Talking with Andy's Kids

by Trevor Fairbrother

There is no shortage of books on this man. Biographers, art historians, theorists, curators, gallerists and picture-book hawkers have been industrious in the decade since the artist's death. Unseen Warhol, a welcome addition to the crowd, comes from two people Andy Warhol employed in the 1980s. O'Connor assisted him in the studio and at Interview magazine. Liu had a more general trusty-sidekick role, while also pursuing his career as the cross-dressing performer, Ming Vauze. Their great contribution is a set of 19 interviews with other staffers and close associates. Enlivened by photographs of the players and illustrations of Warhol's art, the texts evoke the complexity of his life as a painter; a film, TV and video artist; a publisher, collector and socialite.

Warhol was a lifelong fan of the famous. The scenario evolved when he dealt with his own joke-shop version of celebrity, as the painter who copied soup cans. His fame mushroomed as he became a counterculture icon, the victim of a shooting, the seemingly shameless darling of the disco glitterati and, in death, the bequeather of a name-brand foundation and museum. This book could easily have been too adoring and nostalgic, since everyone involved was a Warhol satellite at one time or another. However the finished product is a crisply paced, not-too-varnished, multifaceted portrait of an artist who meant different things to different people at different times.

Warhol's need to experience the latest thing drew him to emerging talents, and Unseen Warhol confirms that he often went out of his way to help promising young people get their start. Jane Holzer, one of his original "superstars," stresses the fact that he ran a tab at Max's Kansas City restaurant so that he could "pay for any artist or person that he thought needed to eat." Both his persona and his art had an uncanny ability to attract attention, and the book includes epiphanic accounts of first encounters with the Warhol phenomenon. For example, Tama Janowitz, a girl in Amherst, Massachusetts, was thrilled to behold a poster of a Warhol flower painting in her town's trendy new bagel shop: "My mother and I decided it was the most beautiful thing we'd ever seen. I set to work making a reproduction to hang on our wall because we couldn't even afford the poster. I will never forget that. Those brilliant, colored flowers on a black field."

Warhol's art is still as hard to "define" as his broad appeal: it developed as a paradoxical amalgam of beauty, irony, humor, matter-of-fact realism and subversive irreverence. In the preface, Glenn O'Brien mentions the works by Warhol that he once considered "really bad," then confesses that he now finds all his work good, well done and beautiful. Some contributors comment with amazement that Warhol asked his friends what to paint. Others know that he was smart enough to reject most suggestions and that he was never short of his own ideas.

One topic that predictably draws conflicting responses in these interviews is Warhol's homosexuality. We are still learning that he was more of a regular gay guy prior to his 1960s ascension. How surprising to hear Vito Giallo say that Warhol "had this very nice boyfriend" in the 1950s: "He and Carl were very close." How disappointing when Bob Colacello euphemizes the 1970s and writes, "What's hard for young people to understand today is that we never thought of Interview or Studio 54 or Andy as being committed to anything gay. We didn't want to be straight, but we didn't want to be gay. We just wanted to be what we were. Things weren't so classified." How gratifying when Marc Balet remembers what Colacello chooses to forget: "Interview was like smoke signals out to the hinterlands for the very hip and the very gay. 'Look,' Interview said in a kind of code, 'We know you-come on down!'" Ronnie Cutrone talks about Warhol's Torso paintings (1977) and Sex Parts prints (1978) as "a final announcement or affirmation of his homosexuality." Nor did Warhol back away from homosexual themes during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Don Munro talks about the first "Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes" show that was aired on MTV in 1985: "[The theme] was sex, vegetables and drag queens. It was the gayest thing."

These are the gospels of Warhol's extended family. People talk about the excitement that his presence could generate. For example, Stephen Sprouse remembers Warhol's impact on a "boring, fancy" party in 1972: "The whole feeling . . . changed for me when he walked in." Working relationships with him were a source of mutual inspiration for both people. Each new friendship could spark rivalries, which continue to play out after his death. Daniela Morera talks about the "rude and very distant" treatment she received from Warhol's executors. We do not hear the other side of the story, but O'Connor and Liu were wise not to edit out negative comments. Despite the frictions, all seem to agree with Tama Janowitz: "When he died, something left the city."

Unseen Warhol features wonderful snapshots of Warhol and company. Many are the work of Paige Powell, and it is unfortunate that her name does not appear with her images. There are a few additional people who might have given great interviews (Fred Hughes, Brigid Berlin, Pat Hackett, Fran Lebowitz, Jay Shriver), and O'Brien and Liu would appear more thorough if they explained these absences. According to the press release for the book, most of the privately owned artworks by Warhol have not been published before. However, few are surprising or especially unusual. Many are things that Warhol produced as gift items, and this project could have been a vehicle to further document that aspect of his production. But these are quibbles about a book tooled to inform in a pleasurable, diverting fashion. It has the feel of the old Interview magazine, right down to the commercial tie-in (Johnnie Walker Black Label). Andy would have been proud of his "kids."

Trevor Fairbrother is deputy director for art and the Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern Art at the Seattle Art Museum. His interview with Warhol, conducted in the Whitney Museum's John Singer Sargent retrospective, was published in Arts Magazine (February 1987).