Books

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who Is Andy Warhol?

by Alexander Cavaluzzo on November 29, 2012

“I guess I’ve been influenced by everybody. But that’s good. That’s pop.”

The memoirs penned by the late Andy Warhol (with help from his assistant Pat Hackett), The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: from A to B and Back Again, Popism: The Warhol Sixties, and the Andy Warhol Diaries, are more like an extension of his artwork than they are great works of prose.

Philosophy collects musings and quotidian observations from the artist, ranging from the nature of beauty to the power of underwear. Popism, the straightest (to use the term loosely) of his autobiographical writing, chronicles the swinging sixties and Factory phantasmagoria produced under his name. And Diaries systematically documents the day-to-day life of Warhol in the 1970s and 80s, redacted from his tape recordings.

Though fascinating and eternally informative, the problem of intimacy presents itself in each of these works. “Who is Andy Warhol?” is a questioned unanswered in expected tell-all memoir manner, but rather is expressed by his seemingly carefree pronouncement that there’s nothing beyond the surface. That sentiment is clearly and thoroughly reflected in these works, but it’s enough to drive those begging for a straight answer insane.

One of the many images of Warhol in the book.

Authors like Wayne Koestenbaum and duo Tony Scherman and David Dalton have attempted in ways to pierce the silver surface of the icon to debatable success. Koestenbaum nicely explores his psyche, but focuses too much on his sexuality and assumptions masked in flowery language. Scherman and Dalton tried to unmask the silkscreen sultan, but their work is muddled and unnoteworthy.

All of these works that attempt to discover the Pope of Pop lack a certain air of intimacy the average reader expects from such personal writing. But, judging from Warhol’s life and work, we should’ve never expected that from him, nor should we expect independent researchers so removed from the subject to truly crack the shell. No, if you really want to know all about Andy, all you have to do is look inside of him through the eyes of those who surrounded him.

That’s exactly the challenge author Catherine Johnson took on in her new book, Thank You, Andy Warhol. Incepted when Johnson was down on her luck and wondered WWAWD, she took to interviewing a ragtag menagerie of people when she realized we all find solace and guidance in Andy, whether we knew him or merely knew of him.

The selection of interviewees, which is pretty much the foundation for the entire project, might have been wiser chosen in retrospect. Naturally some were no brainers (Brigid Berlin, Bob Colacello) some were mostly for pizzazz factor (Liza Minnelli adds the right amount of glitter) and some were welcomed surprises that offered unique perspectives on the Warholian legacy (Valerie Steele, Simon Doonan). Within these pages exist some true gems, fascinating stories, and thoughtful reflections on the man behind Marilyn.

Unfortunately, some of the subjects don’t offer any interesting information about Warhol, neither in anecdotal form nor personal impact, and the book drags on like a sack of cement in more places than it probably should. Even though the chapters are mostly brief passages (all assembled from the same questionnaire) many of them either wax nostalgically quixotic or simply degrade into circle jerking, and others can be skipped completely because they offer no new information on the subject (if one’s generally versed in Warhol, which must be somewhat of a given for most).

One particularly touching story, however, comes from the daughter of Fluxus artist Al Hansen, Bibbe. Her first encounter with Warhol occurred the day after she sprang from a juvenile detention hall, and he was so entranced by her tales of prison that he insisted the make a film about it as soon as possible. Hansen ended her portion of the interview by suggestion “Andyesque” as a replacement for “Warholian,” signifying a uniqueness and tenderness not normally associated with the artist.

Curiously enough, Thank You, Andy Warhol bears a lot of similarities to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current retrospective of the artist. Ostensibly examining how sixty artists were influenced by the Pop art star, ultimately the exhibition says little about the central focus and collapses when the banally curated works lack cohesion and relation to one another. Johnson’s book in many ways suffers the same fate: while all of these subjects are tied together by Andy Warhol, each entry is more about themselves than anyone else.

But maybe that’s the true Warholian legacy in the end; he really is just a mirror we all see ourselves reflected in.

Thank You, Andy Warhol (2012) is available now from Glitterati Incorporated.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.

Previous post:

Next post: