Andy Warhol was fascinated by fame, glory and glamour throughout his entire life. The figure of the star constructed by the media was at once a prototype and an object of experimentation for Warhol. It can be repeatedly found in numerous variations in his work, from the start of his artistic career until his death. Andy Warhol himself applied in many and varied ways mechanisms and strategies of staging in his art and in the multiverse of the Factory. Against the background of theatrical strategies, questions related to identity and the construction of identity, to the perception of the self and the other, repeatedly become evident.
Apart from staging and theatricality as leitmotifs of Warhol's art, one can find two complementary strategies: collecting and documenting, issues to be discussed later.
Warhol began taking up the subject of Hollywood stars for the first time at the beginning of the 1960s. Only major stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, and others interested him as models staged by the media. It is especially due to their stylised artificiality that Warhol preferred to depict them in typical film roles. This reveals not only content-related but also strategic considerations: as a former commercial artist, he was familiar with the way in which the system of mass media functioned and therefore made deliberate use of the fame of others to partake in their popularity. Warhol was well aware of the fact that fame sells well, but also of how artificial such fame, produced and spread by the mass media, can be.
In this context, the stylisation and mise-en-scène of one's own persona was also of great importance to Warhol. As early as in 1957, he had his nose altered through cosmetic surgery. From the mid-1960s on, he wore silver-coloured wigs with a deliberate artificial look and took appetite suppressants because he thought he was overweight. Moreover, Warhol began wearing make-up to cover his bad skin. He gave himself a pale complexion to intensify the contrast to his preferred dark attire. Both his make-up and the conspicuous wig were reminiscent of the artificiality of female Hollywood stars of the 1940s and 50s. By stylising himself to a kind of artificial blonde, this exaggerated appropriation made it clear that a star is not simply born but a synthetic product. Through his parodistic imitation of what one associates with a star or diva, he exposed the artificiality of this construction and thus produced a kind of artificial aura for himself.
In early 1964, Warhol moved with the Factory to a large loft, located in the shade of the Empire State Building. Inspired by Billy Name, a lighting technician who worked for off-Broadway productions, he had each last centimetre of the space – walls, floor, ceiling, toilet bowls, light bulbs – covered with silver foil or painted silver. The whole studio was transformed into a gigantic glittering mirror: This was the birth of the legendary Silver Factory, which in the coming years was to become the hub of Warhol's universe – not only as a space of production but also as a stage and the creative living and working environment of its protagonists.
In 1965, Warhol announced that he would stop producing screen prints and from now on focus on film. This was both a well-considered advertising measure and a clever move, since it spurred the demand for his works. Although Warhol never really ceased to produce pictures, he did increasingly turn to the medium of film in the following years.
With Factory Films Inc., he established his own small world of cinema, populated by innumerable actors and actresses he declared to be 'superstars.' This was Warhol's personal response and a kind of alternative to the great and mighty Hollywood industry. The discrepancy between reality and film is constitutive of Hollywood's dream machine. The alternative film scene in New York, and particularly the Factory's film production, sought to reproduce reality in an unvarnished manner and to thus abolish the difference between film and reality. Underground film did not have stars in the classical sense. Warhol's so-called superstars were in reality not stars at all – instead, the term adopted from Hollywood ironically appropriated it. Warhol's principle of the superstar was therefore no more than a claim to, or noncommittal promise of fame. Edie Sedgwick, Nico, Brigid Berlin, Baby Jane Holzer, International Velvet, Ingrid Superstar, Candy Darling, Ondine, Taylor Mead: none were trained actors/actresses and in Warhol's film's they were to play no other role than themselves.
Hollywood's professionalism in depicting fictions in a convincingly authentic way was countered by Warhol's films showing real-life amateurism. Long sequences without cuts and almost no changes in the camera position negated the conventions of ordinary narrative cinema, which one is familiar with from Hollywood. Unplanned dialogues, relaxed camera pans, and the deliberate awkwardness of the actors were meant to suggest directness.
One of Warhol's most creative phases abruptly ended with an assassination attempt on June 3, 1968, by Valerie Solanas, who was associated with the extended Factory circle. At this point in time, Warhol was renowned merely in the New York art and film scene. The attack and the associated fuss in the media, though, made Warhol a public personality. Warhol's urge to stage himself appeared to have been exceeded by the reality of his own life.
After his convalescence, Warhol restructured the Factory. It was converted into a space mainly dedicated to the production of pictures and films. Access was now denied to a large part of the protagonists of the Silver Factory.
The magazine titled Interview, published for the first time in autumn of 1969 (initially as a film magazine with film reviews and interviews), offered Warhol the opportunity to approach his obsessions with Hollywood, its stars, glamour and fame, in the form of a monthly magazine.
Interview was based on a totally new concept: celebrities were interviewed by celebrities, creating a personal, almost intimate level of dialogue that gave the ordinary reader the illusion of taking part in the world of the rich and beautiful. Within just a few years, Interview became a magazine dealing with all areas of popular culture and a platform for fashion, art, music, TV, gossip, and nightlife. More and more parallels arose between the editorial policy of Interview and the social environment of the Factory, not least reflecting Warhol's world which was meanwhile full of celebrities. The success of Interview lent Warhol, for the first time, the power to launch and produce stars himself.
Warhol simultaneously began making an effort to receive portrait commissions and in the 1970s developed the system of 'Pay to become a Warhol star.' The principle was as democratic as it was simple: everyone could have their portrait done by Warhol for the standard price of $ 25,000. The screen-print portraits were based on Polaroids which Warhol reworked. Detached from the picture's background and lent sharp contrasts, the results were less character studies of the portrayed personalities than manipulated images of stylised artificiality staged for the media. Warhol produced more than 1,000 portraits of both famous and less famous persons from high society, the world of music, fashion, media, sports, and business, from public and private life.
Through the success of Interview, Warhol became a member of New York's high society. At all times equipped with a camera, he was a welcomed guest at the parties of the rich and beautiful. But he usually stayed just a few minutes, knowing very well that he ennobled the events with his perfectly staged, short appearances. During this period, he took innumerable photographs that document his social relationship to the stars and starlets of the American as well as international jet set.
Warhol was just as fascinated with the idea of (alleged) neutral stocktaking as he was with the artificiality of fame, glory and glamour. His focus was on documentary strategies such as his obsessive passion for collecting and his almost compulsive attempt at comprehensively documenting his living and working environment.
Already in the Death and Disaster series of the early 1960s, which was based on newspaper photos of accidents and catastrophes, a documentary strategy, in the sense of appropriating existing, already reproduced images, became evident – something with which Warhol directly addressed the mediatisation of the experience of reality at the time.
Between the poles of personal involvement and distanced documentation, many of Warhol's early films were shot as monotonous one-to-one reproductions of extensive daily activities, for example, a sleeping friend of the artist in the five-and-a-half-hour film titled Sleep, the one-and-a-half-hour smoking of a cigar (Henry Geldzahler), Blow Job, or the close to 500 Screen Tests – motionless four-minute portraits of persons from Warhol's surroundings or guests of the Factory. All of these films intensified the experience of time through the fixed camera and the duration and monotony of what was shown.
In addition to the medium of film, Warhol used a tape recorder for his documentation mania, with which he recorded hundreds of hours of conversations and phone calls. The perhaps best-known result is the book a. a novel from 1968. It is not a novel in the classical sense, but consists of transcribed tape recordings of conversations in the Factory. And everything was indeed written down: apart from what was spoken, all repetitions, slips of the tongue, coughs, and sounds. In the way it is conceived, a resembles Warhol's films: there is no plot, everything has an open form, the participants act in a totally free manner, improvising or simply being themselves.
Warhol used the camera in a similar fashion. He constantly took photos wherever he was. Thousands of photos were shot as a kind of visual diary, some of which he used in the 1970s as models for his screen prints. These are photos of his travels, outings, everyday activities, surroundings, and time and again of dinners, receptions, parties, and Studio 54. Warhol's photos are evidence of a radical superficiality which remains valid and influential until today. Warhol was the mirror of a society that gratified its need for vanity and at the same time exposed it. In this context, the mentioned magazine Interview can be regarded as a sort of chronicle and documentation of the world of American celebrities in the 1970s and 80s.
From 1974 on, Warhol collected everything he didn't film, photograph or record and deemed worth saving in his daily life in packing cases. Until his death, 610 of these Time Capsules were compiled, containing for the most part photos, newspapers, magazines, letters from fans, business and private letters, exhibition catalogues, phone messages, invitations to dinners, readings, shows, parties, and much more. In their entirety, they give incomparable insights into Warhol's working environment and life-world. But at the same time, they are also a mirror and collective memory of American society in the 1970s and 80s.
Warhol's diaries give an in-depth view into the last decade of his life. Each morning from 1976 to 1986 he dictated to his private secretary, Pat Hackett, his detailed experiences of the previous day over the phone. After his death, this contemporary document of several hundred pages was published in 1989 under the title The Andy Warhol Diaries.
All these 'instruments' served Andy Warhol to document his living and working environment. Yet they should not be grasped solely as autobiographical recordings in the conventional sense. Instead, they show Warhol in the role of a distanced observer and chronicler of his times.
Warhol died on February 22, 1987, as a result of a gall bladder operation. He left assets of close to half a billion dollars. When his house was entered for the first time, the huge variety of Warhol's private property and his various collections came as more than a surprise. Although it was known that Warhol went on extensive shopping sprees through antique stores and flea markets in the neighbourhood on his daily walk to the Factory, only now did one learn that he had collected more than 10,000 pieces over the years. His collection included exquisite Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture, jewels, watches and jewellery, Indian art, folk art, photographs, paintings, prints, and contemporary art. In 1988 it was offered under the title The Andy Warhol Collection in a six-day auction at Sotheby's, the hitherto largest in the company's history.
As contrasting as the two discussed 'poles' – staging / theatricality and documentation / collecting obsession – may seem, due to their simultaneousness in Warhol's life and creative work, they supplement each other in an almost complementary way, establishing a central theme to be consistently found in the artist's life and work. They are thus the leitmotif under which Warhol's varied oeuvre can be subsumed.
This essay has been published in: The Eternal Now – Warhol and the Factory, Cat. The Model Arts and Niland Gallery, Sligo; Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork; Ikon Eastside, Birmingham, 2008.
© 2008 Jan Winkelmann