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Other titles in the Penguin Lives Biographies series:
Andy Warhol (Penguin Lives Biographies)
Andy Warhol (Penguin Lives), Chapter One
ON AUGUST 6, 1945, the United States dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima. That day, Andrew Warhola celebrated his seventeenth birthday. Asexual albino Andy, author of a: a novel, was born Andrew Warhola, but eventually he dropped the ultimate a in his last name. The extra a was clunky, ethnic. Dropped objects incite curiosity and dread; repressed from sight, they reappear. He may have dropped the a because it allowed his name to symbolize more belligerently: Andy War Hole. In any case, he retained a fondness for the letter a; its dialectical opposite, as far as he was concerned, was the letter b.
No trauma in Andy's early life compares to a dropped atomic bomb. And yet it's apt that America should have dropped the A-bomb on Andy's birthday, though he had not yet, in 1945, entered popular consciousness or climbed art's A-list. Critics would later fault him for caring about A-lists to the exclusion of the human catastrophes inflicted and suffered by the United States, the country he adored (he titled his last book America). He grew up during the Depression, in a bone-poor immigrant family, and his art is an American response to American deprivation. He took symbolism seriously; he believed that a puny kid whose mother bought him a movie projector when he was eight might impersonate a monument, that little Andrew Warhola might ripen into a representative man, the archetypal anti-artist.
In 1965 he would commemorate the bomb and, indirectly, his birth, in a silkscreen painting, Atomic Bomb, an explosive self-portrait-an image of Andy as international trauma. Trauma was the motor of his life, and speech the first wound: painful for him to speak, to write, to be interviewed. One way he could mobilize words was to employ lists and repetitions. At the end of an interview in John Hallowell's book The Truth Game (1969), Andy launches one of his lists. Its repetitions lubricate impeded speech and forestall rapport with the interlocutor. Screening out Hallowell's nosy questions, Andy says, "Favorite tie, favorite pickle, favorite ring, favorite Dixie cup, favorite ice cream, favorite hippie, favorite record, favorite song, favorite movie, favorite Indian, favorite penny, favorite feet, favorite fish, favorite saint, favorite sin, favorite Beatle..." Traumas repeat. Being male was traumatic. Being unbeautiful was traumatic. Being sick was traumatic. Being operated on was traumatic. Being snubbed was traumatic. Moving was traumatic. Standing still was traumatic. To invoke his never-disappearing traumas is not to assert that a villain wounded him. After all, the earth is a traumatic place. It was rough for Eve, for Jesus, for Joan of Arc, and for Julia Warhola, Andy's mother.
Julia Warhola was born Julia Zavacky on November 17, 1892, in Mikova, in the former Czechoslovakia. Initially, she didn't want to marry Andy's father, the first Andy-Andrej, born November 28, 1889, also in Mikova. Her father beat her into accepting the proposal; she was further persuaded by candy that Andrej offered. When interviewed by Esquire in the late 1960s, she said, "My Daddy beat me, beat me to marry him....I cry. I no know. Andy visit again. He brings me candy. I no have candy. He brings me candy, wonderful candy. And for this candy, I marry him." Candy, trauma: these were the alpha of Julia's marriage and the omega of her son's art. Julia loved candy, and so did little Andy. No wonder that the greatest drag queen in his eventual orbit should have named herself Candy Darling, in coincidental homage to his favorite drug. In his fanciful The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (ghostwritten by Pat Hackett and others, and called on its original title page THE Philosophy, the definite article-like the indefinite-a source of mystery to Andy), he recounts that his mother gave him candy bars as reward for every page completed in a coloring book. As an adult, he continued to dote on sweets. Tom Wolfe reports Andy refusing food at society dinner parties and declaring, "Oh, I only eat candy"; after he was shot in 1968, and could, for a time, only tolerate liquids, he would retreat to the restaurant Serendipity 3 on East Sixtieth Street and nurse a Frozen Hot Chocolate.
Beaten into marriage, bribed by candy, Julia suffered a second trauma: in 1913, after her husband left for the United States in search of work, leaving her in the old country, their first child, Justina, died; according to Victor Bockris, whose biography provides the fullest recounting of Warhol's early years, the infant died because "she had been unable to move her bowels." Food-candy, soup-and its evacuation are a thread in his work; movement or stillness of bowels proved vital to the Warhola family and the Warhol career (or any family, any career). Julia describes the death of her first child: "My husband leaves and then everything bad. My husband leaves and my little daughter dies. I have daughter, she dies after six weeks. She catch cold. No doctor. We need doctor, but no doctor in town. Oh, I cry. Oh, I go crazy when baby died. I open window and yell, 'My baby dies.'" (She began weeping.) "My baby dead. My little girl."
Little Andy might have been haunted by the dead infant girl left behind in her grave in Czechoslovakia, after Julia emigrated in 1921 to join her husband in Pittsburgh, where he'd found employment as construction worker; Mrs. Warhola was a histrionic storyteller, particularly about her life in Eastern Europe, and she may often have discussed dead Justina with her other babies. She had three more. The first two-Paul, born in 1922, and John, born in 1925-grew into virile and sturdy lads. Andy, third and last, born in 1928, was a different proposition. Masculinity was a subject he failed from the start.
Indeed, masculinity, a discipline, grounds the elementary curriculum, and so Andy wanted to skip school and stay home with Julia, left alone with the kids while his father, Andrej, a stocky man who seems to have been neither spectacularly kind nor unkind, traveled to scattered construction sites. Andy's first documented trauma concerns school failure. The various studios and factories he later formed were compensatory pedagogical institutions, like reform schools or special-ed classes; through queer ateliers, he attempted to smash the template of mass instruction, and to impart knowledge differently. At the early age of four, Andy matriculated at Soho Elementary School-for one day only. Apparently, a girl hit him; he burst into tears and was so traumatized that he didn't return to school for two years. He would retain an aversion to school's harness or to any dogmatic confinements. His refusal of school, in 1932, was his first anarchic act-a revolution without a context. Tears later changed to calculated dissensions.
When he returned to school two years later, he made friends with girls, not boys. Quickly he realized that boys' life was anathema, that boys would fail him; that only girls were amusing, useful, and sympathetic. Mother was a girl, a candy purveyor, and an artist-she scissored tin cans into floral shapes and sold them door to door for twenty-five cents. She offered him treasures: flowers, cans, candy, chatter.
Andy's next trauma, after the failure to enter school, was the disease, St. Vitus' Dance, or chorea, that struck him when he was eight. (In the quixotic Philosophy, he calls it a nervous breakdown. One should remember, when trying to take his books at face value, that he didn't entirely write them, and that he was a liar.) Biographer Bockris reports that Andy came down with St. Vitus' Dance in the autumn of 1938, and that illness kept him away from school, an invalid at his mother's side; he occupied a bed off the kitchen for a month. Symptoms of chorea included skin blotches and uncontrolled shaking. Both echoed in Warhol's future, and though he left no direct verbal commentary about what it felt like to shake or to endure dermatological disfigurement, in his mature artworks he refracted these experiences, letting stigma reverberate in painting, film, and performance. I will digress-or zoom chronologically ahead-to describe these later artistic recastings of St. Vitus' Dance, for they represent childhood trauma's consummation, cancellation, and vindication.
By the time Andy became famous, in the early 1960s, the blotches had gone away, but they marked his face in adolescence and early adulthood, and he had bad skin his entire life; bad skin links him to Dorian Gray's pustular portrait, hidden by the smooth-skinned cheat. Films and paintings were dermatological cures and fountains of youth: canvas allowed Warhol to feel thick-skinned, as celluloid's transparency gave him a scarless skin of air and light. Few snapshots fully reveal Andy's blotches, but one set, taken by his friend Leila Singleton Davies, shows him cavorting in New York, in the late 1940s, with friends, and the discolored patterns on his face and neck resemble jigsaw ovoids. Facial blotches reappeared in his series of 1970s paintings that copied military camouflage patterns-the style used in Vietnam, a war that he didn't go out of his way to protest, except indirectly, through films in which his improvising actors wanly offered pacifist sentiments. He also made self-portraits in which he superimposed camouflage protozoa-boomerangs, squiggles-onto his face: these protective designs, meant to give soldiers a lizard's adaptability, resembled the skin blotches that made Andy feel exposed and reptilian.
Blotches recurred in the colored gel projections cast on members of the Velvet Underground (the rock band he sponsored in the 1960s) in multimedia presentations that traveled under the name Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and also in his movie The Chelsea Girls (1966): Pop colors streak the face of chanteuse Nico and the dancing body of faunlike Eric Emerson, Andy's Nijinsky, and suggest that beauty consists in adulterated skin, scarified by blotches that resemble peninsulas, islands, or rocks, and that lack human referent. Finally, let me float the hypothesis that Warhol's two primary artistic methods, the "blotted line" technique (an inked image blotted onto another sheet, like lipstick on a tissue) and silkscreening, are elaborate forms of blotching, in compensatory mimicry of his skin-correcting the flaw by imitating it mechanically and making it seem expensive and attractive.
We are leaping ahead of our story. Andy hasn't yet discovered silkscreening or the blotted line. Not yet an artist, he is eight years old, dreaming of Shirley Temple and writing away for her autographed picture, and he is covered with blotches. To boot, he is shaking-not like Martha Graham, but like a spastic.
His original aspiration was to be a tap dancer, like his first idol, Shirley Temple. Coming down with chorea, he became a sort of dancer. The uncontrolled shaking, at first undiagnosed, leading others to think him clumsy and febrile, took the Shirley fantasy somewhere dark: tap is conscious, while St. Vitus' Dance is hapless. The debate that will later rage over whether Warhol made his own art, or whether he just had assistants do it, begins with the chorea question: who controls Andy's physical movements? His entire career, he will want to pretend not to be their author. From the age of eight he understood possession: and therefore he would revise the myth of artistic inspiration, whether demonic or aetherial, and reconceive his body as a machine transmitting movements that bypass consciousness and willpower, that automatically repeat, and that embarrass. When he was a college student at Carnegie Tech, studying art and design, he joined the Modern Dance Club, consisting entirely of young women, himself excepted. Arriving in New York, he would live with dancers. His films feature dancers, such as the aforementioned 1965 portrait of Paul Swan-more Gloria Swanson than Rudolf Nureyev. Another dancer who would illustrate, for Warhol, the confusion between deliberate gesture and unwilled spasm was Freddy Herko, who appeared in several early films, and who literally danced himself to death (suggesting a vestige of Totentanz in St. Vitus' Dance): Freddy put Mozart's Coronation Mass on the hi-fi and leaped out the window.
Andy's St. Vitus' Dance (and the sickbed time spent with his mother) may not have sent him melodramatically into death's arms, but it altered his sense of touch-heightening it, turning it into a difficulty not lightly to be engaged. Thereafter he preferred not to be touched; hyperaesthetic, Andy as an adult would visibly recoil when a person attempted a handshake, a hug.
After St. Vitus' Dance, with its erratic movements, Andy next would confront stillness. His father died when Andy was thirteen. According to Julia, her husband drank poisoned water: "Andy was young boy when my husband die. In 1942. My husband three years sick. He go to West Virginia to work, he go to mine and drink water. The water was poison. He was sick for three years. He got stomach poisoning. Doctors, doctors, no help." Andy would remain fascinated by motionlessness-resting bodies, arrested by photography; his movies (which he and assistant Gerard Malanga called "stillies") preferred static objects and near-motionless individuals. The film moved, but the subjects didn't. Nor do boxes or paintings move. The only thing moving, in much of Warhol's art, is time, lapping over icons.
Andy was terrified of his father's dead body: downstairs, laid out for three days, as was customary (the family was Byzantine Catholic). Andy refused to pay his respects. He hid under his bed. Death, he now understood, was permanent stillness; until then, it might not have occurred to him that motion, a St. Vitus' affliction he'd wanted to stop, would eventually halt forever. Andrej's dead body, with Julia sitting beside it, proved motion to be not such a bad thing.
Warhol may have been afraid to face his father's embalmed form in 1942, but in 1963 he revisited it by making his first film, Sleep-five or so hours of John Giorno sleeping (not directly transcribed time, but an artfully recomposed collage, shot perhaps over several nights, much footage repeated). Apparently, Mrs. Warhola liked watching her son sleep, as he liked watching his boyfriends sleep; spying on motionlessness is a rather specialized erotic discipline. Sleep's secret is that the snoozer is by no means paralyzed: Giorno moves his arm, his face shudders, his stomach rises and falls, and the camera's angle changes. Nor is desire-Andy's or the viewer's-motionless: my eye enjoys this handsome nude body, and, as the film progresses, I hope that more flesh will be revealed. (As I recall, the camera never entirely sees his penis.) To realize the dozing body's significance takes time. Only after three hours did I recognize it as the dead Andrej recapitulated, finally given his due. At last, Andy performs his filial vigil; Sleep is a wake. Furthermore, he turns the horrified, deferred encounter into erotic play: the father's stillness was originally traumatic, but now it is an intimate aesthetic ritual-between Warhol, Giorno (who consents to be filmed), and the viewer (who consents to watch). Andy might have hoped for response-that the father will rise. Erotic anticipation makes the film's long duration bearable: will the sleeper thrill to our watchfulness, or will he remain indifferent? At times the body seems a crucified Christ: the viewer's faithful patience insists that the Lord will rise, even if it takes five hours. Erection, resurrection: maybe Andy has a hard-on while he watches John sleep.
Before Andrej Warhola died, he made a decision: there was enough money (in the form of savings bonds) put aside to send one of his sons to college, and the chosen son would be Andy, because of artistic talent already demonstrated-coloring, cutting, sketching. His mother called him a cutting wizard: "Andy always wanted pictures. Comic books I buy him. Cut, cut, cut nice. Cut out pictures." Andy cuts nice. "Cut!" shouts the director, with a touch of cruelty: censorship, closure. For Andy, "cutting" meant excerpting, stealing-admiring his scissors' conscious, articulate violation of another's image. Andy could cut out-he could remove or excerpt an image, crop it, create a composition by omission. Adept at cutting, he was also superstitiously averse to it; refusing to cut junk out of his life, he erased the line between treasure and trash.
A year before Andy enrolled in Carnegie Institute of Technology, he suffered his next trauma: this time it involved his mother's body, not his father's. Julia developed colon cancer, and her bowel system was removed; she wore a colostomy bag for the rest of her life. (Bockris mentions that Andy encouraged her to replace the bag with surgically implanted internal tubes, but she refused.) It seems extraordinary that no critic, to my knowledge, has bothered to connect this maternal trauma with Warhol's art. Consider the colostomy bag and the surgical cuts made in his mother's waste system; consider, as Bockris points out, that Julia regularly gave Andy enemas during his bouts of St. Vitus' Dance, and that her infant daughter died of being unable to move her bowels; consider that Warhol's major artistic contribution was reinterpreting the worth of cultural waste products. Andy-awkward, hyperaesthetic-knew that the interior of his mother's body had been removed, replaced by an external bag, the waste system's secret workings rendered embarrassingly conspicuous. Her inside and outside had been traumatically reversed. He would make his name and fortune through a similarly graphic, unsettling externalization of interior matter. In art, he, too, would bring detritus uncomfortably to the surface. No wonder he identified with bags, and wanted to call himself Andy Paperbag, in echo of her waste bag.
Andy never wrote or said anything, on the public record, about his mother's operation or about her bag. Dropped from sight, it shows up, however. He alludes to it-unintentionally?-in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: "I think about people eating and going to the bathroom all the time, and I wonder why they don't have a tube up their behind that takes all the stuff they eat and recycles it back into their mouth, regenerating it, and then they'd never have to think about buying food or eating it. And they wouldn't even have to see it-it wouldn't even be dirty. If they wanted to, they could artificially color it on the way back in. Pink." (Thus "Pink Sam," a page from Andy's homemade book from the 1950s, 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy. Thus his credo of artistic production: expel an image-cut it out-and color it.) He alludes to Mrs. Warhola's surgery in his Before and After paintings, which show a woman's face before and after a nose job, a piece of the body cut out. "Cut, cut, cut nice," as Julia put it, praising the surgeon's and the son's art. The seam or slash between before and after-temporal division, severing the woman's two images-is itself a cut, as, in a film, one image yields to the next.
Julia's operation made waste real to Andy. Her surgery gave him the idea for Pop. (Andy's version of Pop has more to do with Mom's productions than with Pop's.) As Warhol and Pat Hackett put it, in POPism: "Pop Art took the inside and put it outside, took the outside and put it inside." In the Pop body of Andy and Julia Paperbag, inside made a scarifying emigration to the outside, and then camouflaged itself in another color.
Andy Paperbag went to Carnegie Tech and majored in pictorial design. During his first year he flunked out, not because a girl hit him, as on his first day of kindergarten, but because of his traumatic relation to the written word.
The adult Andy Warhol became a prolific author and a memorable aphorist ("In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes"); these successes have obscured the fact that he could not write. The inability went further than the mere dependence on ghostwriters (unexceptional in the annals of celebrity authorship) would suggest: he avoided ever writing anything down. I found virtually no correspondence in his hand. There are exceptions-postcards he sent to his mother when he was traveling around the world in 1956:
Hi im alright
im in Rome now
its real nice here
im in Japan
I got you letter
im OK. everything
is real nice
here. i write
These are letters to a woman whose command of English was minimal, and so he could have been deliberately using a home language for her sake. But almost every sentence in his hand is full of bizarre spelling errors (as well as an affected, arty predilection for the lowercase i). Clearly, he was dyslexic, though undiagnosed (I assume dyslexia diagnoses were rare at the time). Some of his errors: "vedio" for "video," "polorrod" and "poliaroid" for "Polaroid," "tailand" for "Thailand," "scrpit" for "script," "pastic" for "plastic," "herion" for "heroin," and "Leory" for "Leroy." He had a hard time with simple English. (He was, as well, left-handed, which may have compounded his sense that writing manually-rather than by dictation-was a humiliating obstacle course.) Biographers have suggested that sympathetic female classmates in college helped him compose his papers. But these friendly collaborative efforts weren't enough to see him through the required course in "Thought and Expression" at Carnegie Tech, and he failed his first year.
He managed to be let back in, however, and to win art prizes; he was recognized as an eccentric talent. The school's curriculum was not devoted to helping little Jackson Pollocks discover their ids. Warhol's most prescient work at that time was the painting The Broad Gave Me My Face, But I Can Pick My Own Nose. A large head on a spindle-thin body receives a pinkie up the left nostril: pleasurable exploratory surgery. The artist George Grosz, one of the jurors for the Carnegie Tech exhibition, voted to include it; others refused, and the nose picker was finally not picked for the official show. (Andy, who had a problem nose, bulbous, swollen, and red, like W. C. Fields's, opted to get it fixed in 1956 or 1957.) His early painting of a nose picker was his first flamboyant self-depiction-here, as an ungainly, single-minded boy giving himself a little pleasure and relief, as if no one were watching, or as if a boy picking his nose were the most natural, riveting, and erotic sight in the world. So began Warhol's career: he strove to frame solitary bodies picking themselves, redirecting their anatomies with a broad's showy flair.
He graduated from Carnegie Tech in June 1949 and then moved to New York, leaving behind Pittsburgh, despised zone of his past-city of steel, whose color is silver. A year before leaving Pittsburgh, a city he did not pick, he bought himself a cream-colored corduroy suit. Almost no one ever called Andy handsome. Some observed that when he was young, before his nose grew, he looked angelic-in photobooth shots at fourteen or so. But did anyone desire Andy in his cream corduroy suit? To reverse interpretations of Warhol's work as the effluvia of a gawky outsider, assume that he was not an exile from beauty but its first citizen. Picture him, pale skin against cream suit, and conceive that someone wanted to touch him. Julia Warhola created him, but perhaps she, too, thought him physically unappealing. Joseph Giordano, an advertising art director who was a friend of Warhol's in the late 1950s and early 1960s, told the art historian Patrick S. Smith, "She made him feel that he was the ugliest creature that God put on this earth."
--From Andy Warhol: A Penguin Lives Biography by Wayne Koestenbaum (c) September 2001, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, used by permission.
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