artistic licenseSpring 2009

“I didn’t treat [Warhol] as if he were a star. That made us close.”
— Brigid Berlin

Bosom Buddies 

The strange and wonderful artistic prowess of Andy Warhol’s unlikely confidant, Brigid Berlin, is the focus of a new retrospective at The Warhol.

By Sharmila Venkatasubban

During the February opening of her exhibition at The Warhol, Brigid Berlin opened a Time Capsule and shared stories about her friend, Andy Warhol.  Photo Tom Altany

One day in the early 1970s, Andy Warhol called his best friend Brigid Berlin with a surprise for her. A McDonald’s had opened across the street from his New York City studio, The Factory, and they were going.

“He said, ‘Oh Brig, you’re just going to love it. It’s the most fabulous place,’” Berlin recalls. “Everything was so cute. The hamburgers were … wrapped in tissue paper. There were little plastic stirrers for the coffee, and apple pie in a box that folded on both sides and slid right out when you opened it.”

They picked up their orders, took them back to the studio, and ate their first fast food meal, a Warholian feast if there ever was one. Afterward, Warhol instructed Berlin—the rebellious daughter of Richard Berlin, chairman of the Hearst Corporation for 52 years—to add the ketchup-stained wrappers, the stirrers, and the paper boxes to one of the first of his Time Capsules, those infamous cardboard boxes Warhol filled with odds and ends, now stored in the archives at The Andy Warhol Museum.

“He made us throw in everything,” Berlin says. Office supplies, clothing, even tampons and a pure, mink teddy bear Berlin had given Warhol as a gift. “I thought he might take it home and put it on his bed. I was shattered when he added it to a box.” Once a box was full, Warhol sealed it, but without any intention of ever reopening it. That the boxes would serve as time capsules was considered only after his death.

But perhaps the greatest relic of the time is Berlin herself, a raucous storyteller with yarns about dying Easter eggs with Spencer Tracy and climbing  a tree with a Super 8 camera to catch Henry Kissinger in “secret talks with the North Vietnamese.” She recounts late-night talks with seminal artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and  Brice Marden.

“I wanted desperately to be an intellectual,” Berlin says. “So I would stay up with them, getting fiercely drunk and discussing, well, everything.” She would take photographs and tape record the conversations.

Berlin met Warhol in 1963, and as time marched on, she meticulously  documented the spirit of a time that served as a crossroads for Pop Art, punk rock, and glam. The anti-waif among Warhol’s fold of svelte models, Berlin used her manic mannerisms and coquettish charms to command the attention of everyone in Warhol’s studio. She and Warhol bickered relentlessly.

“I didn’t treat him as if he were a star,” she says. “That made us close.”

Berlin sat at an old desk and “worked” alongside Warhol, transcribing recordings, organizing the thousands of Polaroid photographs she took, doing needlepoint, and constructing her well-known “Tit” paintings by slathering her breasts with paint and then pressing them onto paper. In between, she lounged about with a syringe, injecting herself—as well as others—with amphetamines and Vitamin B, usually in the thigh, a habit that earned her The Factory nickname, Brigid Polk.

“Warhol and Berlin were both extremists in certain ways, they were largely shy people even though they were always in the public eye. They just ‘got’ each other,” says Eric Shiner, Milton Fine Curator of Art at The Andy Warhol Museum and curator of Breaking News: Brigid Berlin A Retrospective. The exhibition, on view through May 3, includes letters between Warhol and Berlin, “Tit” paintings, tape recordings, more recently produced needlepoint, and photographs of Berlin from The Warhol’s archives.

A freshly divorced, 25-year-old socialite when she first met Warhol, Berlin would eschew her place in the strata of upper-crust New York to join The Factory—another social regime, stringent in its own respect for image and status. But if Warhol’s art reflected his obsession with fame, Berlin’s thrived on her irreverence toward it. Berlin secretly taped every phone call—including her mother’s tumultuous railings against her—to reveal her subjects at their least flattering. She would hold the recorder against the radio speakers to record the daily news.

“I wanted to capture where we were in time,” she says. “I was very interested in what was happening, always. But Andy   was totally different. He wasn’t political or   a news nut. He would watch stupid little shows on television, like I Dream of Jeannie. I had no patience for it.”

By the ’90s, Berlin had become best known for her ultra-conservative political leanings and for translating the more sensationalistic New York Post covers into needlepoint pillows as a way to document, and challenge, mainstream social and political culture. Some examples: a sow wearing make-up with the text, “Read My Lips: Obama Slams Pig Swill” and a picture of a swaggering Bill Clinton accompanied by the headline, “Well Hung—Unveiled: Bubba’s Hip New Portrait.” A longtime Republican who did not vote for Barack Obama, Berlin says she and Warhol would argue idly about politics, but without fervor. Regarding the outcome of the presidential election, “Oh, Andy would have been for all of it, sure,” Berlin says. “But he would have been more interested in Michelle’s dress.”

Warhol’s support for Berlin’s art-making process was equally tepid.

“Warhol thought the ‘Tit’ paintings were funny,” says Shiner. “But he wasn’t the best mentor. Very few of the people in Andy’s circle went on to be famous artists. He would be encouraging, but never invested  in anyone’s works. He never put his name on the line for it.”

More abstract than figurative, Berlin’s “Tit” paintings appear as elegantly restrained Rorschach images, an experiment with color and shape as opposed to an exercise in shock and awe. Still, some are as equally politicized as the needlepoint pillows; one series, in reference to O.J. Simpson, includes a stencil of a big knife and a drawing of a bloody glove.

“I just love a good story,” Berlin says. “When Obama gave that speech surrounded by Greek pillars, I started laughing. I thought, I can do that—talk to 80,000 people for an hour.” But these days, she’d rather talk about footage from Fox News or Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s obsession with cowboys and westerns than Andy Warhol.

“The thing is that Andy’s been dead since 1987,” she says. “There’s only so much talking about him I can do.”

Also in this issue:

Carnegie Museums After Dark  ·  Art Without Walls  ·  Recollecting Andrey Avinoff  ·  Look… to see, to remember, to enjoy  ·  President's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Now Showing  ·  Face Time: Kim Amey  ·  About Town: Art in Bloom  ·  Field Trip: Year of Restoration  ·  Science & Nature: Scientists Among Us  ·  Another Look: 13 Most Beautiful…  ·  Then & Now: Earth Day