Two weeks ago I went to Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again at the Whitney and it’s effect is still dancing around inside my brain.
A year and a half ago I made a big change, and moved upstate full-time, selling my NYC apartment to buy a former gas station for my art studio, archive, gallery and shop. My old apartment was just one block from the Whitney’s entrance and seeing the Warhol show was the first time I REALLY missed living in that first floor apartment. With a street entrance and my Whitney membership, I could pop into the museum almost ANYTIME and I’d probably be in there every day during the 5 month run, if I still lived there, visiting and revisiting over a billion dollars worth Warhol’s life’s work.
If Andy could see it all today, I think he’d say,
“Gee, I sure made a LOT of art, huh…?“
Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic, Jerry Saltz, summed up Warhol and his importance at the start of his article in the Nov. 12 issue of New York magazine, “This Too Is Andy Warhol Shunned and swooned over: The story of an American revolutionary in eight works“. Warhol is so intertwined with my idea of art that I don’t know where to begin. Mr. Saltz does, so eloquently, selecting 8 works, and using them to dissect the art and the man,
“Andy is in the air we breathe. Among the most revolutionary artists who ever lived, Warhol, in his work from the magical years of 1962 to 1964 — Coca-Cola bottles, Campbell’s soup cans, Brillo boxes, Marilyn, Jackie, Brando, Elvis, electric chairs, paint-by-number paintings, the fabulous dance-step diptych (once hung facing one another by Warhol, to be a couple), the Empire State Building film, flower paintings and superstars — gives us an artist in a state of creative grace feeding on, mirroring, doubling, and actually changing the culture he pictured. Willem de Kooning famously called him ‘a killer of beauty.’ I think he invented a new beauty. Warhol was a philosophical assassin and vampiric social figure ever interested in and hyperobservant of the culture around him.“
Of Andy’s process, Saltz says,
“The degrading of the silk-screen makes the process even more ever present. And strange. Warhol is showing us that the way we usually respond to repeating images — like advertisements, Coke cans, celebrities, the news — is to see these things and then stop seeing them. They all almost blend in and begin to go unnoticed. Warhol continually pulls you back to the image, the thing, its source, what it is, how it’s been deployed, and the way it’s been rendered.
…the entire history of Western painting had always rested on the artist’s hand — the artist’s skill with paint and the brush. But Warhol forwent such institutional and historical approval. He made his pictures without any connection to traditional uses of paint, tools, materials, surfaces, subject matter, or even photography.“
In my new space Gallery 52 in Jeffersonville, NY, I mounted my own Andy Warhol Ephemera show from my own collection this September, unaware of the timing of Warhol’s upcoming retrospective. The graphic for the invitation, catalogue and t-shirt was taken from a book-signing for his book Andy Warhol; Exposures in my hometown of Houston. I worked for my first magazine there, as a graphic designer, then art director at age 19, called Houston City Magazine (which was kind of patterned after New York magazine .)
At another signing the year before, Michael von Helms, a freelance photographer, handed the first issue of City to Warhol and asked him what he thought of it? He responded,
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Herring’s 15 Seconds of Fame: Michael von Helms, a freelance photographer, was photographing Andy Warhol at a Houston event in the summer of 1978. With him was the inaugural issue of Houston City Magazine, designed by Herring. Michael handed the issue to Warhol as they talked and asked him what he thought of it. “Nice graphics,” he said. #herringdesign #andywarhol #warhol #houstoncitymagazine #blastfromthepast #design #graphicdesign #70s #magazine #michaelvonhelms #houston
We ran the photo as a full-page ad with the quote to promote the magazine, which, after art scion Francois de Menil bought it and hired fashion editor Kezia Keeble and husband Paul Cavaco, ended up getting me to New York and to Vogue at 21, and into the outer reaches of Andy’s orbit for 6 years, until his death in ’87.
Andy was, as I, a gay man from a working class background, that came to New York and started out in publishing. Saltz writes about his early work;
“In one of those fabulous New York stories, on his second day in the city he went to see Tina Fredericks, art director of Glamour magazine. Not only did she buy one of his drawings for $10, she told him, ‘I need some drawings of shoes, Mr. Warhola … tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. Can you do them?’ He loved feet and shoes and fashion and deadlines and could draw anything.
Look closely at the work in this show from this period. These years are often dismissed as Warhol’s juvenilia, his commercial years, but almost everything he’d do for the rest of his life surfaced in that decade. There are pictures of people sleeping, advertising images, portraits of the famous and portraits of freaks, drawings of shoes. They are dedicated to Elvis, Mae West, and Christine Jorgensen — a man who became a woman who became a successful cabaret artist. There are images of money, soup cans, men in jeans, car crashes, flowers, newspaper headlines, and endless drawings of the male body in all states of dress, undress, relaxation, and having sex. Scores of drawings of penises too. As Pearlstein rightly put it, all “totally unacceptable” subjects in the art world of that time. So if you want the political revolutionary, look no further.“
Back in Houston, the first real artwork I ever coveted, really wanted to buy, had seen for sale with an actual price or had any access to, was at an art bookstore adjacent to The Texas Gallery in Houston. It was a black on purple double image of Jackie Kennedy in mourning by Warhol. It was $500. I should have sold my car to buy it. It’s not in the Whitney show, a more important Jackie on canvas (above) is. But it’s odd how much I still love it and regret not having bought it.
My first exhibit was called RePOP, a Warholian take on Houston celebrities including Marvin Zindler, Lynn Wyatt and Dominique de Menil (mother of Francois). My first big paintings were 3 x 4 foot gold, silver and bronze canvases silkscreened with an image from a cough syrup ad. One of my Houston “Superstars”, Carolyn Farb, later commissioned a portrait which I based on Warhol’s Gold Marilyn, called Gold Carolyn.
Shocking to imitate another artist? Look at most early work from even the greats, Picasso, Pollack even Warhol, they imitated their heroes’ work before they found their own voices. (Warhol’s keen sense of color comes from his idol, Matisse.) Saltz says,
“Warhol’s colors have been with us for millennia. It’s just that no one ever combined them this way in the history of art. Or anywhere, really. It’s like finding another note on the saxophone. This note has since been used to create whole visual cultures. With color, he is a rival to van Gogh and Matisse.”
Andy & Duchamp were my art gurus. My work, based on vintage paint by number, is pop conceptualism married with word art.
Andy did a few paint by number paintings too, early on, but they aren’t shown in this retrospective. I saw them in person for the first time at The Met Breuer in a show called Unfinished.
Btw, my idea for using paint by number didn’t come from Andy, but he DID have something to do with it. Artists pals McDermott & McGough took me to meet SNL head writer and bon vivant Michael O’Donoghue at his 16th street brownstone at one of his famous salon Christmas parties. Wanting to impress, I pulled together a hasty, but memorable gift for Michael. At the time my ex, Philip Monaghan, was living with me in my Ave. B apartment overlooking Tompkins Square Park. I was working at Condé Nast and our company gift that year was a giant crystal Tiffany paperweight. I ended up with two somehow, so I wrapped the Tiffany box in a huge scrap of paper from a gift Andy had given Philip that year. (Andy made art as gifts as Xmas presents and Philip was lucky enough to get several because Andy always had a crush on him and would come to visit him at Fiorcci where he was art director.) Anyway, I wrapped the box in the paper with Andy’s signature on front and wrote above it,
“To Michael, From Trey Speegle &….” finishing with Andy Warhol’s signature. Michael & I became fast friends until his untimely death in ’94. I inherited his paint by number collection after helping him mount a show in ’92 and as they say, the rest is herstory.
As a young, gay artist my friends were friends with Andy and mixed in with the downtown scene of the 80s, it seemed out in the open and Andy kind of led the way, the most famous gay artist in the world. There’s so much gay material in Andy’s work and in this retrospective, it permeates. Unlike many critics who dismiss or revile Warhol’s work in general, if not specifically his gayness, Saltz understands how important homosexuality was in his work…
“He’d regularly ask any male visitor to his studio to draw his penis. Andy liked to look. As many have reported, sometimes he’d become turned on and flustered while making these drawings and retire to the bathroom to have what he called a ‘private organza.’ So beautiful. Here, a direct, disarming, sweet, strange, suggestive mode of loving, laughter, need, reticence, and immense focus doubles male genitals as cake candle, gift wrapped, tied in a pretty bow, and decorated with hearts and flowers.”
“One 1975 series stands out: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ — a set of drag queens, each of whom was paid $50 to sit for a photo session—particularly the portrait Marsha P. Johnson… on June 28, 1969, Johnson threw ‘the shot glass that was heard around the world.” She was, [Glen Ligon] writes, ‘an integral part of the uprising that followed a police raid at the Stonewall Inn … having thrown a shot glass into a mirror … while shouting ‘I got my civil rights.’
RuPaul calls her ‘the true Drag Mother’ who “paved the way for all.‘”
“AIDS struck often and close to Andy; he knew many who died of the disease. The ramp-up to this was slow and terrifying. In 1984, his boyfriend of several years — Jon Gould, whom he photographed more than 400 times — was diagnosed with AIDS. He was hospitalized that year, twice. Two years later, Gould was dead from the disease; he weighed 70 pounds and was blind.“
Jon Gould (and a few friends of mine) were in the portrait section of the show which, I think was open to the public, as it was on the first floor behind the café. These portrait commissions were a big source of Andy’s income in the latter years and are often dismissed. Their impact together now though is undeniable. It’s like going to a party of the most interesting people of the day. The last four small portraits were of Andy’s boyfriend, Jed Johnson, who became a big time decorator. Jed died in ’96, in the TWA Flight 800 explosion just over Long Island where he spent many summers in Montauk with Andy and the most interesting people of the day. Today would have been Jed’s 70th birthday. You can read about him in Stephen Rutledge‘s #BornThisDay column here.
Lots of death in this show from the Disaster Series and electric chair and suicide paintings, to gigantic skulls to an enormous gun over a small double Warhol with a skull in red. Saltz writes in terrifying detail about Andy being shot in ’68 by Valerie Solanis, and his own sad (unnecessary) end…
“On Saturday, February 14, 1987, Warhol complained of abdominal pain to his dermatologist. He spent the weekend in bed, not telling friends what was going on. On Tuesday, he kept an appointment so he could be photographed with Miles Davis. That same day, he told another doctor he’d been feeling ill for four weeks. The doctor diagnosed him with an acutely infected gallbladder and advised that it be removed as soon as possible. Warhol waited two more days to see what would happen. On Thursday, he caught a chill. The gallbladder had become severely inflamed with fluid and had to be removed at once. He went to New York Hospital, was scheduled for surgery on Saturday. He said, ‘Oh, I’m not going to make it’ and locked many of his valuables in his safe. After surgery, he was administered Cefoxitin — a drug very similar to penicillin, which he was allergic to; staff nurses failed to properly measure his fluids; a malfunctioning suction device that permitted the reduction in fluids was not replaced. Biographer Victor Bockris writes, ‘The chances of dying from complications of routine gallbladder surgery are thousands to one.’ Andy Warhol died at 6:31 a.m. early Sunday morning, February 22, 1987.“
Warhol’s final resting place is marked by a gravestone, accidentally designed by me, using his name taken from the New York Post. It’s part of art history, little known. That’s why I keep repeating it. I won’t repeat it again now, but you can read the story in Catherine Johnson‘s book, Thank You Andy Warhol and also here.
Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again is at the Whitney museum in NYC through March 31, 2019.
(Exhibit photos by Trey Speegle; via New York)