory regulars appear to have smoked, snorted, swallowed and injected just about every imaginable drug. Warhol himself is fascinatingly ambivalent on the subject. While admitting his attraction to this sort of death-defying existence, he portrays his own involvement as strictly voyeuristic and, thus, innocent:
"Now and then someone would accuse me of being evil -- of letting people destroy themselves while I watched, just so I could film them and tape record them. But I don't think of myself as evil -- just realistic . . . I learned you actually have more power when you shut up, because at least that way people will start to maybe doubt themselves. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it."
Serious moments like this are few. Warhol generally makes his point in a more ironic tone:
"I could never finally figure out if more things happened in the sixties because there was more awake time for them to happen in (since so many people were on amphetamine), or if people started taking amphetamine because there were so many things to do that they needed to have more awake time to do them in."
The final pages of the book account, in part for the change in direction that occurred in Warhol's life and art in the '70s. In 1968, the artist was as hot and critically wounded by one of the crazy folk who frequented the Factory. The trauma of this transformation from on-looker to participant caused Warhol to question his way of living. He realized that he would "never again enjoy talking to somebody whose eyes looked weird." The consequences of such a realization were profound, however, since this description "included almost everybody I really enjoyed!"
The solution to this dilemna can be found in Andy warhol's exposures, an album covering the artist's social activities in the '70s. By 1970, Andy had found himself a new crowd. If Warhol was the equivalent of a gang leader in the '60s -- leather and all -- by the start of the next decade, he was a social lion, part of the network that links New York's financial, fashion and art circles. Illustrated with his candid polaroids -- "a good picture is one that's in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous" -- the book is the result of of attendance at many, many nocturnal gatherings. Although it appears to be the single largest source for the pictures, Studio 54 does not receive the mention on the cover it deserves. It does, however, get a chapter all to itself -- as do Bianca Jagger, Halston, Diana Vreeland, Jimmy Carter, Marisa Berenson's wedding, Margaret Trudeau and Truman Capote. If you are a regular reader of W and Vogue, this book offers no new material.
However, it does have a handy index so readers can check to see who's "in" enough to be included.
Finally, there is a book that deals with Warhol's paintings, the catalogue of the Whitney Museum's exhibition of the Portraits of the '70s. Many of the faces seen in Exposures reappear here, but in an admittedly more artful form. Warhol continues to employ the technique he originated for portraiture in the '60s -- photogrpahic images silkscreened onto canvas in multiples. The '70s portraits, however, distinguish themselves by the more vivid color and flamboyant brushwork employed. The Robert Rosenblum essay accompanying the pictures is an erudite art historical exercise, attributing to the artist the creation of contemporary portraiture (Rosemblum apparently does not look at photogrphas) and an "asetheticism . . . close to that of the nineteenth century," specifically a sensibility resembling that of Manet.
Here, finally, is the disclosure of Warhol's genius -- not in this absurd lineage manufactured for the artist by an overearnest scholar, but in Warhol's ability to transform himself to comform to the needs of his auidence. Can it be a coincidence that Rosenblum who has written so brilliantly on the art of the last century looks at Warhol's work and finds his own intellecutal predilections there? Warhol and his art reflect the viewer's, not the artist's, preoccupations. These portraits are art to scholars, flattery to their subjects, titillation to a celebrity-obsessed public. Partly by natural inclination and, as these three books reveal, partly by calculation, Warhol has become a Rorschach blot for our society. It has not been an easy task, the neutrializing of the self. As the artist himself points out, it has required discipline and stamina. But for his pains, Warhol has achieved a peculiarly modern form of transcendence. He and his art -- which are really synonymous -- straddle the barriers between high and popular culture and defy time and the relentless changes in taste and public interest.