Behind the mask
This article is from 2007.
Novelist and Goldsmiths graduate Niven Govinden charts the enduring appeal of pop artist Andy Warhol
It’s hard to believe, but this year marks the 20th anniversary of Andy Warhol’s death, and somehow it feels like he’s never been away. More than any artist of the last century, the Warhol legacy continues to fascinate – from Scotland’s first retrospective at the National Gallery, high demand in the art market for original prints and other memorabilia, to the buzz around this year’s movie, Factory Girl (OK, the film itself wasn’t great, but no one doubts the potency of the story).
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Warhol remains strong currency because his brand of pop art and musings on what constituted art, fame, celebrity and glamour – and society’s hunger for it – is probably more striking now than it was in the 60s.
The common perception of Andy’s work is one of veneer; a heavily reproduced superficiality, dependent on movies stars and the like. As a kid I fell into the same trap, latching onto the immediacy and familiarity of his portraits. There was Marilyn of course, dumb, passive, made-up-to-high-heaven Marilyn, but for me, it was Liz Taylor who stole the show. Warhol’s ‘10 Lizzes’ is a beautifully monochrome reproduction, where she appears heavily ink-blotted, then fainter, then fainter still. It had a steeliness his more iconic portrait didn’t. It was the one that got me hooked.
I pulled out a magazine pic of the Liz portrait. This was a colour version with a dangerously red background, so seriously dragalicious, which I pinned onto my wall, determined one day to own the real thing. It was pop, Hollywood, celebrity, trash, and unmistakably Warhol. It stayed there for years.
Shortly afterwards, in my late teens, I read Warhol’s mammoth diaries edited by his long-suffering secretary Pat Hackett, and continued to be enthralled by the glamour of it all without pinpointing exactly why. Whether he was raving it up with Liza, Halston and Bianca Jagger at Studio 54 – his Liza is the definitive disco portrait of the 70s – or being stopped in restaurants by excited (mainly famous) fans, he never let an ounce of excitement pollute his alabaster face. To read those diaries was to be placed at the altar of NYC sophistication and ennui, and I was more than ready to worship.
And I’m not alone. We’ve all discovered Warhol this way – as much as you can discover an artist whom we have always been aware of as ‘being there’. But whether this is a fair depiction is another matter. Warhol, the artist, has always been misconceived, although in his lifetime he probably did nothing to dispel this myth; if anything he encouraged it. A socialite, talking head, a dry wit, forever with the bon mot and happy to trade on his earlier fame – it’s easy to take shots.
But an artist needs more than a series of augmented movie star prints and soup cans to create such a lasting legacy. For all the analysis given to the power of the brand – in the end he was no different to his Campbell’s soup cans or his gorgeous Brillo boxes, and piled up high they’re something to see – Warhol was first and foremost a marvellous illustrator and painter. It’s easy to forget the impact of the paintings, and the range of subject matter. These are more than just works obsessed with celebrity and consumerism; it’s the very social fabric of 1960s America in all its angry, blind, disintegrating glory, that passes through his series of silk screens.
There was always a duality of death that ran alongside the more ‘glamorous’ work. Witness the Death and Disaster series; from the still shocking suicide pictures – ‘Suicide (Purple Jumping Man)’ horrifyingly similar to its modern-day counterpart of the falling man from the Twin Towers – to further works depicting civil unrest, the infamous ‘Electric Chair’, and the stark but mesmerising ‘Gun’, alongside further disasters and catastrophes.
It can be argued that he fetishised news as entertainment, which funnily enough is just what news has now become. But the return to this style of subject throughout his career showed his concern with casting the grit over the glitter.
Equally, it is impossible to deny his entrepreneurial spirit. Essentially, he stopped painting in the mid-60s for a variety of other creative endeavours from making movies – Chelsea Girls, embodying the spirit of the Factory – and producing records for the Velvet Underground to photography, and later in the 70s setting up the precursor of the modern celebrity magazine with Interview, which still runs today.
His photographic work ran for much of his career and was incredibly accomplished, from vérité snaps of the Factory posse to his life-long series of revealing self-portraits.
But the films . . . they were something else. Long lambasted, they have to be seen to be believed. A highlight of my late teens was going to a Warhol all-nighter at a flea-pit cinema in London, where I sat through Chelsea Girls, Blow Job, and the butt-numbing Empire – eight hours of footage of a static-shot Empire State Building. These films were chaotic, rambling, frustrating but somehow mesmerising, especially in the sleazy atmosphere of an all-night screening. And in the midst of all the randomness on screen was the realisation that this had all been captured by a cool, cold head behind the camera. By watching something so fake, it felt like I was watching the real 60s.
People often talk of his prophetic ‘famous for 15 minutes’ one-liner, but in truth, everything about his work was a front-runner for what would reach critical mass in our era – from his focus on violence in the Electric Chair series and the Kennedy assassination pictures, and his Edie Sedgwick movies with their hours of a camera focusing on one person (Big Brother anyone?), to pioneering the career path of the Artist as an all-encompassing brand.
Warhol stands as the model for any modern creative with his understanding of the need to diversify. It makes you wonder what such a front runner would make of the current cultural climate and where he would have channelled his work. A fashion range for H&M? A turn on Celebrity Big Brother? The Apprentice? Or perhaps, like his closest contemporaries Gilbert and George – whose humour, production values and disdain for any distinction between high and low art is remarkably similar – he would simply return to painting, as he seemed to do in the last years before his death.
A couple of years ago, I went to a gallery in San Francisco that housed the largest collection of Warhols for sale, mainly his late advertising work from the mid-80s like the Absolut pictures. But there was still something about the overall vision and effect that set my heart racing. A picture of a glass bottle. How does that happen? The price tag was of course, up in the stars, but it reminded me of that promise I made to myself all those years ago as a teen in my bedroom.
I’m still saving for my Liz.
Andy Warhol, Royal Scottish Academy, the Mound, 0131 624 6200, 4 Aug–7 Oct, £8 (£6); Warhol on Film, Edinburgh College of Art, Lauriston Place, 0131 221 6032, 4 Aug–9 Sep, free; Niven Govinden, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 19 Aug, 6pm, £5 (£3).