Andy Land 4: A Saint, the Village Holy Man, and God Himself

Three months after Andy Warhol’s unexpected death in February 1987, due to complications from gallbladder surgery, the Village Voice devoted a special twelve-page section to the artist and his legacy: Voice art critic Gary Indiana took stock of the work itself; Warhol’s former aide-de-camp Gerard Malanga explored the artist’s process; Factory superstar Viva shined a spotlight on Andy’s films and his faith; and artist and critic Barbara Kruger explored Warhol’s fixation on celebrity, and his tectonic impact on the culture. All four contributors took note of Warhol’s spirituality, which tended to focus as much on the trappings of religion as on the redemption of his soul:

“I wondered, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April Fools’ Day, if I was in the right church,” wrote Viva. “Andy’s memorial service seemed more like a canonization than a mass, one that the Deceased himself would have been most offended by.”

“Andy wasn’t the ‘Village Holy Man,’ ” she wrote, “he was God Himself.”

As Kruger noted, Warhol was just as devout a follower of the church of celebrity as he was of the Byzantine Catholic faith from his Pittsburgh childhood: “For the guy who wanted to be reincarnated as a diamond on Liz Taylor’s finger, proximity to fame was almost enough: a sort of elixir, an enabling connection plugging him into the glittering dispensations of prominence. His own celebrity became part of a baroque networking, a bright constellation of havers and doers who could inhabit the VIP lounge of the universe, where everybody who was anybody would show that they could never be mistaken for a nobody.”

Malanga, for his part, noted how Warhol explored ideas of mortality in his paintings and films, and how “this death element has always been directly connected to sex.”

It was Indiana who went the furthest in teasing out the various threads of Warhol’s identity: his faith, his sexuality, his genius. Recounting an exchange with Factory denizen Taylor Mead, Indiana noted that “Andy’s problem was that he wasn’t content with being a genius, he wanted to be a saint, too. And so, the speakers at his memorial service stressed his unflagging Christian spirit, his charity. How he multiplied the loaves and fishes.”

Few figures had a firmer grasp on American culture in the 21st century, as this week’s opening of “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again” at the Whitney Museum of American Art makes clear. But that much was clear three decades ago. “The fashion illustration, the early ‘easel’ work, the repertoire of silk-screen virtuosities, the paintings, the movies, Interview, the photographic activity, the books, and the resonant figure of Andy himself, were informed by a coldly smart reading of American culture,” wrote Kruger. “He cannily appropriated a seriality of signs, jokes, and icons that seemed right on the nose. But that’s not surprising, since Warhol was so taken with the face of things.”

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May 5, 1987

“I’ll Be Your Mirror”
By Gary Indiana

A thorny, twisty subject: Andy Warhol. The Andy Warhol Phenomenon. The vacant but obdurate public presence — relentless, in fact — famed from the outset for its entourage. At first the entourage consisted of amiable lunatics, charmingly damaged heiresses, beautiful street boys, miraculously loquacious speed freaks, fallen Catholics, people with a flair for “suggesting ideas.” Later the shimmering mask surrounded itself with buttoned-down professionals, social climbers, dewy millionettes. Since the new people risked nothing, and felt nothing much about anything, they provided few ideas. The product lost its quality of selective inanity. It became an example of surplus vacuity. The Presence no longer wondered at his inability to feel.

Then the death. The private duty nurse, who sounds like someone who might have changed her name from Valerie Solanis [sic]. And the incredible obsequies. Years ago, Taylor Mead told me that Andy’s problem was that he wasn’t content with being a genius, he wanted to be a saint, too. And so, the speakers at his memorial service stressed his unflagging Christian spirit, his charity. How he multiplied the loaves and fishes. One speaker made the curious argument for sainthood: it wasn’t for Andy to be his brother’s keeper. The understatement of the century, surely. As further proof of Andy’s intense spirituality, his eulogist quoted the line about wanting to be reincarnated as the ring on Liz Taylor’s finger. Clearly, Catholicism is exactly what it used to be.

One former superstar put it quite succinctly: “I’m going to Andy’s funeral, but I doubt if he would go to mine.” Outliving Andy must be, for some, a surprise. As usual, excellent timing. The culture was becoming weary of Andy Warhol. The inanities had ceased to charm, having reached a brutal apotheosis with the picture-book America. Lately, Andy had resorted to flirtation.

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ALTHOUGH HIS INFLUENCE is pervasive in the best contemporary art, the best contemporary artists were having none of him. The inspired, breathtakingly easy Duchampian gesture can only come off against a background of resistance, of entrenched tradition. When it works today, the background it works against is precisely the seduction of the glamorous surface. Richard Prince had already inverted Andy’s best-known, most-misquoted maxim. In the future, no one will want to be famous. A nice twist on Dorothy Parker’s line: “If you want to know what God thinks about money, just look at the people he gives it to.”

“Either wear a work of art or be a work of art,” said Oscar Wilde, an aesthete with an attractively messy private life. Andy Warhol became a much less convincing work of art after the demimonde clasped him to its jeweled bosom. His eerie gift, until then, had been the ability to confer celebrity — on a soup can, a Port Authority rent-boy, or a wacked-out socialite. The Church of the Unimaginable Penis, or something. Andy was the father confessor, the kids were the sinners. Which is why he didn’t need to be involved with them when they finished confessing. The sanctity of the institution and its rituals is what’s important, not the personal salvation. Maintaining the eternal surface.

After turning his back on zanies who’d been his inspiration, Warhol no longer bestowed celebrity, but instead sustained his own through increasingly ludicrous associations, chiefly through his magazine, Interview. The upscale Interview chewed its way through acres of glossy trash at Studio 54 before arriving among such “interesting” people as George Will, Nancy Reagan, Jerry Zipkin, and the Shah of Iran. Whatever Warhol was trying to do, it didn’t “read” as anything except venality.

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For example, the I’ll-paint-anybody-for-$20,000 approach. Art critics committed to the myth of Warhol-as-bellwether suggest that Warhol has simply done the same thing Goya did, or other court painters in the past. But an artist of Warhol’s affluence isn’t faced with starvation if he turns down a commission, say, from Idi Amin, or the Sultan of Brunei. Contrary to the Warhol philosophy, modern life still does require choices. Quite a few people with money wouldn’t piss on Nancy Reagan if her guts were on fire, and many of them commission portraits. At any rate, the “court paintings” are Andy’s weakest work — unless you look at them a certain way, and think their very lack of depth tells you something about their subjects.

They’re bad as paintings. This is of less concern than the fact that they’re bad as images. One of the usual objections to Warhol’s paintings is that he’s not a “painterly painter” in the traditional sense. People who cling to this kind of distinction miss the point that Warhol, long ago, brilliantly made about mass culture. Robert Hughes, for example. Hughes’s essay, “The Rise and Fall of Andy Warhol,” is one of those luminously nasty pieces of writing that clears the air of accumulated piety. But to ignore the importance of Warhol’s art, especially in the ’60s, simply because it isn’t arduous the way a Francis Bacon is, negates almost every worthwhile development in art in the past 20 years. Painting and image-making are sometimes the same thing, and sometimes are quite distinct. The emphasis can be here, or there. They don’t have to have a hierarchical relationship. Hughes seems to believe that some aesthetic utopia existed in the past, a utopia that art will return to after the current, doleful period. Many people think this way. Warhol understood something hateful but true: we aren’t going to lose the past in quite the same way as before. And we’re not going to find it again, either.

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NOTHING ANDY EVER SAID was true, but that is beside the point. There are less cogent objections to Warhol than Hughes’s, less respectable ones. Sometimes they’re mixed up with valid ones. Homophobia was one of the first reactions to Warhol, especially from the Cedar Tavern set, the Abstract Expressionists. You could be a fag back then, like Frank O’Hara, as long as you could pass, and understood you were supposed to suffer over it, lusting after those real guys painting their heroic, tortured canvases. Andy was a swish.

A swish was somebody who couldn’t hide it. It was just the way you were. Something from the ’40s and ’50s and before, when gays were either butch or femme. You find less and less of this when sexual role models disintegrate, as they did in the ’60s and early ’70s. Andy wrote somewhere that he exaggerated his swishiness, because it wasn’t something he thought he should change.

One of the most liberating experiences of my life was seeing Bike Boy at a theater in Cambridge. I was with some ultrastraight but sensitive, tolerant Harvard boys who froze in horror after the first two minutes. Viva was in a bathtub with a man, telling him if he wanted to make plastic sculptures he should just do it and shut up about it. “We’re into other things, now,” she whined. As I watched this film I thought: “That’s for me.”

It’s bizarre that Warhol’s films have been out of circulation for so long. Or perhaps not so bizarre. When Warhol said, in his last interview, that the films “are better talked about than seen,” it occurred to me that a certain crust of the haute monde might have been less welcoming to Andy if it had been exposed to his movies. Which, I believe, compose his richest body of work. Who will ever forget Ondine, with his face buried in Joe D’Allesandro’s underpants, in Loves of Ondine? Or Ingrid Superstar’s recipe recitation in Bike Boy? The draft-dodger’s soliloquy, or Viva’s epic monologue, in Nude Restaurant? Taylor Mead scampering about in Lonesome Cowboys: “Oh you jingle, and you jangle, but you seldom wrangle…” I haven’t seen these films in 20 years, and I remember every frame. I’ve already forgotten E.T.

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Warhol’s films are gloriously erotic, as sculpture is erotic. They’re honest. Pornography — which every American should enjoy at least as much as having Edwin Meese for an attorney general — is dishonest. Perfect faces on perfect bodies do not blissfully couple without any problems, in real life; they only do that in California. When Ondine’s about to get into Little Joe’s BVDs, the bathroom door flies open and in walks Brigid Polk, demanding to know what that cheap little hustler is doing with her husband. Sexual pleasure is immanent in the Warhol movies, a possibility; but pornographic fulfillment is always shown as a deluded ambition. Real people are too complicated.

We should be wary about praise and damnation of Andy. He helped open thousands of closet doors. If the things he lent himself to in recent years fill me with distaste, I still admire the frosty slap he gave America before he became America’s favorite vanity mirror. One should especially mistrust portraits like the concoction in Edie, a book compiled by George Plimpton and Jean Stein — surely two of the most privileged individuals in America, born with silver spoons, and zealous defenders of their class. Andy was a working boy. He worked hard, he made his money, they buried him with the blessings of his church. A saint for all the wrong reasons. And isn’t that what America is all about? ■

“Working With Warhol”
By Gerard Malanga
as spoken to John Perreault

Andy’s death was untimely. All of a sudden Andy dies? You would think time would simply continue forever with Andy. Like I always had this fantasy I would be hitting 60 and Andy would be close to 80 when we’d be talking on the phone in the 21st century. My initial experience at hearing that Andy had died was very much like looking in a window witnessing this dramatic event unfolding. There was no immediate impact. His death also defined what came before as now being history.

On the other hand, Andy’s death was a liberation in that young artists influenced by Andy, or who would have hoped for some kind of blessing or acknowledgment, are not going to get that now. They are literally on their own. There will be parties but Andy’s not going to be at these parties. People by and large will adjust to his not being around to flatter them. Andy would always flatter you into making you feel that you were an equal. He almost became your fan. You’d be walking away thinking he was your best friend and you’d only known him for a few minutes. His own emotional distancing was his unique and astute way of removing himself from any emotional experience he might otherwise feel toward you. It was his way of remaining in control.

I’ve always considered Andy a Conceptual artist in that he was really a spiritual child of Duchamp. Andy revitalized the notion of concept by activating it into an end result, always keeping in mind that the idea was very much the content of whatever it was he would depict in painting or film or gesture. In other words, for Andy, the idea of a man sleeping was easily and more fully realized as a film rather than a painting. This is a prime example of his gift for making artistic decisions. By realizing this idea through film he was literally redefining and equating real time with reel time or “running time,” and taking into account viewing time as well, which can’t be accomplished in a painting. This was Andy’s way of getting the viewer to experience to some degree what he was experiencing in the act of re-creating the idea into form. It didn’t seem likely that he would want to spend eight hours in front of a canvas, nor would anyone view that same hypothetical canvas for eight hours.

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There was no Factory when I met Andy; there was only the Firehouse, called that because it once operated as a real New York firehouse, prior to Andy’s leasing the building from the city. Andy had no assistant. It was just Andy. He had gotten involved with the application of silk-screening to his paintings when I went to work with him. Charles Henri Ford had known that I had previous silk-screen experience and knew Andy needed someone to help him with his silk-screen paintings, and so when Charles introduced me to Andy he immediately asked me if I would like to help him and I replied Yes.

I hadn’t made any films of my own when I began assisting Andy in the film-end of work, but, based in part on my intuitive and practical knowledge of filmmaking gained from working with Marie Menken, I took Andy to Peerless Camera, where we shopped around and I suggested he purchase a 16mm Bolex with motor-drive attachment. I knew where to go for these things. Andy was not your technical expert. He wanted everything to be totally easy, like push the button and let it roll. This was his technical and technological aesthetic surfacing. The motordrive allowed for the continuous run of three minutes of film.

When I went to work for Andy I already had an identity of my own as a published poet. Working with him was a sheltering experience of sorts. He provided and took care of my immediate financial needs when accompanying him, like dinners and movies and trips to Europe — all those fringe benefits were taken care of in addition to a minimal salary. When I agreed to work for Andy he asked me what I would like to be paid. In those days the legal minimum wage was a dollar and a quarter an hour, so Andy said okay. It never dawned on me that I could have asked for and most likely would have received a flat rate for the week or at least three dollars an hour.

I enjoyed the work immensely. Whatever project we worked on was always fun or seemingly so, because we were creating paintings and making films and coming up with ideas for various multimedia situations, so I was very much a part of the creative process. I was poor but never broke. I was always extravagant with what little I had to play with because I knew Andy was there when I needed him.

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Andy got most of his ideas from what was around at the time or what might have been suggested to him in conversation or over the phone, or he might be flipping through a newspaper or magazine and an image would catch his eye. Or sometimes I would come up with the idea, or he would and in turn I would find the appropriate image to fit the idea like, for instance, the portrait of the cow for the wallpaper. He hated that cow at first. I had to force that cow on him. He didn’t like it. I said, “Andy it’s got a kind of motherly quality, there’s a maternal look to this cow.”

A friend of his who worked for a photo agency used to lay all these wire service pictures on Andy, the kind of visual pulp you’d find in The National Enquirer. Some of those images found their way into the “Death and Disaster” series. Andy was mutable in the sense he was able to absorb other people’s ideas and make them his own. He was receptive to what was around him so that he would re-create the idea with little or no effort on his part is making decisions, and Andy was a pro when it came to making decisions.

This kind of open spontaneity was carried over into the films as well. Whatever happened in the process of making the film became a part of the film. Nothing was left out. Andy’s attitude was for all mistakes or inconsistencies in quality or technique to be part of the art. Nothing was wasted. We were not about to do it over! Andy never did any editing or any splicing. There was never any post-editing, so whatever editing was evident was done in the camera by stopping and starting the mechanism.

When Andy got shot in 1968, Lonesome Cowboys was in the can but it was mostly unedited. He had perceived this film as a four-hour abstract genderless Western using Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the taking-off point for an inverse transsexual metaphor. Juliet is played by Viva, who is renamed Romana, and Juliet becomes the male counterpart, Julius, Romana’s leading man. Andy gets shot. Paul [Morrissey] edits the film into a potential commercial vehicle. So Lonesome Cowboys becomes Andy’s . At that point, with the exception of Blue Movie a year later, Andy didn’t make any more films because Paul took over during the time Andy was recuperating. So it was kind of a blessing in disguise because Andy was a big fan and admirer of Walt Disney and he always wanted to just put his name on whatever was being made at the time, as in “Andy Warhol Presents,” even though it might not have been directed by him.

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The first film in which I appeared was The 13 Most Beautiful Boys, which was basically a three-minute screen test. The second film in which I had a part was Kiss, making out with Baby Jane Holzer for three minutes straight. The film was really a comment on Hollywood’s imposed moral code at the time in that films couldn’t depict a kiss scene for more than 15 seconds on screen.

I had no illusions whatsoever of being an actor. In those days I was first and foremost a poet. I had my first starring role as the rehabilitated juvenile delinquent, Victor, in Vinyl, which was a clandestine adaptation of the book A Clockwork Orange. Vinyl was also Edie Sedgwick’s first film appearance and even though she was visually present during the film’s entirety she had no lines and literally remained silent. Vinyl was followed by Edie’s brilliant self-portrayal in Poor Little Rich GirlKitchen, written by Ronnie Tavel, was Edie’s first scripted movie. It was to be her debut as a serious actress but she kept fluffing her lines. The film was intended as a vehicle for Edie to show off her talent at acting but she was just terrible. With Kitchen Andy was trying to get into the swing of things by trying to learn. He wanted to be disciplined and have everyone learn their lines and the film went through several rehearsals before Andy actually shot it. Nevertheless Edie did forget some of her lines. On the day of the shooting I brought Rene Ricard onto the set and managed to get him into the film. There was no part in the script for him, so he became Edie’s silent houseboy. Edie said, “Who’s he? What’s he doing here in my movie?” And then she’d be forgetting her lines. Kitchen was the first scripted film where Andy wanted everything to go right and, of course, it ended up being as spontaneous as everything else he’d been creating.

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Andy and I worked on the paintings together. Many of the screens were just too big for Andy to do it alone. Death always seemed to be a kind of pervading metaphor in a lot of the paintings, more than in his films. The films have a decadence about them — an association with self­-destruction and death. The poppy paintings also carry the association with death but in a more potent way. The poppy has always been associated with sleep or death. Andy’s first movie depicted someone sleeping for eight hours. It could have been a man dead for eight hours. Andy’s work involved a kind of lethargy, and this death element has always been directly connected to sex. In the film Empire, for instance, you see the building in overexposed daylight to compensate for the night to come, and gradually the building makes its appearance in more detail as night draws on and then the building lights up, so one can construe that the range from blinding light to total darkness was like life evolving into death. Of course, the obvious metaphor of the Empire State Building as a phallic symbol is directly associated with the movie King Kong, to which Andy’s film pays homage — if only indirectly.

But Andy’s films, and likewise the paintings, always paid homage to tradition. Andy’s paintings are really a documentation or comment on the tradition of art. You have the self-portrait series, which is a genre; you have the flower paintings, which are part of a genre. Any number of instances in Andy’s work fit into various genres of art. Andy started out making silent films in black and white; then he graduated to sound/black and white. Then he switched to color with sound. There was a progression of Andy re-experiencing the history of filmmaking from its very beginning.

Andy shied away from competition with other artists. An early instance of that was when Andy was in isolation working on his comic-strip paintings and finding out that another artist he hadn’t even met yet, Roy Lichtenstein, was doing comic-strip paintings and he immediately stopped making comic-strip paintings and went on to something else. He was not going to compete with Roy Lichtenstein. Andy had a vision of an original sense of himself in avoiding any mimicry of what anyone else might have been working on at the time, except, of course, when he would use history as a counterpoint. He might have been envious of other artists but only in a humorous way. Andy was always the fan. He was enamored of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. They were like gods to him. He’d get so nervous about seeing or talking to them he’d run to the bathroom to urinate. And he always liked the Abstract Expressionists.

Andy’s entry into the art world on his own was by collecting art. He bought art from the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in ’60, ’61 — paintings by Jane Wilson, Larry Rivers, and Tchelitchew. He was serious and conscientious and had a good eye for certain pieces. Collecting art was for Andy a kind of nourishment.

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Andy might be remembered for 15 minutes [laughter]. I think Andy will ultimately be remembered and appreciated as a Conceptual artist and surely a progenitor of the Pop Art movement, and everything else that he was involved with will be frill or icing on the cake. Besides being remembered for the specific paintings within a given period that are iconographic, I think he’ll be remembered for how he arrived at making those paintings — which I think are very important in terms of the conceptual mode that came about in allowing those paintings to occur. Likewise for the films SleepEatHaircutEmpire, the three­-minute portraits, and three-minute screen tests. The idea that someone could be screen-­tested is like becoming famous for three minutes or taking three minutes to become famous for an instant of time.

Everything Andy did was interesting, but not everything he did was brilliant or great. I think Andy went into a slump in the ’70s. A lot of superficial, glitzy work was being inflicted onto the art market just to generate money, which was the one thing Andy loved most. You see, money for Andy was his ticket to power and power meant control. Once Andy had money he was terrified of giving it up because it meant giving up a part of himself and to give up a part of himself meant to reveal or expose a part of himself. Andy veiled himself in little lies and construed myths about himself when he was interviewed by the press.

So after the Mao portraits and the “Vote for McGovern” poster Andy takes a horrific creative plunge, as if he’d arrived at nothing and knew it. But he kicks back with the Hammer and Sickle paintings and to a degree with the Shadow paintings. The most recent work I’ve seen, the sewn or stitched photographs, are brilliant because they transcend in the most magical way possible the literal, mundane accuracies they convey. I was envious when I saw that exhibition because I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Those dangling threads have an eroticism and sexual nuance about them, as if they were symbolic pubic hair. He took some of the most boring, mundane photographs imaginable and by multiplying the images it was like the old Andy coming back, pulling it off with great flair. Again, what you have here is a commentary on the genre of photography and art. The way he put these images together left me ecstatic. As much as I would love to I don’t dare stitch a photograph. ■

GERARD MALANGA is a poet, photographer, filmmaker, and multimedia artist. He is the photo archivist for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

“Viva and God”
By Viva

I wondered, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April Fools’ Day, if I was in the right church. Andy’s memorial service seemed more like a can­onization than a mass, one that the Deceased himself would have been most offended by. Like Queen Vic­toria, Andy never distin­guished himself as being apart from his “colleagues,” always using “we” instead of “I.” The speaker who described Andy remaining “untainted” by the “corruption” of the “self-destructive lemmings” around him would have pro­voked a murmur of dissent from the Master, along the lines of “if you can’t say any­thing nice.”

Feeding the poor and going to mass, while worthy activi­ties, hardly make for true spir­ituality or religiosity. In fact, in perusing some of my 10-year­-old writings on Andy, I’ve dis­covered what really bothered me about the beatification. The speakers didn’t go far enough. Andy wasn’t the “Village Holy Man,” he was God Himself.

1976 The script in the Warhol-Morrissey movies was the common body of experi­ence vibrating in the space be­tween the actors. The success of the films was dependent on our ability to summon our lives’ experiences to the front of our brains, the tips of our tongues, so tangible as to be almost visible out in front of our craniums. The dialogue was already there, we had only to read it, basing our technique on an intuitive knowledge of what was vibrat­ing in that space.

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1987 Paul Morrissey, who thinks it inadvisable to use the word “space” in the above paragraph, maintains it was the absurd artificiality of the scenarios he always sketched out (“Viva, you be the Madame of the whorehouse, you’re in love with Ju­lien, but Louie wants him too,” etc., etc.) that led to a realistic dialogue because of the freedom it gave us to plumb the depths of our real emo­tions and experiences. This is also true.

The feeling that we were onto something good led us to approach this seemingly ran­dom improvisational method with a contagious enthusiasm and a deadly seriousness that we tried hard to hide. In actu­ality the whole scene, includ­ing Andy’s directions, was ex­tremely stiff. Other directors I’ve worked with since have been infinitely more relaxed and ready for fun than either Andy or Paul. One would think the Factory would have been the penultimate in bon­homie; yet John Schlesinger, Herb Ross, Bill Norton, Agnes Varda, Wim Wenders, Paso­lini, Michael Sarne, were all backslapping buddies next to the severe, silent directors of the “underground.”

Though Andy’s role was, like that of all Directors, to play God, he had a firmer grasp of the deity’s identity, having been raised with the Baltimore catechism’s defini­tion (all-cognizant, all-present, all-powerful, all-loving). De­scribed as a passive watcher, God differed from Andy as a director only because of the element of “grace.” But even here Andy mimicked God by occasionally asking one of us to repeat an action, a phrase, or a laugh: grace. Grace was a free gift and only God knew when it would rain down on you. Since time repeats itself for no one, being asked to re­peat a particularly good mo­ment was “grace.”

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1976 Example of Warholian “grace”: My role in Bike Boy was to seduce Joe Spencer. I was given exactly three directions. The first was to change my position, moving to Joe’s other side, the second was to remove my clothes, the third was to repeat a laugh I’d just uttered. I repeated the laugh, the camera began grinding again, and all of a sudden there wasn’t any more film. The scene was finished, as it always was when the newsreel camera ran out of its 35-minute load of film. If wasn’t until five years later, upon seeing the movie for perhaps the fifth time, that I realized why Andy had asked me to repeat that laugh: Joe’s slack penis, prominent in the foreground but previously un­noticed by me. I lay apparent­ly laughing at Joe’s impo­tence, though in reality I had never dared to look down. To­tally embarrassed, I had been concentrating on looking up at his face.

1987 Paul says Andy asked us to repeat something when he didn’t get it the first time because he was focusing somewhere else or he ran out of film. Scratch grace.

1976 “Tell people that you’re acting, that you had a script,” Andy begged me over and over again, “don’t ever let them know that it’s real!”

1987 As I listened to the eulogies at St. Pat’s about ’60s corruption and the deep spirituality of Andy’s last paintings, I wondered if I was as truly out of step with the rest of the world as our family doctor in Alexandria Bay, New York, once claimed. I re­membered the first time I saw myself on the Warhol-Morris­sey screen; Paul phoned my 83rd Street and Park Avenue apartment, told me to quit painting, said I was a perform­ing genius on the order of a Mick Jagger and I had to come to the Factory immediately and see Bike Boy, my second Warhol film in a week (neither of which I’d yet seen). I got on the subway and went downtown.

I was amazed. Was that really me? What made my timing so flawless? My dia­logue so brilliant? In the fol­lowing months I saw Taylor Mead, Ondine, and Louie Waldon perform as brilliantly while Brigid, in The Imitation of Christ (whose cinematogra­phy, thanks to Paul, was the most gorgeous I’d ever seen) gave a performance that seemed the summa cum alta of humor, feeling, and origi­nality. We were clearly the forerunners of a new style, one that was bound to sweep cinematic circles within the decade.

It didn’t. But if I’d depend­ed on Andy’s obituaries for in­formation, I’d never have known he took a single second off from painting pictures to shoot a frame of film. In the one or two instances where the films were mentioned, you’d swear they were shame­ful porn trash. The Andy I knew regarded painting as the shameful deed and did it as surreptitiously as he shopped for velvet blue jeans, choosing odd hours of the day and night for both activities and sneaking the results into hid­den nooks and crannies of the Factory or bathrooms of the rich and famous (where many of the portraits ended up), claiming when caught that he had to paint to make the money to shoot the films. But total incomprehension of the mov­ies has always been the norm:

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1976 “…The central difference between films of interest made by Warhol and those made by his epigonous imitator-author Paul Morrissey is the complete ab­sence of Duchampian inspira­tion in the latter. The elimination of Duchamp’s influence in Warhol’s films, which was for their defenders what made them interesting, is on the aes­thetic level what is meant by the commercialization of the work in Morrissey’s hands.” —Stephen Koch, Stargazer

Blue Movie, entirely my idea, and enthusiastically sec­onded by Andy, was the occa­sion of so much embarrassment to Paul Morrissey that he could not stay on the set and watch the filming. In his book Stargazer, Stephen Koch places Blue Movie under the heading The Films of Paul Morrissey. From its inception, a year before Andy was shot, to its actual filming in August or September of ’68, Paul had no say in the filming, nev­er went near the camera, did not direct in any way. [1987 — Gerard Malanga says, however, that Paul, rath­er than being embarrassed, was “jealous” because, having attempted to “sanitize” Andy, the Master was now, with Blue Movie, bouncing back.]

Unbelievably, Koch also places Blue Movie in the pre­-shooting category (when a simple phone call would have cleared up that error), doing this apparently to prove that Andy was floundering in a pornographic morass of fail­ures just before he was shot.

Andy made Blue Movie six months after he was shot.

As far as I know it was the only film made solely by Andy and the actors (Louie Waldon and I), and no one else had a single thing to say or made a single move in its direction. During the shower scene Andy left the camera running alone in the hallway and walked away. Any fool can see that walking away from a running camera is about as Duchampian as you can get.

On page 51 Koch wrote that “the wretched Lonesome Cowboys is the last film he [Andy] directed entirely on his own… abandoning Duchamp and lacking Morrissey’s greedier and more self-indulgent personality.”

Here Koch has Andy “abandoning Duchamp” on his own, without the devil­-temptor, Morrissey. The fact is that Lonesome Cowboys, filmed before Andy was shot, and before Blue Movie, is al­most entirely Paul Morrissey’s creation. We made it, howev­er, because of the following exchange: “Gee, I bet it’s a really nice life to do that,” Andy said to me from the bal­cony, looking down on the native Arizonian who was mow­ing the lawn of the motel in Tucson, where we were stay­ing during a college lecture tour. “Out in the sun all day in a nice warm climate. I think I might like to do that.”

“Me too,” I said, “in fact I’m not getting on the plane unless you promise me we can come back and make a movie.”

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1987 My father phones. “My God,” he says, “have you seen the newspa­pers? You’d think Andy War­hol was the greatest artist of all time! Ha! For painting a Campbell’s Soup can!”

“But the films were good,” I say.

“Films? Hell. They were just pornographic movies, weren’t they?”

1976 Andy made it painfully clear to me that the entire burden of dialogue and “action,” not to mention
“plot,” was on my frail shoul­ders because, according to him, nobody else was capable. Although my nature has al­ways been classical feminine passive, I believed that I had to dig up, from the further­most recesses of my soul, the ability to act, rather than re­act. I was made to understand that I had no one to react against because none of my fellow actors (with the excep­tion of Ondine, Taylor Mead, and Louie Waldon) could use their brains. They didn’t have any brains. “Please Viva,” Andy would whine, “you’ve got to do something! Nobody else will!” Or, “Please Viva! You’ve got to talk! Say any­thing! Nobody else can!”

Trying to maintain a world of “healthy sexuality” when first, no one knows what it means, and second, there is no health anywhere else in our society, is a medieval fan­tasy. The Warhol films were about sexual disappointment and frustration: the way Andy saw the world, the way the world is, and the way nine-­tenths of the population sees it, yet pretends they don’t.

The difference between the Warhol-Morrissey films and other films is that in the for­mer neither the ideal nor the pretense at the ideal is there. The truth is there. L’Age d’Or by Buñuel is the only other film I’ve seen about sexual truth. If I’d seen it before making Blue Movie I’d have gotten up, stared into the cam­era, and said, in the middle of the shooting, “Get me another partner!”

1987 As I ponder it, I think Andy’s modus operandi was neither to reveal “disap­pointment and frustration” nor to “ridicule and trivialize” the dogma of the day. Andy had nothing against which to compare either of these two ideas. Because he was so shy and complexed about his looks, he had no private life. In filming as in “hanging out,” he merely wanted to find out how “normal people” acted with each other. And I think my own idea about Blue Movie wasn’t, as I believed at the time, to teach the world about “real love” or “real sex,” but to teach Andy. I tru­ly loved Andy and would have done anything to help him. Of course, Blue Movie didn’t work out the way I had envi­sioned, partly because the man who had been the origi­nal inspiration for the idea didn’t want to make the film, and partly because the act of observation changes everything. ■

VIVA is a novelist, journalist, actress, and painter. 

By Barbara Kruger

The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s.
The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s.
The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s.
Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet .
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, 1975

Aside from serving food relatively quickly, McDonald’s is about a particular kind of pre­sentation: the American rendi­tion. It condenses the look of the last 35 years of highway architecture and public eater­ies into the time it takes to grab a bite. Above all, it is the primary vision of businessmen concerned with profit and effi­ciency in the field of food ser­vices. But McD’s brand of global culinary imperialism and the brass-tackism of its fi­nancial acumen was of little concern to Andy Warhol, to whom McDonald’s was both merely, and most importantly, beautiful.

He might have also called it adorable, the nimbus crown­ing a figure both pleasurable and good-humored. His com­ment can read as a happily re­lieved relinquishment of the critical, a resolutely numbed-­out dose of enthrallment. But maybe it can also work as a dislocator, courting the nega­tive with a kind of languid iro­ny. Andy Warhol always seemed to hanker for that really pretty line that wan­dered unmerrily between con­tempt and adoration.

The adoration was the easy part, like the icy vehemence of the kind of guy who would stand outside the Pantages Theater on Oscar night, clutching a bouquet of roses for one star or another. For the guy who wanted to be reincarnated as a diamond on Liz Taylor’s finger, proximity to fame was almost enough: a sort of elixir, an enabling con­nection plugging him into the glittering dispensations of prominence. His own celebrity became part of a baroque networking, a bright constella­tion of havers and doers who could inhabit the VIP lounge of the universe, where every­body who was anybody would show that they could never be mistaken for a nobody.

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All these yens for glamour and fame, coupled with a smooth ability to cut through the grease of wordy, “unpleasant” complexities and historically grounded explana­tions, made for the stuff of Warhol’s work. The fashion il­lustration, the early “easel” work, the repertoire of silk­-screen virtuosities, the paint­ings, the movies, Interview, the photographic activity, the books, and the resonant figure of Andy himself, were in­formed by a coldly smart reading of American culture. He cannily appropriated a seriality of signs, jokes, and icons that seemed right on the nose. But that’s not surprising, since Warhol was so taken with the face of things.

It was this face, this parade of glaringly alluring visages, that soaked through Warhol’s production, that floated to the surface of his work and showed us how images of cer­tain well-known and some­times smiling heads could make the sedentary seem so terribly busy. Inhabiting a kind of gauzy villa of narcotized smirks, they might even suggest, beyond the irony, a passion. The passion for the elegant figure. The cut of a jacket. Shiny blond locks framing indigo, shadowed eyes that glance at a boy who’s always looking the other way. We are breathing inac­cessibility. As voyeurs, we need not be articulate, merely attentive. Beauty is in our adjacents, and the next party is always the best.

Mixing the scattered seria­lity with the promiscuous ca­pabilities of the silk-screen process, Warhol crammed his images with the commodities and commotions of his time, and made them belt out a national anthem which sounded suspiciously and pleasantly like “Money Changes Everything.” The singularity of specific icons was processed through an assembly line of fluent, varietal repetitions. But although these procedures were employed with machine-­like detachment, the work, nevertheless, has the feel of a cottage industry in which the tiny mismatches and eccentric registers of the silk-screen process become as resonant as de Kooning’s rapturously brushy orchestrations. From the ironic presentation of the renovation of affliction (the nose job, dance instruction, and paint-by-numbers pictures) to his portraiture, War­hol’s images coalesced into a facetious cataloging of photo­graphic and painterly gesture: a testament to inaccessibility, to the rumor of a stainless beauty, to the constancy of glamorous expenditure.

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The tony veneer of these in­cisive parodies and icy vanities could serve as screens on which to project Warhol’s raw and powerfully tedious mov­ies. Kiss, Blowjob, 13 Most Beautiful Women, Poor Little Rich Girl, Screentest, Face, Chelsea Girls, and even Empire, (with its attention to the “face” of an anthemic structure), all seem to be searching for the perfect visage. The “up close and personal” talking head, coupled with the en­largement of the film format, produced the ironically dou­bled myth of “Super Star”: a site at which the marginalized could enthusiastically produce the image of their own (im)-perfection, in which the generic position of “star” was doubled over and, rather than choking on its own artifice, swallowed it whole and pro­ceeded to describe the experi­ence lo us for what seemed like an eternity. By suggesting that people could spend their lives lying in bed, talking on the phone, and cutting their bangs, these films foreground­ed both the fun and charm of being wasted, and the hard work it takes to live another day. They create different readings than the gelled signifiers of the static portraiture, and proceeded to tell a story about the thin line between glamour and shit. They sati­rize, yet embody, the star sys­tem, the impossibility of everything, and the sublimity of the mundane gesture. They are contemptuous of the spectator as masochist and invite an in­telligently hasty exit. They are clean-cut examples of film as idea, combining the “creative” dispensations of so-called avant-garde filmmaking with the look of Sam Fuller’s per­petual complaint that someone is staring at him.

Throughout all this work, Warhol functioned as a kind of engineer of retention: a withholder who became the doorkeeper at the floodgates of someone else’s expurgatory inclinations. His acuity can be construed as a kind of coolness: an ability to collapse the complexities and nuances of language and experience into the chilled silences of the frozen gesture. He elevated the reductivism of myth and mute iconography to new heights of incommunicado. Mixing the posing of stunned subjectivity with the confessional forays of raging objectification, he pro­duced something that some­times looked like a talent show in the asylum. Like any good voyeur, he had a knack for defining sex as nostalgia for sex, and he understood the cool hum of power that resid­ed not in hot expulsions of verbiage, but in the elegantly mute thrall of sign language.

BARBARA KRUGER is an artist and critic.


September 11

Curator Peter Eleey explores the impact of 9/11 through works that were primarily created before the attacks. Featuring more than 70 works by 41 artists, including Diane Arbus, Janet Cardiff, John Chamberlain, Christo, William Eggleston, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Thomas Hirschhorn, Alex Katz, Barbara Kruger, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono.

Mondays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: Sept. 11. Continues through Jan. 9, 2011


Whatever Laurel Wants

On the planet Heterosexual there is a race of men who lack the ability to seduce women and whom women never attempt to seduce. Their numbers are unknown, although, in some metaphysical way, all males may carry their recessive gene. Nevertheless, these men make feeble, sometimes touching, often offensive, but always failed attempts to lure women to them. Typically, these women are much younger than they are.

Enter artist Laurel Nakadate, the half-Japanese 29-year-old 2001 Yale MFA photography graduate and standout in the current “Greater New York” exhibition. Nakadate puts herself into a position to encounter these men, allowing herself to be partially drawn into the webs they hope to weave. They “hit on” her, then she strikes like a trap-door spider, responding with her own counter- proposal. Arranging to go to their apartments or elsewhere, she arrives with a video camera and convinces them to enact strangely suggestive but asexual scenarios with her.

In the video Lessons 1–10 (2001), she poses braless in a tank top and pink short shorts atop a table as one of these men draws her. As he looks at her, she—the “object of the male gaze”—looks directly at the camera, letting us know that she knows what’s going on. It’s all incredibly twisted. She turns from a baby doll into an avenging angel and a wolf in baby doll’s clothing. Nakadate has staged birthday parties in which men sing “Happy Birthday” to her while she feigns delight. On some cosmic level, Nakadate is always “faking it.” Sometimes she’ll play dead while they snap pictures of her, other times she has them place a stethoscope to her chest or trace the curves of her absent body in midair. There’s always a gaping hole in the center of Nakadate’s world, something that echoes the disaster of prescribed sexual roles.

Voyeurism, exhibitionism, and hostility merge with gullibility, cunning, and folly in Nakadate’s work. Not only is this creepy, it’s confusing and complicated. The roles of hunter and hunted are blurred. Nakadate turns the tables on these men and also on herself. No one comes out of these Lolita-complex revenge fantasies unscathed.

The centerpiece of this exhibition is a three-channel video. Nakadate’s work hasn’t changed much since her first exhibition in 2002; if anything, it is simply more focused, impudent, and annoying. As in a horror film, you sporadically want to yell, “Get out of there, you idiot.” Interestingly, you want to yell this at the men as much as at her. In one section of the video, Nakadate toys with these would-be lotharios in their own lairs, having them either crouch in cages or crawl on the floor like dogs while she imitates a cat. The men are always off balance in these wicked games, careful not to transgress, but visibly tempted to go further. Nakadate is off balance too, but in different ways. She’s always in control, a kind of aggressive “Olympia” presence, artificial, at risk, and dangerous simultaneously.

Nakadate is melding disparate bits of artistic DNA to crackerjack effect. On a visual level she’s combining the force of Barbara Kruger’s use of pronouns like
you and we by getting us to think about
her and them. She crosses this with the way Louise Lawler’s photographs essentially say, “Look at the way ‘they’ hang ‘their’ art in ‘their’ museums,” then introduces the socially constructed sexual roles in Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills.” Nakadate combines these hardcore feminist photographic essences with the taboo gutter love of Robert Melee and the anti-feminism that lies at the dark heart of Vanessa Beecroft’s amazingly complicated and compelling art. To this Nakadate adds her own slutty, back-alley exoticism, her vulnerability, insight, and isolation.

On the Heterosexual planet men rule through a combination of upper-body strength, institutionalized discrimination, hogwash, and sheer arrogance. Women are always in danger. Nakadate isn’t, at least not in her work. She clearly chooses her subjects as carefully as they choose her. She could never do this with “normal” predators. If a young male artist preyed on women this way he’d risk being kicked out of the art world. Either way, Nakadate exploits female sexuality as ruthlessly as any man.

In Where You’ll Find Me she acts out suicide scenarios. We see her “dead” in various locales. Here, Nakadate represents primal neediness, the fantasy of “They’ll know how much they love me when I’m gone.” Then out of nowhere and completely anomalously, she suddenly comes close to the camera, looks from side to side, pulls her shorts to the left, stands, and pees while looking directly at you. It’s weird and very feral. In Love Hotel, a similarly narcissistic and conflicted caprice unfolds as Nakadate writhes almost naked on various beds. As alone and pitiable as the men, she’s seeing what she would look like if she could actually be with a real person. It’s onanistic exhibitionism, very peculiar, strikingly devoid of real feeling, and disquieting.

A seeming absence of feeling is one of the touchstones of Nakadate’s art. In the chilling, tear-jerking video We Are All Made of Stars Nakadate appears on her roof dressed as a Girl Scout as the World Trade Center smolders behind her. She stands, stares at the camera, teary eyed, and says nothing. Nothing needs to be said. It’s uncanny to think about an artist making art that morning about that morning. Nakadate is a damaged unit and a loose cannon; she’s clever, attention-grabbing, and slightly mad: a very promising combination.


Worlds Apart

Initially, the antipathy between India and Pakistan captured in A Season Outside, Amar Kanwar’s intensely affecting 30-minute documentary-style film/political treatise/lament/love poem, seems wholly foreign, even ludicrous to us. After a while, however, a queasy feeling arises: You realize that our own red-state-blue-state separation is almost as noxious. These days the left and right hate each other with the same fervor that seethes through A Season Outside. Watching Kanwar’s 1997 film, you wonder if the two Americas aren’t only a decade or so from coming apart or coming to blows.

At the beginning of A Season Outside, Kanwar pictures a ritual that is at once gripping, pitiful, terrifying, and absurd. In a short sequence that seems to step outside of time, we see a spectacle of almost primitive proportions and heartbreaking intractability. It is sunset at the Wagah-Atari border in the disputed Kashmir territory between India and Pakistan. A metal gate separates two large crowds. On the Indian side, hundreds of Hindu nationalists gather; on the Pakistani side, an equal number of their Muslim counterparts. So much violence has passed between these two warring nation-states that passage between them is now strictly regulated. The groups mill about, glare across the border at one another, or simply stare. Friction and listlessness fill the air.

Before long, soldiers appear on both sides of the barrier. Outfitted in multicolored bandannas and elaborate feathered headgear, festooned with ribbons and metals, and armed with swords and looks that could kill, they have the demeanor of agitated, exotic birds. One by one, in a rigid, intimidating, angular fashion, each soldier swiftly high-steps the 20 feet or so to the metal gate. With each stride, the foot is kicked above the head, then jerked down at the knee. The boot comes crashing to the ground. The soldier then jerks his head, grimaces toward the other side, and lets out a huff. This insane display of alpha male behavior is riveting, menacing, and comical. Each soldier stops just short of a 12-inch-wide white line painted on the street that runs between the border. This ritual unfolds on both sides of the fence. At first you think the two countries have choreographed it, but the tension tells you this exhibition is more ominous. Each side is sending the same message to the other: Back off and keep out! It’s a performance from hell—history played out by grim-faced, resplendent demons. That both crowds applaud makes this ceremony all the more diabolical and tragic.

Although the film gets muddled, the sense of deadlock, spite, and violence is multiplied and enacted in many other scenes of A Season Outside. Just before the soldier sequence, we’re shown feet approaching each other from either side of the border. One after the other, these feet come toe-to-toe, almost pushing against one other, as if fighting. Then the camera pans up and you see Pakistani workers clad in red and Indian ones in blue, passing huge bundles to one another from atop their heads. As with the soldiers, these men are working in perfect harmony to stay worlds apart. It’s chilling and mesmerizing. Kanwar, in a haunting voice-over, utters charged phrases like “spectacles of bravado,” “Every move is always watched,” and “The boundaries of your division begin to smell like a putrefying corpse.” It’s Barbara Kruger meets Mahatma Gandhi.

Kanwar, 40, was born and lives in New Delhi. He has a poet’s way of rhyming images so that every interlude conspires with and reinforces the other. We’re shown men releasing rams at one another. Each animal has had its head painted either red or blue. Elsewhere, Kanwar lingers over a puppy being preyed upon by a gaggle of ravens. In one extended sequence, shot in a Tibetan refugee camp not far from the border, Kanwar shows us one boy mauling another, bored young men pacing the street, and blank-looking old ones squatting outside a shop called Dreamland. In each episode, a psychic window opens onto a world of emptiness, separation, loss, and pain. The film concludes with grainy scenes of Gandhi and Kanwar’s spoken contemplation of his own conflicts about nonviolence. “We must not,” he says, “return pain for pain, evil for evil,” adding that he also wants to “act strong.” For its part, India’s nationalist government is all but erasing Gandhi from the history books. No mention is made of his assassination in 1948 by a militant Hindu nationalist. When Gandhi is referred to, it is often to lay the blame for the subcontinent’s partition on him. A legacy of peace is being turned into one of wrath.

Although Kanwar was a standout in the last Documenta and is well known in the film world, this is his New York gallery debut. It is an auspicious one. With A Season Outside, he joins artists like Anri Sala, Zarina Bhimji, Kutlug Ataman, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Fiona Tan, Isaac Julien, Omer Fast, Francis Alÿs, and Johan Grimonprez, among others, who are making films and videos that manage to escape their own pedantic weight and exist in a lyrical realm where politics, poetry, passion, and form meld—a psycho-visual place where propaganda bleeds into consciousness and opinion become tangible.


Learning on the Job

LESSON ONE: Assume the Position

At a tony post-opening dinner, several months after I had written what I had hoped was a defense of her 2000 Whitney retrospective (which had been critically drubbed elsewhere), Barbara Kruger put her face close to mine, eyeballed me, and said, “You’re really a good writer but I don’t know where you’re coming from.”

As I’ve always admired Kruger, I took secret glee in her words, even though the last bit was her way of saying I had no theory or position. Which is true. To me, theory and positions are important, but they often lead to dogmatic thinking, obscure writing, and rigid taste. Knowing where you’re coming from means knowing what you like before you like it and hating what you hate before you hate it. This takes all the life out of art. Theory is about understanding. Art is about experience. Theory is neat. Art is not.

My only position is to let the reader in on my feelings; try to write in straightforward, jargon-free language; not oversimplify or dumb down my responses; aim to have an idea, a judgment, or a description in every sentence; not take too much for granted; explain how artists might be original or derivative and how they use techniques and materials; observe whether they’re developing or standing still; provide context; and make judgments that hopefully amount to something more than just my opinion. To do this requires more than a position or a theory. It requires something else. This something else is what art, and criticism, are all about.

All this was whizzing through my head as Kruger waited for an answer. Perhaps I should have asked, “How could you know where I’m coming from when we all come from different places at different times and come at things differently than even we might expect?” Or, “What do you do when you find yourself liking something that the place you’re coming from says you shouldn’t like, the way I like Switzerland?” But I didn’t. Embarrassing silence was exacerbated by the suspicion that maybe I was visibly sweating. Finally I said, “I don’t know where I’m coming from either, Barbara.” This didn’t go over well. She stared at me like I was off my rocker, and before leaving said, “We really need to talk, buddy boy!”

We never have, of course, although the “buddy boy” really got my attention. Probably, I’m avoiding her. Maybe she’s avoiding me or can’t be bothered. Whatever, I’ve thought about it often. Especially because several weeks later, a close friend of Kruger’s, discussing my review, said the exact same words that she did. It was bizarre. Apparently, not knowing where one is coming from is very bad.

LESSON TWO: Risky Business

Things get stickier when critics write critically—when they make judgments. Recently, a transcript of a roundtable discussion appeared in the 100th issue of the art-theory journal October. It recorded the comically insular thoughts of a group of theoreticians and artist-theoreticians. The subject was “the crisis in criticism.” But the crisis was out of control at their own table.

Several maintained that criticism shouldn’t involve “judgment” at all, which is like saying bakers shouldn’t bake. On a more nitpicky level, Rosalind Krauss lamented that there used to be good writing in artists’ catalogs, but now there’s not. Needless to say, there were fine catalog essays in the past and there are now. But the catalog essay is among the most partial forms of all criticism. The writer acts as a paid gun or apologist, not a critic; what he or she writes must be approved to be published. Perhaps critics’ fees should be printed along with their essays, as artists’ prices are available on gallery checklists. In any event, catalog essays are to the art world as liner notes are to the music industry: You know where they’re coming from.

LESSON THREE: Live Free or Die

Everyone knows that dismissive, vicious, or not-so-positive things are said about shows. This is one of the things that make the art world lively, contentious, and fun. Yet when it comes to written criticism, seldom is heard a discouraging word.

Much art criticism is adulatory or merely descriptive (some will say I add to this). Many critics have never seen a show they weren’t enthusiastic about. There’s nothing wrong with being an enthusiast, but enthusiasts can be some of the toughest critics around (Beavis: “This show sucks.” Butt-head: “Yeah, it should change”). Future generations will peruse today’s art magazines and suppose ours was an age where almost everything that was made was universally admired.

LESSON FOUR: When the Whip Comes Down

These days, negative criticism is branded as “mean” or “personal.” Hip novelist Dave Eggers, who should know better, wrote that it’s for “wimps” and “pussies.” When I have voiced skepticism about an artist (and if you’re only a little skeptical, the entire review is often perceived as negative), and I see that artist somewhere, both of us will, in the manner of nervous rabbits, slip to opposite sides of the room. If contact is unavoidable, I smile affably. Maybe the artist will, too. Other times they look right through me. This can be chilling, especially if we’ve been friendly. For his part, whenever the painter Ross Bleckner sees me, he sarcastically sneers, “Oh, my favorite critic.” All of these are reminders that while criticism is not a necessary activity, it is an important one.


Occasionally, after I have written something less than positive about an artist, he or she will call, write, or take me aside to say privately that the review may have been partly right. Others ask for clarification. After I wrote a disapproving review of wild-style painter Cecily Brown, she told me how she disagreed, and slyly reported that she quotes a nasty bit from my review in her lectures to show that I’m wrong. Since then, we’ve managed to carry on conversations about art or whatever. This is the way the art world should be.

LESSON FIVE: Welcome to the Machine

Many people have told me they believe negative criticism is not only unnecessary, it’s wrong. At a party, not long after I had written a review of a super-successful, mid-career L.A. painter, in which I said his paintings had gone from being nicely decorative and fussy to being monotonously so, one of this painter’s out of town dealers and her director approached me from across the room. Getting my signals crossed, I allowed myself to be trapped in a brilliant pincer-like maneuver. Caught between them, a coffee table, and a column, and already spacey because I hadn’t made it to the hors d’oeuvres table, I was uneasy. But the dealer was smiling and drinking, and had her arm around me, so I thought, “I’m safe.” Wrong.

“You must be unhappy,” she purred several times. To which I thought, “Not any more than anyone else,” but I only dimly grinned, not sure if she meant unhappy as in maladjusted or unhappy like I looked lonely. People have said things like “You’re uneducated” (I prefer self-taught), “You’re trying to destroy my market” (yikes!), “It must have killed you to admit you liked my work” (paging Doctor Freud), or “You’re nothing but a failed painter” (ouch!). In private, this is fine, although nerve-racking. Here, in a room full of art-worlders, I felt sheepish, so I acted friendly and docile. “You’re a scythe,” she continued, and repeated this a number of times. Only she pronounced the word unusually, like sith, so I wasn’t sure what she meant. Then she said, “You shouldn’t have written those things about ____ (the fussy L.A. painter). Everyone knows you’re anti-L.A.” Which was irritating, since I have written on many L.A. artists, some positively, and am always pontificating about how L.A. is one of the better art places around.

She then referred to an artist who I had written on that week. “_____ (a trendy Brit who was showing an intriguing but flawed multipart video and a series of overblown photographs, and whose work this dealer also represents) couldn’t come to the party tonight because you made her so sad. You shouldn’t write negative criticism. It’s bad for everyone.” Then she volunteered a list of artists she loved. I couldn’t help noticing that she represented nearly all of them and that her idea of “everyone” was pretty cliquish.

“You mean all reviews should be positive?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied unreservedly. “If you don’t like the work, don’t write about it.” I know there’s a lot at stake when a dealer shows an artist, but basically the art world was a micro-society to this gallerist—a country club or a pleasure cruise where everyone was to observe certain rules and just be nice. A review is now little more than spin control or a marketing device to tweak sales. As criticism is directly tied to shopping, anything that erodes brand identity is frowned upon. While the gallerist continued, I realized that she saw herself as something of an evangelist: someone who sells art, nurtures artists, and spreads the word. I wanted to be what Peter Plagens calls a “goalie,” someone who in essence says, “It’s going to have to be pretty good to get by me.” Finally, I blurted, “Praising everything an artist does reduces everything to drivel.” At which point she removed her arm from around my shoulder and I fled.

The next day I waited for a contrite phone call but it never came. Instead, a week later I heard that the dealer was back home telling everyone she had set me straight.


LESSON SIX: The Lower Depths

As annoying as this was, and as awkward as it is to be scolded in public, at least it brought something out in the open. More offensive and depressing are dealers who think it’s their duty to manage or supervise critics, feed them information, or attempt a kind of mind control on them. They escort you round, saying witty things in front of every work. This makes it difficult for a critic to hear his own reaction. Moreover, nothing the gallerist says can be used in a review because if you use anything, they’ll tell everyone they fed you this information, and that they bamboozled you into writing it. Dave Hickey’s advice to dealers: “Never use your sales pitch on your peers. Save it for the clients.”

I like dealers a lot. They are among the most dynamic people in the art world—including artists. Not only do they put their money where their taste is in ways that critics don’t, they completely create their own aesthetic universe, which is daring. Still, I wish dealers would be friendly, give me the information I request, and let me see the show in peace. In an ideal world, we might gossip or talk about other exhibitions, but they wouldn’t tell me what the work’s about, who collects or admires it, how much it sells for, or that I should write about it. It goes without saying they think every show they do is worthy of attention.

Art is complicated. It can take years to grasp why an all-white painting by Robert Ryman is art. At the end of the day, however, everything you need to know about a work of art should be in it, not on a wall label or an explanation from an art dealer. This is one of the great things about art—the source of its mystery, lucidity, obdurateness, and its astonishing, seductive, silent power. And why I love doing what I get to do.


Wigged Out

Speaking of hair, but not “down there,” if you put your face right up to one of Ellen Gallagher’s small drawings or collages, like a bear would to a beehive, they turn surly. Most of the 17 notebook-sized images that make up this quiet but brash exhibition derive from high school yearbooks and vintage wig ads from Ebony and Black Stars—magazines addressed, as one of the advertisements puts it, “to the Afro-inclined client.” Gallagher’s art is precious and hermetic. It doesn’t pull you in from across a room. It sits and waits. Which turns out to be enough.

While a large, white-painted jungle gym shows her trying to translate her ideas into three dimensions, the real action is on the walls. Like a latter-day Barbara Kruger, Gallagher makes us look, read, and get antsy at the same time. Altering each one of these appropriated pages, she might replace one wig with another, or color black hair blond. She likes to cut the paper, put little bug-eyes or hot-dog lips all over, change the faces, insert text, black out words, or white out eyes. Everything has been tampered with.

Obviously, Gallagher’s revisions have to do with race and stereotypes. But what distinguishes her from legions who use similar strategies isn’t how clear she makes her intentions, it’s the weird voodoo that inhabits her work. Gallagher is the rare socially conscious artist whose message is misleading and private. Everything is oddly off balance and perverse. Hit or miss, Gallagher nails it often enough here to keep you guessing and on your toes.


Hostile Witness

We’re all timepieces; some of us are just more timely than others. Is Barbara Kruger, whose flashy, jarring, bellicose retrospective is now on view at the Whitney, only yesterday’s artist, or can her warlike work still be heard today?

Heard is the operative word, for no one spoke louder or carried a more vengeful stick from one end of the 1980s to the other than Kruger. It’s hard to imagine a time less like Kruger’s than ours. Her art cross-examined our relationship to desire, race, gender games, and consumerism. Now we’re all shoppers. At the Whitney, amid an installation that is part big top, part revival meeting, and part walk-in pinball machine, I felt any ironic reference to Descartes waft away when I overheard a twentysomething man say, “I don’t get it,” as he looked at Kruger’s emblematic work declaring, “I Shop Therefore I Am.” His girlfriend added, “She seems so angry.”

Well, angry is one word for it. Others include incredulous, incendiary, and unequivocal. The ultimate hostile witness and grand inquisitor, Kruger is the crossover artist par excellence. Your parents know her style even if they don’t know who invented it. Kruger did covers for Newsweek and Esquire; her work appeared in The New York Times op-ed pages; she designed shopping bags, billboards, coffee cups, and bus posters, and was ripped off by countless graphic designers without protest. She did what artists are always saying they want to do: She brought her art to the world and to the street.

But maybe you just can’t go home again. Having had all this influence “out there,” Kruger’s been at a loss about what to do with her art for the last five years or so. Her graphic style, in place by 1981, hasn’t shown much development. She’s turned to Nauman-esque talking heads, and her texts are now being spoken by actors on videotape or by audio voice-overs. So is Kruger more social critic and graphic designer than artist?

Pardon me, but what the fuck does it matter? Kruger cut through the bullshit. She completely nailed the potential of her art, and made it absolutely clear that she was at war with bias. She was critical but not negative, opened up a wide aesthetic swath, and created something so forceful and indelible it could be called the Kruger Effect. It’s everywhere. What more do you want from an artist? That’s why it’s smug and supercilious to say Kruger’s art is just “advertising,” or that she’s only preaching to the converted. Ask women artists and artists of color if they think the art world has been converted. And if Kruger is nothing but a political artist, I guess that makes Bob Dylan one, too.

Kruger may be the Robert Oppenheimer of postconceptualism. She initiated her own private Manhattan Project in the late ’70s, when, as a lapsed painter and practicing pictures editor at Mademoiselle, she took a radical step. Kruger combined the volatile, free-floating atoms of conceptual art, photojournalism, text, and graphic design, borrowed from John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, and added liberal doses of feminism, disappointment, and sarcasm. The resulting mixture was so radioactive you could almost hear her echo Oppenheimer’s famous words as she released her work on an unsuspecting world: “I am become death.”

The effect was like a big bug splatting on a windshield at high speed. In this shocking, simple way, Kruger fused image and text into a high-powered whole. Not only is Kruger’s black-and-white-and-red format instantly recognizable, the words we, our, and your belong to her the way fluorescent fixtures belong to Flavin and crushed cars do to Chamberlain. I spent part of the ’80s fearful that I was one of the yous she was addressing. Now I often have students compose Krugerisms to illustrate how effective her method is. Some I remember are “We won’t play Lord of your Flies,” “Your ace isn’t in our hole,” “I am your kiss of death,” and “We won’t put our eggs in your basket.”

Without her, artists as disparate as Sue Williams, Lorna Simpson, and Sarah Lucas mightn’t have happened. Maybe even Jeff Koons’s will to power owes a little something to Kruger’s. In light of how completely she occupies the commanding, authoritative voice of the patriarch, Matisse’s laudatory words about Chardin fit Kruger to a tee: She’s “the father of us all.”

Which may be what freaks some people out. These days, Kruger’s Swiftian rants strike some as “ridiculous,” “embarrassing,” or “overwrought.” But isn’t that like saying she’s hysterical? Unfortunately, the Oppenheimer comparison plays itself out as farce with Kruger; the same way he was suspended as a “security risk,” Kruger’s critics label her as “over.” In America, nothing fails like success.

My advice is forget about the decade stuff and the labels. Let Kruger’s accomplishments speak for themselves; allow her work to overtake you. Kruger’s done what Patti Smith boasted: “i haven’t fucked much with the past, but i’ve fucked plenty with the future.” Or, look at it this way: In four months, we could elect another Bush as president. If so, who you gonna call?



I don’t much like my daughter sewing,” the novelist Colette remarked. “She is silent, and she—why not write down the word that frightens me—she is thinking.” For centuries, needlework and knitting kept women’s hands occupied while their minds worked in secret. The act of embroidery, so seemingly submissive to feminine domestic ideals, also served as a vast alibi for generations routinely denied the privacy and time for contemplation. Over the course of two decades, artist Elaine Reichek has stitched her way through works that draw upon the legacy of minimalist and conceptual art to explore the hidden terrain of unconscious processes and gender identification.

Currently, Reichek has transformed the Projects Room at MOMA into a quasi-domestic interior (soft gray walls, carpeting, and molding) for the display of samplers, based upon the small linen squares that girls and women traditionally embroidered with alphabets and homilies for their greater edification. Reichek’s sewn quotations (literary, mythological, etc.) suggest a tangle of cultural associations between feminine needlework, the unfurling of fate and fantasy, and the intricate webs of art and experience. (An engaging videotape by the artist, showing concurrently at Nicole Klagsbrun, uses clips from classic and contemporary films in which women knit and sew while concocting schemes of seduction and betrayal.)

Reichek’s references to art history mix high and popular culture—contrasting ornament, traditionally derided as lowly and feminine, with the stoicism and strictures of modernism, in particular, and linking 19th-century schoolgirl sewing to the language-based work of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Yet her witty and highly deliberate art is most moving when its patiently elaborated form endows pattern and language with a strangely corporeal presence in which the passage of time mingles with the pathos of anonymous toil.