Andy Warhol and the Photo Factory
Does it matter what he did and didn’t actually touch?
The policy at Fotografiska New York — the new satellite of Fotografiska Stockholm — is to travel as lightly as an immigrant. They own no photographs. They sell no photographs. They are a showplace. And that is meant to keep them “quickly responsive to ever changing societal issues.” But when they opened, just before the pandemic in April 2019, Arthur Lubow wrote in The New York Times that their first shows were “superficial and predictable.” And that “[t]he most impressive draw at Fotofgrafiska is its home, a six story Flemish Renaissance Revival building that was erected in 1894 as a mission house for the Episcopal Church next door.”
They had to close for covid restrictions until April 2021 when they started again. Their new headliner is Andy Warhol (1928–1985) and the show is called “Photo Factory” for which they have gathered an Edie Sedgwick screen test taken in the Factory, a Lou Reed clip from 1965 when the Velvet Underground was practicing there, and 120 of Warhol’s polaroids of famous people, including self-portraits, as well as some of the stitched images he did at the end of his life. The challenge with Warhol is that he has been done so many times and is being done at museums all over the world — this show opened just before a huge multi-city retrospective ended and a show has just opened at the Brooklyn Museum — that each place wants to tell a new story about the same overworked material.
There is a huge amount of work to choose from but that elusive point about whether he actually touched a piece or not seems to have been on the mind of Amanda Hujjar the “director of exhibitions” at Fotografiska. The film clips were made before Warhol hired other people to make them. The polaroids he took before giving them to assistants to make silk screens from them. And the stitched photographs, only a few, I would argue are some of the most personal work he ever made. He was not a confessional artist. (Which should settle the much-debated topic of whether he was Catholic or not.) He was a Commercial Artist. An illustrator, an imitator. In the 80s, deep into his career, he said his “art medium was money.” He knew what was coming. He shaped what was coming.
And still his silkscreens sell today for hundreds of millions of dollars. What are we buying? And who was Andy Warhol anyway? And what does this show contribute to our understanding of him?
Let’s begin in Pittsburgh with a family photograph taken professionally in 1930 with two-year-old Andy on his mother Julia’s knee, her arm wrapped around him. She is looking straight into the lens, daring us to doubt her. The original poker face in Andy’s life. But here the little toddler’s face is swollen under the eyes, he’s been crying. In his hand there is a pencil Julia would have put there to calm him. Don’t cry, draw, she told him over and over in his childhood. This is the imprint his mother made: will is destiny. Then sell it in a photograph.
But where did she get the pencil and the nice clothes and how did she pay the photographer? This was Pittsburgh during the depression. She and her husband Andrej were Slavs, the lowest of the low so they got the worst jobs and the least pay. Don’t think about it, just act like something and that’s what you are, his mother told him. But the brilliant kid must’ve had his doubts.
His mother was a desperate woman, a maid who earned $1 a day when she had work but saw herself as — and told her children she was — an avant-garde artist. She taught her three sons to draw, but Andy the youngest, and the only one who looked like her as a girl, was the one she decided had talent.
There is a story that on days when she didn’t have work she dragged her three sons knocking on doors “selling decorative flowers made from cut up peach cans.” If that’s true she must’ve taken the cans from the garbage in the houses where she worked. At the Warhola’s there was a garden she cooked from and the occasional chicken in the yard. They didn’t shop in a market. There was no larder. There were no cans.
So the story that they sometimes had soup made of water, salt, pepper and ketchup, well, she must’ve stolen everything but the water. And the family must’ve thought it was for a good cause. So they didn’t ask. How much would it hurt her employers to feed them, they might have wondered? For a Catholic sharing with the poor was part of the creed. They were making good Catholics of her employers.
The family was held together with lies it told itself. This worked in bad times and good. When Andy was six, his family moved to a house their father had managed to buy for $3,200 in cash. “It looks like the years in cheap and uncheerful Soho could have been a financial choice, to help save for a home, rather than because the family simply could not afford better.” [1.] Slavs were sometimes said to be the pushiest and the most ambitious, too.
The move to the house also put Andy in a grand school for first grade. They had an orchestra and an art program, and he got As in art, but it was still Pittsburgh in the 1930s and he was effeminate, he drew butterflies when his brothers drew football players. There’s a story he went home crying from school. There’s another that he got sick that year and his mother got him drawing to get through it. There’s a teacher who says he was great at drawing and his brothers remember him winning prizes for it. But he developed a nervous condition. It’s a must for a genius in America.
His family never seemed to notice outright that Andy looked like a girl, instead they indulged him like one. A Brownie camera came into the house, and he commandeered it. His brothers built him a darkroom. Later, he longed to be Marilyn Monroe. Did he dress up? He told his mother he wanted to show movies when he grew up and in a house where they didn’t have a phone she bought him a projector. He showed Mickey Mouse cartoons on the wall. So much of what he made as an artist was taken literally from his childhood. A time of financial stinginess in the family, all but the art supplies which his mother lavished on the boys, along with magazines and newspapers to copy from.
In 1942, Andy’s father died. But he left savings for fourteen-year-old Andy to go to college. His brothers quit school and went to work. Andy, who had always been treated like royalty at home, was nearly kicked out after a lazy freshman year at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Working for his brother Paul that summer, selling and delivering vegetables, must’ve woken the artist up, and he drew the produce obsessively for a portfolio that got him back in to school.
If drawing taught Warhol to imitate, the artist Marcel Duchamp, who he learned about in college, gave the student justification to be unattached to the meaning in things. In Paris 1915, Marcel Duchamp was fighting for inclusion in an exhibition, when he chose what we now call a “Readymade” and said, “My idea was to choose an object that wouldn’t attract me, either by its beauty or by its ugliness. To find a point of indifference in my looking at it.” His object was not allowed in the show. So he went to New York where judges claimed to be impartial. He was mad now so he signed a urinal and put it on a pedestal and offered it as art with his new definition. When again he was told no, he threw the piece away. Art was only art because people said it was, otherwise it was just a pot to pee in.
How much confidence that would give a puny kid with skin rashes and debilitating shyness from steel town who had to face a future somehow. Duchamp gave art students a manifesto to live and work by (he still does.) Warhol could let go of all those pesky feelings that complicate things. He could change the spelling of his name to make it his. He could speak in a breathy voice to sound gay. If he went to church it was to get ideas to make things. There were no lies, only performances. Going to New York where he took on Conceptual art and was told he’d invented Pop art must’ve been like going to another country for him. But liberating.
He didn’t have to be anybody. He just had to pay for everybody, and they’d be somebody for him. To get there “like a Czech tank” he rolled his way through New York from 1949–1959 as an illustrator whose drawings had style and he executed them with speed. For every drawing commissioned he delivered a stack. And as he began to earn, and he could afford to move out of cockroach, bed bug infested, moldy sublets he developed a personal style, too. Or lack of style. When he had no money he threw paint on his shoes and mud on his collar which got refined into a grey suit from Brooks Brothers with the buttons on funny. But after 1960, when he was pushing to become an artist, he began looking after himself physically, doing exercises with a trainer. The pretense was weakness, but underneath he was stronger than most.
He bought a four-story house and hired assistants to make silkscreens from photos of newspapers and comics and everyday objects. Does it matter whose idea it was to use the Campbell’s soup? Warhol was the producer. He made choices. He wore a black and white striped shirt a la Picasso which made him look like a gay guy dressing up playing artist. He associated himself with the established artist like a tourist wearing a souvenir. Warhol didn’t want to paint. He didn’t want to be taken seriously as an artist. Picasso was a great businessman. A great image maker. That’s what turned Warhol’s head.
Cambell’s soup didn’t mean much to him as a kid. Pittsburgh was famous for being the home of Heinz. But putting the images of 32 choices of the best-selling brand on a sheet, all the kinds the company made, was a buyer’s dream. And if Andy was anything he was a buyer.
Marilyn came after the soup. Now Marilyn was certainly his idea. She was a gay icon since childhood. So he took a picture from a magazine, like he’d done with his mother, and he made it his with colors. He used black first in the silkscreen, so it seeped through the perky pink and yellow. It brought out the trashy feeling about her. But then it happened that he was working on the series when she committed suicide and trashy became tragic. So the pictures looked like he knew it was coming. And critics began to appreciate his work.
In five years, he’d take a trip to Paris and let his last “painting” go into the sky — a mylar balloon he’d invented for the occasion. That was his announcement that he was retiring in 1965. Andy should have been recognized as a showman.
Duchamp would create a female alter ego as his swan song and then announced he would play chess from 1923 on. Not compete in tournaments. Not even be an amateur with a rating. No he was going to study chess. It was a way of retreating from judgement.
When Warhol became a filmmaker in 1965, he mounted a newsreel camera on a tripod, pointed it at his lover asleep, got six-and-a-half hours of footage that he and his assistant, Gerard Malanga, turned into eight hours. It was more surveillance than experimental and he had a hard time getting anyone to watch it. Soon he got the idea that he had all these wannabes hanging around the Factory and that the tawdry silver palace made a good set so he turned the camera on for anybody who wanted to be in front of it.
He used the mounting number of drug addicts and the disproportionate number of drag queens to advantage. He was “sponsoring the Velvet Underground” then, too, so groupies were part of the scene. And musicians. Like his high school where music was played and art was made. Everyone was “doing their own thing.” And he called them all “Superstars.” Go straight to Superstar, do not pass go. An assertion. A pretty lie that hurt in rehab.
The show at Fotografiska begins in 1965 with a screen test of Edie Sedgwick, who he favored early on. She was part of old money New York that Andy wanted into. She wanted to be an actress. And she wasn’t the first to try and please her director by imitating him. She cut her hair and died the top silver like his. She wore the shirt a la Picasso. He had her speak for him in public. There’s a clip of them on the Merv Griffin Show where they are introduced as “a couple.” But she paid for everything. And she introduced him into society in the city. And he wouldn’t even stay with the camera once he turned it on.
Sedgwick and Stagg are trying for parts in the film that will be called “Beauty 1.” They need to have chemistry and they just can’t create it. Their timing doesn’t jibe. Stagg is the problem. You can see in the test Warhol did just before this with Stagg alone on screen that his mind and his reflexes are too quick. The moving camera frustrates him. He slows down a bit for the test with Sedgwick but when that looks forced he must know it because he gets angry.
Sedgwick looks past the camera as if to say to Warhol, ‘this isn’t working.’ Stagg looks at Sedgwick as if to say, ‘It’s your fault.’ Friction is eternal. It makes you think about desire and the way power plays into it.
Sedgwick has the upper hand in “Beauty 1,” but no feminist she, she doesn’t want it. Early in the making of it, Warhol replaces Stagg with the elegant Gino Piserchio. Sedgwick is a different person with him. He needles her about what she doesn’t know and that embarrasses her and turns her on. The harder she tries to impress him the queasier we feel.
Maybe that began to eat away at her. Something did, people blame her childhood now. And the drugs.
What she said was she wanted to be a real actress. And she wanted Andy to pay her. When he refused she told him to shelve her films. And he did. He made a few more and then he shelved all the others, too. And he hired Paul Morrissey to make films for him. He’d never gotten much of an audience. And in 1968 (the year Duchamp died) Warhol said he had “a lot of mouths to feed and it was time to bring home the bacon.” He moved out of the factory into a bigger place where silkscreens could be made in one room and passed through to Andy who gave them to the clients.
In the transition, all those bit players had to find a new hangout. One of them, Valerie Solanas, convinced herself that Warhol was going off with a play she’d written; that he was going to make it without her. He was sued constantly for taking other people’s work and selling it (like the peach cans) so it wasn’t that much of a stretch. But Solanas was later diagnosed a schizophrenic and she got carried away with her imagination. She brought a gun into Andy’s new “Office” and shot him twice in the stomach. BANG! BANG! They thought he was dead in the hospital, but he ended up there for two months in bed eating candy and watching Divorce Court.
And afterwards people observed that he felt differently about women. He hung out almost exclusively with men acting like women. In 1971, he sent his mother — who had been living with him since 1953! — home. Will could not stop a bullet, maybe the bullet was destiny.
That year Edie Sedgwick died of an overdose. And when he was asked if he felt badly, Warhol said, “Oh who cares, just another girl who overdosed.” The next year his mother died hoping for a visit from Andy. By then he admits, “If I had feelings, I’d have a nervous breakdown.”
It didn’t stop him producing an extraordinary amount of work, but he put less of himself into it. He went back to making silkscreens but this time he didn’t appropriate the photographs. He didn’t need to anymore. Famous people flocked to his Office. Rich people invited him to their parties. He put people on a chair in front of a white seamless and took polaroids of them. Assistants did the rest. Including signing his name. Nobody was sure how many of any one set was made. Does it really matter how many there are if he didn’t actually make them?
The polaroids are all over lit, everyone looks like a ghost. The late 60s and early 70s was when audiences began looking for more realism in art. And those polaroids looked like he knew those stars on screen were just smoke; just a bunch of pretty liars. But that was too depressing so he’d say it but cheerily in the silkscreens. He only sold the silkscreens. So they remain more valuable while the polaroids have that much more cachet. He’d always been hard to pin down which added value to what he withheld. And they’re part of his process, part of the truth, which for him is saying something. It’s like catching someone on camera who isn’t posing. Warhol said, “My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous.” But he was the great performer, the one who taught us to understand the ego is us interviewing ourselves.
He was so brave at facing lost, complicated, entrenched people, and their crazy ideas, but after he was shot he was terrified of hospitals. He’d never paid the doctor who saved his life. Was it because he was afraid that would mean it really happened? Or was he mad the doctor didn’t think the patient would live and so he made giant stitches thinking they didn’t need to last? By the early 80s every gay man was afraid of hospitals. AIDS was killing half the people Andy knew. “The most serious love affair in Andy’s life”[2.] Jon Gould (who happened also to be my first boyfriend in college in 1973) died at 70 pounds and blind. I shouldn’t tell you that? Look, I’m the producer.
After Gould was gone in 1986, Warhol started hiring models to make pictures of erect penises. Even an upper arm becomes a phallus. A bunch of bananas. None of the members are floppy, there is an insistence on them being alive. All except this one image in the show at Fotografiska, the last one, made just before Warhol dies.
This is the one picture where the penis is not beautiful, it is not even the point, the torso takes up half the image. The man is falling backwards. He’s been hit. He’s reaching behind to brace himself against the landing. Warhol must be worrying terribly. There’s a gall bladder operation, a simple procedure they say, that he’s been putting off for years though he’s been in terrible pain. It’s been six months since Gould died and Warhol must’ve decided to have the operation.
The stitches that bind the images together (and give the series its name) are what Warhol got after he was shot and will surely get again after the gall bladder is taken out.
But there is no fear on the actor’s face. He’s acting. Like the one below which is about the torso and the stitches and the faint: ‘oh me?’ Was I shot? Ha ha.
When they open him up gangrene spills out. And he dies February 22, 1987, age 58. But there’s another thing that had made that procedure so terrifying to him and kept him from having it done for years. His dad, Andrej, big Andy, died after a botched gall bladder operation in 1941. Little Andy never told anyone. Showmen gossip, they don’t confess. For Warhol we have to imagine that his experience was best described by something Calvin said to Hobbs in a cartoon: “Reality continues to ruin my life.”
Andy Warhol Photo Factory September 10 — January 23, 2022 at Fotografiska- New York, 281 Park Avenue
 “Warhol” by Blake Gopnik, 2020, Ecco, New York. S.F. Public Library e-book edition page #.
[2.] “Warhol” by Blake Gopnik, 2020, Ecco, New York. S.F. Public Library e-book edition page #1087.