‘Everybody Was Somebody There’
Padlock IconThis article is only a portion of the full article. If you are already a premium subscriber please login. If you are not a premium subscriber, please subscribe for access to all of our content.

Published in: July-August 2024 issue.


WE TEND TO FORGET that Andy Warhol was a writer, sort of. During his lifetime, he published several books, notably a: A Novel (1968), The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) (1975), and, posthumously, The Andy Warhol Diaries (1989). The Diaries’ 807 pages were edited by his assistant Pat Hackett, who had taken down the text as Warhol dictated it by phone every morning beginning at 9:00. The daily account begins in November 1976 and concludes in February 1987, only a week before his death. Hackett had collaborated with Warhol on an earlier book, Popism: The Warhol Sixties (1980), a retrospective tour of the Pop Art movement, which propelled Warhol into his greater fame. Hackett had a better grasp of grammar and spelling, which was largely ignored in the earlier books, and she was a more accurate typist than Warhol. In her introduction to the diaries, she says she did little editing, with the aim of keeping intact Warhol’s speech patterns and tone, his “voice.”

            That’s a convenient segue to the biopic series The Andy Warhol Diaries, directed by documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi for Netflix. The series is a montage of video clips shot at key moments in Warhol’s life, with voiceover text drawn directly from the diaries. The monologue is done in Warhol’s voice or, more accurately, an “impression” (in the comedian’s sense) of it. Actor Bill Irwin read the text, which AI then remastered to sound like Warhol’s voice. This is the perfect touch for an artist much of whose work deals with copies, what French cultural theorist Baudrillard terms “simulacra.” In an interview conducted for a retrospective of his work mounted in Stockholm in 1968, Warhol said: “Machines have less [sic]problems. I’d like to be a machine, wouldn’t you?” He also said: “I do have feelings, but I wish I didn’t.” A robot replicating and standing in for him would be the fulfillment of that wish. Rossi’s film covers the awkward moment in 1981 when Warhol actually did have his face copied in latex so that it could be placed on a talking robot. The idea was to feature the replica in a stage work titled Andy Warhol: A No Man Show, designed to tour globally while “the real Andy” stayed home. Performances would include a Q&A segment during which the simulacrum would answer questions from a captive audience. The fact that the show never really got off the ground hardly matters. In an art scene dominated by Conceptualism, all that’s finally required is a description of the project, not its material production. That said, with the advent of AI avatars, it will now be possible for Warhol’s project to be realized onscreen.

            It’s easy to understand why Warhol wanted to escape his feelings, born as he was into difficult circumstances. His mother Julia Warhola was an immigrant from Ruthenia, an East European province without any markedly individual character, tossed around like a football among several larger powers over the centuries. (The region is currently part of Ukraine.) Julia married, immigrated, and settled down with her husband in a dismally poor section of Pittsburgh. Here she brought up three sons, her resolute devotion on one hand familial, and on the other, religious. She attended the local church, which practiced a form of Catholicism heavily influenced by the Eastern Orthodox rite. Andy, the youngest and favorite son, attended services with her. In fact, he never entirely abandoned churchgoing, somehow managing to square it with life as a gay man—a gay man associated with worldly success in a decadent mode. Not far along in Andy’s childhood, his father died, a dire setback to a family already scraping by below the poverty line. Andy learned to count every penny, an obsession he clung to long after becoming a multimillionaire. One symptom of that obsession in his diary is his tic of recording the fare of absolutely every taxi he took, dollar figures interrupting—with comic effect—the cavalcade of glittering openings and parties.

      Of the diary Hackett has said: “But whatever its broader objective, its narrow one, to satisfy tax auditors, was always on Warhol’s mind.” It seems the IRS began auditing Warhol’s return every year after he provided a poster for the McGovern campaign. Meanwhile, whenever his poorly paid Superstars hit him up for extra cash, he made them sign a receipt saying that the sum was payment for services promoting Warhol Enterprises and thus a business expense. Warhol’s manic efforts to amass and preserve capital ultimately evolved into an æsthetic theory: Business was Art, he said—in fact, the greatest art of all. Maybe it was, but financial success also calmed fears of being thrust back into the penury of his early life.

At the Factory: Warhol, Chuck Wein, and Sandy Kirkland.
From Factory Andy Warhol Stephen Shore.

            Andy was a sickly child, sometimes housebound for months. He would then be nursed by his mother, who often served him soup, though they were too poor to afford Campbell’s. She would heat water, add ketchup and pepper to it and—bon appétit! When he was well enough to go to school, he was ignored or else bullied as a sissy or mocked for the blotched complexion his illnesses had caused. A better alternative was sick leave at home, where he’d be coddled by Mom. To forestall boredom, he began making drawings and watercolors, showing unusual talent for a boy his age. One of his drawings won a prize judged by the German Expressionist George Grosz, though its deliberately grotesque imagery was repellent to everyone else. During those early years, Andy also fell under the spell of Hollywood and its iconic stars. One way to understand his mature work is to see it as an effort to make trashiness kind of glamorous, and glamour kind of trashy. The first category of subjects is raised up, and the second pulled down, so that everything ends up on the same plane.

            As for personal psychology,

To continue reading this article, please LOGIN or SUBSCRIBE

Alfred Corn is the author of eleven books of poems—most recently The Returns: Collected Poems (2022)—plus two novels and three collections of critical essays.