Andy Warhol by Wayne Koestenbaum

Lipper/Viking 2001 224 pp. 21.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 

Somebody should tell Michael Jackson: the King of Pop has been—and will be—Andy Warhol.  Wayne Koestenbaum’s biography, part of Penguin’s new and successful “Penguin Lives” series, tells the story of this “mixture of Picasso and Henry Ford,” but in so doing, buries him beneath prolix interpretative speculation about the “meaning” of Warhol’s work.  While Andy no doubt would have found Koestenbaum’s erudite flights “nice” or “abstract,” the reader is left feeling as if Koestenbaum, the deconstructive Godfather, made him an offer he couldn’t understand.

            Dead at fifty-eight, one of the greatest and most controversial artists of the last fifty years, a man who art historian Robert Rosenblum said had “no human affect,” Andrew Warhola was born in 1928, the third of three boys.  The most significant event of his childhood was contracting St. Vitus’ Dance, or chorea, which struck him when he was eight.  At thirteen, his father died, and he maintained an unusually close relationship with his mother for virtually the rest of her life.

Andy attended Carnegie Tech, majoring in pictorial design.  After flunking out the first year (owing to his inability to articulate anything in language), he was readmitted as an “eccentric talent.”  Graduating in 1949 he moved from Pittsburgh to New York, where he found work in advertising.  The link, or canyon, between art and commerce was to be a feature of his career.

            He first showed his paintings in a Bonwit Teller window in1961, and had his first gallery show in 1962. 

            Koestenbaum offers some valuable insights. “Warhol’s game, throughout his career, was to transpose sensation from one medium into another—to turn a photograph into a painting by silkscreening it; to transform a movie into a sculpture by filming motionless objects and individuals; to transcribe tape-recorded speech into a novel.”

He also weighs in on the soup cans.  “The Campbell soup cans that Andy painted and silkscreened in the 1960s, which helped make him famous, are usually interpreted as commentaries on mechanical reproduction.  However, displacement and other metaphoric processes contributed to his choice of Campbell soup as subject, and connected the image to his erotic hungers.”

Koestenbaum passes over the story of his painterly career, claiming that its been often told, and concentrates for the greater part of the book on Warhol’s films.  For anyone who has seen a Warhol film, this procedure is sure to incite uneasiness.

The reader is tipped off on p. 71 that there may be a problem: “Watching dozens of hours of these early Warhol films in which little or nothing happens, I couldn’t take my eyes of the screen, lest I miss something important.”  Then, in a film whose oral sex-related title will be omitted, we read, “Watching, sitting silently for forty-one minutes, observing a portrait of a face that seems more a painting than a film, I have time to muse on the entire history of sexuality, as well as my own personal sexual history.”  Give me forty-one minutes, I’ll give you the entire history of sexuality. 

            At times the oracular pronouncements transcend the merely odd, aspiring to absolute zaniness.  “Each canvas asks: Do you desire me?  Will you destroy me?  Will you participate in my ritual?  Each image, while hoping to repel death, engineers its erotic arrival.”  Huh?  Or, witness: ”his beloved silkscreens were structures of enchainment and enchantment, poised between spider’s web and widow’s veil.” 

            In one of the deliberately tedious sequences from an early Warhol film, drag queen Mario Montez’s slow movements are described as “a tempo that a stern skeptic might call narcissistic self-absorption but that I, more charitably, if portentously, would call an investigation of the schisms that make up presence.”   Memo to drag queens: you’re not vain; you’re a Heideggerian.

We are told that in one of Warhol’s paintings, he feels the “void’s existential seduction.”  A child in one of his films may be pitied “for his unwitting participation in a purgative ritual of cosmetic, educational psychosis.”

Interview magazine was not a celebrity-fest, it was “a serious philosophical quest to figure out where and how verbal meaning breaks down, and to track the imprecise, shiftless way that words occupy the it takes to utter and understand them.”   And Andy’s habit of painting his nails was “a ceremony of self-construction.”

This is the kind of book that makes theoretical hay out of—I am not making this up—Andy’s Mom’s colostomy bag.  My favorite Koestenbaum mot, from another film with an unprintable title: “The buttocks, seen in isolation, seem explicitly double: two cheeks, divided in the center by a dark line.”

Warhol’s persona was famously blank, and scholars can feel free to paint interpretations on the banality and the silence that characterized his public presentation.  But just a little of this been-inside-too-long scholarship goes a long way.

If your Aunt Edna spent all her time trolling flea markets and amassing junk, you might speculate that she was trying to assuage her loneliness with things.  But if Andy Warhol does it, he’s visiting “labs” for “commodity admixture.” 

Shot by Valeria Solanas, dead from nursing incompetence following a gall-bladder operation, the highlights of Warhol’s life are touched on, but given little notice relative to his films.

This is the kind of book that will make no one happy.  Scholarly in tone, yet displaying high-flying speculation absent of any evidence.  Gossipy, but gossipy about inarticulate druggies whose expressiveness consists in allowing Andy to film them having sex. 

The eight page “Sources” that ends the book should comfort the reader, but it comes after far too many “perhaps,” “might haves,” “could possibly haves,” and other speculative flights that pepper the pages of this narrative.   Koestenbaum repeatedly makes murky aesthetic judgments about Warhol’s work, and then qualifies them out of existence.  Let’s see, does Penguin have other books in this series?