Updated: Nov 15, 2022
The initial impression and feeling that Andy Warhol was in love with seeing, become stronger, persistent, and overwhelming as the enormous body of art, his paintings, films, and writings are surveyed.
The portrait paintings came first, the ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’, ‘Coca-Cola’, ‘Marilyn’, ‘100 Dollars Bills’, ‘Elizabeth Taylor, and ‘Disasters series, mushrooming into a torrential flood of portraits of celebrities. Warhol’s first film, ‘Sleep’, coming soon after his ‘Marilyn’ and ‘Liz’, in 1963, was followed by an astonishing number of films taken in a singularly voyeuristic manner. Personal interviews with magazines, newspapers and television newsmakers brought out Warhol’s unique ability to say things astonishingly and captivatingly. Then came Warhol’s first book, ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol’, published in 1975, uniquely displayed and feted with great fanfare in Halston’s Fashion Window on Madison Avenue.
Warhol was …? What?
No, Andy Warhol was not a voyeur.
Andy Warhol was publicly labeled a “voyeur”, explicitly intending to mean “one who habitually seeks sexual stimulation by visual means”, one who is “a prying observer who is usually seeking the sordid or the scandalous”.
Was Warhol, when he was filming a sleeping man for seven non-stop hours, filming the Empire State building for more than three hours, or taking voluminous photographs of nude bodies and of sexual acts – which Warhol ultimately used in the creation of his ‘Oxidation Series’, ‘Torso Series’, ’Sexual Paintings’ – an artist deeply interested in his art, or was he just the voyeur some colleagues, critics, and friends called him?
Not one of the people who were there with Warhol on the occasions of photographing the erotic and sexual scenes and his many films ever described him as more than very interested, engrossed, maybe thrilled, in the picture-taking of the scenes. Warhol was never accused of actually taking part in any of these scenes (although some commentators did not shy from making their pornographic speculations and innuendos about him).
Borrowing from history a report about another great artist, it is possible to demonstrate that the impression about Andy’s voyeurism, driven more by prejudiced views of “the weird” Warhol and his openly admitted homosexuality than by facts, was wrong.
History tells the story of Leonardo da Vinci engaging in making voluminous drawings of the different parts of dead human bodies, snatched for him by collaborators. We know, too, that he was “very interested, curious, engrossed, and thrilled” with the drawings and his discoveries. A question then may be asked: Was Leonardo da Vinci a necrophiliac, someone who is “obsessed with, has an erotic interest in, or is stimulated by corpses”?
This will be an outrageous and idiotic suggestion that will be universally dismissed as such.
The reasons for taking the cudgel on this issue is not because we wish a controversy, but because of the failure to do so, if we do not clear this issue, we will fail to see how special was Andy Warhol and his art. To recognize the specialness and the quality of Warhol’s visual engagement with his world is a requirement for knowing, understanding, and enjoying more deeply his art.
Andy was a pure voyeur in the original sense of this French word, in the meaning, this word had before the new 20th century’s definition gave it its pornographic color.
Andy is that special someone who discovers his identity, his selfhood, in his deep state of watching-seeing the world around him, acquiring his unique self-identity as he was creating his art. Like all the great artists of all ages – the great artists of Lascaux in France, Phidias and the Greek artists of the 6th and 5th BC, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, the Impressionists, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Duchamp, Dali, Picasso, Pollock, Rothko, O’Keefe, Jones & Rauschenberg, and others in all the ages – Andy Warhol was becoming his artist-self as he was watching-seeing, deeply seeing, the universe around him, falling in love with it. It is this unique watching-seeing quality of Warhol, his “voyeurism”.
It will be more than scandalous to accuse Leonardo da Vinci, Bucher, Picasso, the great 19th-century Japanese erotica artists, and many celebrated 20th-century artists, of being voyeurs, and of engaging in voyeurism. But that is what we have done with Andy Warhol: he was labeled a voyeur very early in his career, and Warhol, for his reasons, did not object, letting the issue unresolved. Perceiving Warhol as a voyeur, in its vulgar pornographic sense, fatally confuse our perception of his art, rubbing it of its deep historical, artistic, cultural, and political, connection with the past, the present, and the future of art.
Art – being an artist, creating art ¬– is always about power: the artist, a magician, creating a universe, owning it, and giving it names. Art is about power because it is the single most fundamental act of creating a human identity where no identity was there before. The magician-shamans, the original first human artists, knew that; So did the priest, kings, and churches knew that truth, proceeding to co-opt the artists and their art and press them into their service; the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century understood that truth too, and grasping the great potential power of art, they ruthlessly, and openly enlisted, drafted and pressed the artist-magicians and their art to serve and promote their interest, eliminating them when too threatening.
Art, the creation of identity, the making of the human, was an immense power: the ability to mimetically create the universe provided a monumental survival advantage, making the original artist into a magician-shaman-leader in one fell swoop. The “invention” of art by man – by the first modern human – was the watershed origin of humanity.
The creation of identity through art-action is an act of celebrity, the grand magic act of seeing deeply, demonstrating an ability to control the environment, thus commanding attention, reverence, deference, and fear, bringing power to the artist-creator. We can see why the act of making art, creating one’s identity to compete and contend with the existing order, is the most political act human can perform. Celebrity is what every human child wants to be before the existing order “makes order” and limit, co-opt, redirect, repress or kill this initial original enthusiastic artistic drive.
Art, the making of art, is first and foremost, the making of the artist. Advancing this argument is controversial –because it strikes at the existing foundation of our understanding of our culture, evolution, our politics, and history.
This proposition allows us to begin to see Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Victor Hugo, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Duchamp, Pollock, and Rothko, all artists and all art in a critically new light. For the first time, we may understand why art is not about aesthetics, beauty, order, balance, virtues, and the muses – even as art is certainly involved deeply with aesthetics, beauty, virtues, etc, etc.
Art, being the act that creates the celebrity, is an act of a willful self-aware human who is acquiring self-identity as he creates – recreates – with his action the world around him: Lascaux artists were creating – recreating – the world inside their cave, performing super-human magic, evidencing great power. Lascaux’s artists were the first magicians, shamans, and gods humanity acquired.
Quoted in the 1968 catalog of the exhibition of his art, Warhol said: “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” [“Andy Warhol Exhibition”, ‘The Moderna Museet”, Stockholm, Feb-March, 1968] This Warhol’s statement went through many recycling, but in its original pronouncement Andy meant precisely what he was saying, without irony, derision, or mockery: Everyone wants identity, and in the future everyone will acquire it, becoming a celebrity (“15 minutes” was Andy’s way of saying that universal celebrity will have a crowded stage to be displayed on). Warhol grasped a universal truth about himself and all humans: everyone wishes to have an identity, to be a celebrity, and that identity is possible for everyone because the exponentially growing inventions of new information-promoting channels, virtually guarantee that everyone can gain identity and be a celebrity for a however brief time. Warhol was prophetic without ever intending to be. The means of expression and the media on which to display those expressions are growing exponentially, and everything is grist for art, and everything human creates is becoming art. This is why the world of art seems to overwhelm all other human preoccupations, appearing to overtake and encompass all human creative actions, and our language provides colorful evidence of this trend with its labeling power: we now have “art” in almost everything human:
Art of war; Art of acting; Art of acquisition; Art of adjusting; Art of getting by; Art of judging; Art of war; Art of advertising; Art of argument; Art of asking the question; the art of attack (in the Chess game); Art of attraction; Art of being; Art of beauty-makeup; Art of baking; Art of conversation; Art of cooking; Art of love; Art of computer programming; Art of cigar smoking; Art of curating art; Art of dying; Art of deception; Art of dancing; Art of dating; of Art disguise; Art of illusion; Art of forgery; Art of killing; Art of lying…
We are inching along a route that Warhol perceived as a natural evolution of the human need and wish for self-identity and celebrity. If a man can acquire identity, celebrity, and power by painting horses, bulls, and other animals on cave walls, by painting saints and religious frescos in the Sistine Chapel, by building a Guggenheim Museum building, singing like Pavarotti, rendering Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper anew, creating his identity and making a living as he is creating his art, then that’s what man will do.
“I've never met a person I couldn't call a beauty” Andy Warhol.
More than watching, Andy Warhol loved seeing. A pure voyeur, Warhol, the most American artist of the 20th century, was in love with the world. Andy began this love affair as a toddler, observing his mother, brothers, and his surrounding, watching the world, observing it, intensely seeing it, and learning how to control it with his first drawing of objects, animals, and people. Seeing was Andy’s life, making him Warhol, the artist...
Seeing, pre-20th century voyeurism is not passive watching. Like other great artists before him, seeing for Warhol was a willful, and self-aware act of getting at the things out there, taking them in, studying them in as many layers as they could be taken apart, and the multiple ways they could be re-created anew. And, with Andy, re-creation was always a new seeing. This is what Warhol has done with his paintings and sculptures, his ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans, the ‘Brillo boxes, ‘Marilyn’, ‘Disasters’, ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper. This is what he has done with his words, writing them, talking with people, talking to his diaries. Capturing the world in its “objective state”, Andy recreated it in his unique and surprising way. Seeing for Andy Warhol was an act that “teased” new realities out of the existing ones, sometimes destroying the vision of the “old” world as it was recreating the “new” one.
This quality of seeing is familiar to many artists. Lascaux’s painters, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Franz Hal, Velazquez, Turner, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Duchamp, Jones, and Rauschenberg, to name a few familiar ones, possessed such voyeuristic capacity. Everyone is a great artist, a celebrity, powerful, creating himself, and with his unique identity staking a claim on the world. These artists created portraits and for them, everything was fit for portraiture: horses, bulls, dogs, men and women, buildings, cities, gods, demons, satyrs, houses, trees, the stars, sky, dreams, spiritual turbulence, thoughts, and sheer imagination, all can be rendered in portraits.
Like Warhol, Diego Velazquez painted multiples, and variations too. A court painter of Phillip II of Spain, Velazquez painted multiples of the kings, more than 40 in fact, a bit more than Warhol’s 36 portraits of ‘Campbell’s Soup cans. He painted many multiples of the queens (there were two queens), the children, maids, slaves, dogs, animals, and fools. All were portraits, very much like Warhol’s guns, knives, shoes, disasters, newspapers, soup cans, Marilyn, and the Mona Lisa.
Like Andy Warhol, many great artists engaged in the creation of very notable “multiples”:
Rembrandt’s self-portraits, of which there are more than 100; J. M. William Turner’s more than 100 "stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature", as Ruskin described them, and the score of multiples of shipwrecks, fires, natural catastrophes, and natural phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain, and fog (Like Andy, he was fascinated by catastrophe, violence, and the sublime of nature); Monet’s “Water Lilies”, a multiple of approximately 250 oil paintings; Hokusai’s glorious multiples, the
“Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” (1829), and “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji” (1834); Piet Mondrian’s “Composition” multiple; Jackson Pollock’s “Drips Paintings” multiple. “Beauties”, Warhol called them.
Andy Warhol the artist is highly coherent, perceptive, intelligent, kind, generous, and fun-loving yet distant, was a unique artist who truly loved and “collected” everything - with his eyes, ears, mind, and sometimes with outright purchase, was incessantly recreating in his unique way what he was seeing. Discovering the provocative truth, that something is thought beautiful if everyone wants it, Warhol never lets us forget it: everyone wants Coke, Campbell’s soup can, Marilyn, and Mona Lisa. Quickly, Warhol realized the dialectic that the attention-grabbing capacity of a thing, event, or performance, is what makes them seen and considered “beautiful” – sought-after beauty, awe, and fear are the names we give to a great attraction. That is why everything popular, everything he liked or was attracted to, was “beautiful” to Andy Warhol’s eye: celebrities, MacDonald, guns, color tubes, shoes, electric chairs, disasters, eggs, and everything else in the world. Andy Warhol, in love with the world, painted profusely great variety of its objects, with what seems like never-ending multiples of shapes and colors, filmed its human scenes au naturel, and recorded his days with his light, chatty, easy-flowing “word-painting” of its happenings.
Warhol made love to the world with his eyes and ears, painting a profusely great variety of its objects, with what seems like a never-ending, though slightly varied, multiples, shapes, colors, and appearances. He made love to the world with his light, chatty, and easy-flowing “word-painting” of the happening of his days, in the recording of his diaries.
Warhol’s paintings of the Campbell soup cans, Coke bottles, Marilyn, and news-reported disasters, all rendered without the burden of intellectual comment, were his and the age's beautiful portraits, beautiful as Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper.
When they first appeared, his paintings were judged by art critics as a clever but “empty” mechanical rendering of “boring” subjects, offending never-ending multiples. His art was dismissed as “commercial”, “simple-minded”, “gimmicky” and “empty”. The palpable questions, openly and publicly asked then and throughout his life, were “What, in heaven, is artistic, esthetic, and beautiful about Campbell soup cans?!”, “What is the meaning of the Brillo boxes?”, “where is the artistic depth in the “empty” image of a dead movie star?!”
Warhol’s films and writings, his public words, interviews, and books, emerging later in his career, did not fare better with critics. They, too, were seen as “gimmicky”, “empty”, “simple-minded”, and “unashamedly egomaniacal”, driven by “money-making hunger”. Speculations were widespread that Warhol’s words and writings were a clever pretense or the product of a “retard”; that they were “ironic” or a “cheesy” product of a “simpleton”. No suggestion was made that his art, his paintings, and words, were sincere renditions of what Warhol artistically “saw”. Even his diaries, published after Warhol’s death in 1989, did not fare better. Immensely successful commercially, the Diaries elicited a similar response as did his other art before them.
It was hard to believe in Warhol’s sincerity because it was too simple, too smooth, and too easy, and it was hard because he was easy with his confessions:
“I usually accept people based on their self-images, because their self-images have more to do with the way they think than their objective images do.”
[Andy Warhol, ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol from A to B and Back Again’]
“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 from A to B and Back Again’]
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Cokes, Liz Taylor drinks Cokes, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
[Andy Warhol, ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol from A to B and Back Again’]
To be able to see Warhol’s art in the way he was discovering, recreating, and enjoying it, we have to comprehend this nature of seeing, Warhol’s kind of seeing. Unlike watching, which is a passive act requiring nothing of the watcher, not even actually seeing anything, seeing is a conscious, aggressive, and probing action, exercised with willful self-awareness, an action that could be perceived as provocative and even threatening.
When, as a young child, Andy began to observe the world around him, he discovered his self-awareness, the ability to see things, take them apart, evaluate what he was seeing – consciously engaging in a “conversation” with himself – acquiring the ability to manipulate the surrounding to best fit his wishes. This is the stage when a great artist may be born when Andy Warhol the artist was born.
As Warhol’s art overwhelmingly shows, he discovered the possibility of seeing people, objects, events, and actions, in limitless multiples and different renditions. This was not his idea of just making art production easy – Andy Warhol was one of the most hardworking artists of our time – but discovering a new way to see things as he was “creating”, actually re-creating them. We see this again and again in Warhol’s “repetitive” multiples – which are not repetitive - portraits he created and in his use of his early works in the creation of newer ones. Warhol has never ceased to see and discover new images in “old” images, initially, at first, mystifying or even infuriating us but now, more than a quarter of a century after his death, surprising us with his reach, grasp, and even eloquence.
“Saturday, June 18, 1977. Victor said it was a good day to go around looking for ideas, so we went down to the Village. But it was like ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’--I was his prop to go cruising, the boys would come over to talk to me and Victor would get them. We sat at the Riviera Lounge for four hours having coffees and teas ($7).” [Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, The Diaries of Andy Warhol, Warner Books, NY, 1989. P.51]
And Victor Hugo, Halston’s window designer, was by the testimonies of witnesses, an overflowing fount of ideas. Halston, the undisputed “Fashion King” of New York high society, thought Victor’s ideas for his fashion windows on Madison Avenue were great.
“Victor was brilliant, zany, exciting, and dangerous. Because of Victor Hugo, Halston would forever live his life on the edge … A boisterous, funny, and explosive young man, Victor was like an X-rated version of all three Marx brothers rolled into one. Full of energy and enthusiasm, he was in constant motion…” [Steven Gaines, ‘Simply Halston’. The Berkley Publishing, New York, 1993. P.109]
Andy Warhol, forever hungrily looking for new ideas, found in Victor Hugo a great inspiration, admiring his artistic streak very much even as the Factory entourage was offended by him:
“Victor Hugo is the most creative. … Halston gave him a job doing windows. Soon Halston had a theater on the street. His Madison Avenue windows were filled with pregnant mannequins, suicidal mannequins, and mannequins reading my magazine Interview. It was Victor who got me closer to Halston.” [‘Andy Warhol’s Exposures’, p.42]
Born on April 4, 1948, in Caracas, Venezuela, Victor Hugo, precociously talented and daring, believed utterly in his star very early in his life. A friend testified that already in their first years in art school in Caracas, Venezuela, Victor was certain of his uniqueness and his success in the art world. Soon he joined a theatre as an actor.
“Obsessed with his art career, Victor was always brimming over with schemes and projects, many of them Dada-Esque and surreal. He was a great admirer of Marcel Duchamp, one of the leaders of the Dada movement, who is unjustly perhaps best known for signing a urinal in 1917 and calling it “ready-made art.” Victor worshiped him…” [Gaines, p.110]
Victor came to New York in 1972 and immediately recognized it as his natural home. Soon after his arrival, his path crossed Halston’s, the ultimate American fashion designer in the Twentieth Century, “the first international fashion superstar”. Meeting Victor, Halston was swept off his feet by the brilliant, zany, and exciting Hugo, won over by his unique creativity and hot energy. Falling in love soon after their first meeting, Halston and Victor Hugo began living together:
“‘Let me tell you something,’ said Peruchio Valls, who had known Victor since he was a boy and who later became one of Halston’s assistants. ‘The person that Halston loved, more than his own life, was Victor Hugo. And the love of Victor Hugo’s life was Halston.’ ” [Gaines, p.109]
Soon Victor Hugo became noticeable. The young exuberant artist, immersed in the vibrant, enthusiastic, and subversive New York art scene of the early 1970s, became Halston’s windows artist in 1974, transforming himself soon after from a dresser of store windows to an artist creating remarkable, highly dramatic, and controversial “window paintings”. With his “theatre on the street” windows, Victor Hugo displayed, energy, action, charisma, and inventiveness.
“Victor was shockingly, unpredictably, out of control, and Halston loved it. He was in love with him… Victor Hugo was the antithesis of his [Halston’s] own public persona: a rigid, formal, and proper…For Halston, Victor was a vicarious jolt…” [Gaines, p.113]
Imbued with the art and politics of New York and America, Victor Hugo’s theatre-on-the-street “window paintings” were surprising, thrilling, and provocative, reflecting the deeply turbulent art and political life of mid-1970s America, catching and holding the audience by the throat with his Pop-Art scenes of pregnant, terroristic, and suicidal women, all in haute couture!
“Victor did the windows for the next four years, and it was with the Madison Avenue windows that Victor’s artistic sensibilities first began to emerge. Everyone sat up and took note that an unusual personality was emerging.” [Gaines, p.110]
People came from all over to see it, and the art community took notice. Following in the footsteps of the other great artists before him who created memorable store windows in New York City, as Dali did for Macy’s, and Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Warhol for Bonwit teller, Victor Hugo creations were highly memorable “window paintings”, packed with dynamically suggestive mystery and action, making him one of the noticeable window artists of modern time.
Andy Warhol, taking notice of Victor Hugo’s windows, recognizing in them his deep urge for a never-ending theatre and surprise, his fascination for the newcomer young artist quickly became a friendship.
“There was perhaps only one other person in the world who was more titillated by Victor Hugo’s scandals than Halston, and that was Andy Warhol… He dragged Andy lock, stock, and barrel to Halston’s showroom.” [Gaines, p.113]
Captivated by Victor’s passion for art, action, and the outlandish, Warhol became a life-long admirer and friend. With his irreverent style, his openly unashamed homosexuality, and his bubbling imagination brimming with surprising, fantastic, or outrageous ideas, Victor Hugo freed Andy of some of his reserved attitude, freshening him and making him laugh a lot.
“By now [mid-1977] Victor Hugo seemed to spend as much time with Warhol as he did with Halston…Victor was up to his usual shenanigans; making silk screens of the Mona Lisa wearing Halston dresses. …for the most part, Warhol couldn’t resist encouraging Victor’s outrages.” [Gaines, p.151]
Although he was Halston’s in-house window artist, Victor spent inordinate and increasing time with Warhol, becoming a very close and intimate friend and a regular presence in the Factory. They went visiting together the clubs and art galleries in the East Village and SoHo, mixing with promising and not-so-promising young newcomers, all the while “hustling” for art material and art actions. Steven Gaines writes that, Victor:
“While Victor was Halston’s lover in name, he played an even more important role in Warhol’s life.” [Gaines, p.114]
In his 1979 book, ‘Andy Warhol’s Exposures’, Andy writes that Halston liked to surround himself with creative people, finally noting that:
“Victor is always making art everywhere.” [‘Andy Warhol’s Exposures’, p.42]
Finding Warhol’s “porn” photographs strewn on his desk, again, Bob Colacello, Warhol’s ‘Interview’ magazine editor, writes:
“Andy had been at it again: photographing sexual acts between a street hustler and call boys arranged by Victor Hugo, Halston’s friend. It was all for … the Torso Series, as the paintings made from these photographs came to be called. … When Andy arrived an hour later I gave him a piece of my mind.
‘Am I supposed to have an advertising meeting in here with these cocks all over my desk? What about all the girls who work here?’ [Colacello, p.337]
Unapologetic, Warhol responded:
Andy was nonplussed. ‘Just tell them it’s art, Bob. They’re landscapes.’
‘They might resemble landscapes when you get done with them, Andy, but right now they look like porn pictures and I’m sick and tired of finding them on my desk every other morning.’
‘…it’s all Victor just wanting to do these things, and I thought, well, maybe it could be a good series, and, uh, it’s Victor – I don’t have much to do with it.’
‘Andy, is Victor going to sign the paintings, or are you?’
‘It is a good idea, Bob. You know it is.’” [Colacello, p.337-8]
What do all appearances be Andy Warhol's love for the erotic – what many openly and unhesitatingly labeled pornography– was Andy’s fascination, curiosity, love for everything in his world, and his instinctive acceptance that everything may be the subject of art. Warhol believed that life, all life, could be art, and with Victor Hugo, he found a kindred spirit and partner willing to investigate the limits of this artistic belief and the ideas they spawned. There was nothing that wasn’t worth Warhol’s artistic attention and investigation, and, engaged, Andy immersed himself completely in all that he was creating, holding nothing back. Shoes, dresses, cats, soup cans, labels, celebrities, disasters, newspapers, money, paintbrushes, body parts, sex parts, silver clouds, shadows, yarn, ink blots, transvestites. In Andy’s eyes, everything was beautiful, fit to be a portrait, a great art subject.
Seen by others as strange, weird, and outrageous, Warhol and Hugo were both outsiders who found they liked, respected, and enjoyed each other’s company, ideas, and creations. Providing each one with outlandish ideas, stimulating company, surprise, and excitement that seems never-ending, Andy and Victor's friendship continued throughout their whole life.
“Even among his In crowd, Andy was still the Outsider. To begin with, Andy was Victor’s friend, not Halston’s. And Victor, with his hairy pranks, was an outsider in his group too.” [Bob Colacello, ‘Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up’. New York, 1990, p.346]
Early on in his career, in 1961, Warhol, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, and Robert Rauschenberg collaborated in the creation of the New York Department Store Bonwit Teller's window display. Warhol’s painting, serving as a backdrop for the window, did not encounter contention or argument, and the window collaboration was a success. Later on, establishing his Factory, Warhol employed many artists as his artisans, working on his creations, be it his paintings, prints, films, sculptures, and books. Warhol was the master artist and everybody else in the Factory worked for him, assisting in the creation of his art. Only later on in his career would Warhol engage in collaboration with other independent artists.
Collaboration between independent artists is rare and a confusing anomaly, difficult to assess the artists’ body of work. Two artists collaborating, working in the same space for the first time, will strongly tend to bring on a strained and unnatural behavior between very self-conscious and ego-centered individuals. The artist’s drive to “own” his work is so strong as to rule out, in general, the possibilities of collaboration. Van Gogh – Gauguin’s collaboration provides a memorable case study supporting such a conclusion: their two strong personalities and different characters, needs, and sensibilities, destined their encounter to be disastrous. Generally, there is one type of collaboration that succeeds, and that is a collaboration between a master-artist with and his artist assistants, in which case the assistants are competent artisans executing the master artist’s art. This is so even if the assistants are extremely good artists themselves: their work is ordered and directed by-and-for the master-artist creation. Such was the situation in Titian’s studio, and many other master artist studios, and in Warhol’s Factory too: there was no question of who the studio’s master artist is and whose art is being executed there.
But Warhol was a different artist. Although he used the service of artist-assistants in the same manner that master artists have done since the Renaissance, he recognized the unique artistry of some of those who worked on his projects, frequently relying explicitly on their artistry to accomplish for him his final piece. Feeling no artistic threat from all who worked with him, and being naturally generous, Warhol did not begrudge the artistic accomplishment of these people, allowing them “professional space” and recognition. Moreover, Warhol provides us with a few occasions of different kinds of collaborations, a collaboration between equals, which are worth looking into.
Already at the beginning of his artistic career Andy Warhol embraced collaboration as a natural fact of life. As an advertisement illustrator, continually going back and forth with his clients, Warhol recognized his creation as work and had seen no reason not to assist his work and increase his productivity with help of assistant collaborators. Warhol openly embraced collaboration as a natural, useful, and legitimate facet of his art production all his life, never disowning it even as seen as controversial and diminishing his claim to his art. Collaboration was a centerpiece of his creation process, becoming critical and defining of his later productions when in the early 1960s he employed Gerard Malanga in creating his epochal silkscreen paintings and his films. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Warhol assembled around him a large entourage of employees, collaborators, artists, and hangers-on, some of whom gained independent artistic recognition later on. Andy never questioned the artistry of his people, a fact that contributed to the debate about the quality and authenticity of his art. This did not discourage his sense of ease about later collaborations.
Warhol's collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Francesco Clemente, and Victor Hugo, were different matters because the artists collaborating with him were not his employees. Independent artists with a distinct artistic life, Basquiat, Haring, Clemente, and Hugo worked independently from Warhol, pursuing their careers. Warhol’s collaborative works with Basquiat, Haring, and Clemente are all documented and well-known.
Victor Bockris writes that Warhol’s colleagues in the Factory were not thrilled with Andy’s collaboration with Basquiat:
“At first, among the Factory regulars only Victor Hugo, who thought he [Basquiat] was the best artist ‘of all those people in SoHo’, expressed outright admiration for Basquiat. The other staff members accepted him with superficial enthusiasm because of the beneficial effect the association was having on Andy, who said it was the first time he had enjoyed himself painting for years.” [Bockris, ‘Warhol, the Biography’, Da Capo Press, 2003, p. 461]
Keith Haring, providing another view, testified that although some of Warhol’s staff members were not so delighted by the disruption Basquiat’s presence brought to the Factory:
“Jean-Michel brought back a much-needed touch of mischief that had been disappearing from the Factory… But, he also brought back an atmosphere of obsessive production that left its mark long after the collaboration had stopped… Both of them benefited immeasurably. For me, the [works] that resulted from this collaboration are the perfect testimony to the depth and importance of their friendship.” [Keith Haring, quoted in Ketner, ‘Warhol: The Last Decade’, p. 205, Prestel, 2009]
But Basquiat had a different take on that experience, saying:
‘I think I helped Andy more than he helped me, to tell the truth,’ Jean-Michel Basquiat said. ‘Andy hadn’t painted for years when we met. He was very disillusioned, and I understand that. You break your ass, and people just say bad things about you. And he was very sensitive. He used to complain and say, ‘oh, I’m just a commercial artist.’ I don’t know whether he meant that, but I don’t think he enjoyed doing all those prints and things that his stooges set up for him. There is work of Andy that is more Andy than other things that have his name on them.’ [Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: ‘A Quick Killing in Art’, p.268, Penguin Books, 1999 ]
While he was working with Basquiat, Andy transformed. Challenged by the powerful painterly dynamic of a young and very self-assured and obsessive artist, Warhol, not afraid of change, succeeded in unearthing from within himself the power to take on new ideas and create some of the most thrilling works he had ever created.
The collaborations were not contentious because the collaborated work was in reality a “collage work” made of the work of one artist individually, freely, without planning or discussions, “interleaved” with the work of the other artist, and because Warhol, the older, senior and more established of the collaborating artists, generously never contested the work of the other artists. There was an expectation, a great wish, that the collaboration will produce an “artistic conversation” between the collaborating artists. This did not happen. We know from the artists’ comments afterward, and comments by their close acquaintances and friends, that the collaborations were critical only with Warhol, that they had not substantially, if at all, influenced the later works of Basquiat, Haring, or Clemente.
As for Victor Hugo, The earliest artistic collaboration between him and Andy Warhol was in 1975, when Victor created a window for Warhol’s newly published book, ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol’, and Warhol thought it to be brilliant. Reviewing Warhol’s other collaborations with Hugo is more problematic because of the strong resistance by art historians to acknowledge what may appear to them to be a scandalous, prankish, pornographic collaboration, engaged in bad taste. Andy and Victor, happily and with great enthusiasm, collaborated on the ‘Torso Series’, ‘Sex Paintings’, and the ‘Piss Painting, as Colacello seems to suggest:
“Andy had been at it again: photographing sexual acts between street hustlers and call boys arranged by Victor Hugo, Halston’s friend. It was all for … the Torso Series, as the paintings made from these photographs came to be called. … [Andy said] ‘it’s all Victor just wanting to do these things, and I thought, well, maybe it could be a good series, and, uh, it’s Victor – I don’t have much to do with it.’
‘Andy, is Victor going to sign the paintings, or are you?’
‘It is a good idea, Bob. You know it is.’” [Colacello, p.337-8]
Bob Colacello goes on to provide additional information about the origin of the “Sex Paintings”:
“Halston claimed, in an interview, he and Victor gave me after Andy’s death, that he told Victor to do the “sex paintings” for himself, but that Victor turned around ‘and talked Andy into doing it.’ Victor claimed the idea as his own. He also said that he gave Andy the idea for the Piss Paintings. In both cases, Andy paid Victor to be his collaborator: He was Andy’s casting agent and sometimes model on the Torsos; Andy’s ghost pisser on the Oxidations. [Colacello, p.342-343]
The creation of the “Piss Paintings” was a declaration of freedom, freeing Warhol to explore whatever making art action could be had, and he ceaselessly searched and welcomed every idea, and the quality of the works the collaboration produced mirrors the quality of their relationship. The sense of surprise, wonder, and daring that resonate from these works reflect the great intensity and fun they were having doing them.
“ By spring 1978 we all had it with the relentless antics of Victor Hugo, except Andy. He was more enthralled than ever. ‘Look at these great photographs from Victor’s party,’ he told me one day at the Factory. They were pictures of Edwige, “The Queen of Paris Punk,” slitting her wrists. ‘Victor says it’s punk jewelry,’ said Andy.” [Colacello, p.376]
After the “Piss Paintings”, “Sex Acts”, and “Torso”, came the “Self Portrait” in 1978 and the “Shadow” series in 1980.
Bob Colacello sheds additional light on Warhol and Hugo’s relations:
“…After much argument, he [Fred Hughes] persuaded Andy to let Victor take the long roll of prepainted [Oxidation] canvas to his new loft, where he could work on it whenever inspiration struck.” [Colacello, p.343]
"I'm pretty sure that the Piss Paintings idea came from friends telling him [Warhol] about what went on at the Toilet, … The Torso Series also had art-historical references, of course, and Andy was conscious of at least two that I know of Picasso and Degas. He used Picasso’s erotic works as a defense when I yelled at him for leaving his Polaroids on my desk. Nonetheless, the true muse of Andy's sexual works in 1977-78 was Victor Hugo." [Colacello, p.342]
Victor Hugo’s studio on lower Fifth Avenue became the place where Warhol frequently headed in the afternoon, spending time and effort on their collaboration:
“Victor’s loft was on lower Fifth Avenue at 19th Street… Victor’s loft became the new venue for Andy’s Polaroid sex sessions. He was bouncier when he toddled off to those. ‘I’m just going to Victor’s for a little while,’ he’d say, around three in the afternoon, his customary time to get working on his art. ‘Don’t go uptown without me, Bob.’ That meant I would have to listen to his broken record, ‘Sex Is So Abstract,’…’ It’s all Victor. It’s all work.’” [Colacello, p.343]
Making regular trips to Victor’s loft in the lower Fifth Avenue, visiting Victor at the Halston’s premises on Madison Avenue, and cruising together the city in search of art material, Andy Warhol and Victor Hugo spent a great amount of time together, their collaboration and friendship deepening, as can be seen from the following quotes from Warhol’s diaries:
“Walked over to Halston's. Victor had said there was room for me at Halston's table at the Metropolitan opening we were all going to… Victor took me into the garage to show me his latest artwork—he’s (laughs) making Mona Lisa wearing Halston's and that’s funny, so I encouraged him.” [Andy Warhol & Pat Hackett, ‘The Diaries of Andy Warhol’. Warner Books, NY, 1989, p.5, Dec. 6, 1976]
“Victor came by with after his trip to Fire Island. He had some come samples with him and I told him to start coming on the sheets and bring them in and have an exhibit together in Victor’s loft – his come paintings and my piss.” [Andy Warhol’s Diaries, p.56, June 29, 1977]
“Victor called and said he wanted to take me to dinner in the Village.… We went into porno magazine stores for research materials for the “landscapes” ($36) and another one where the guy wouldn't give us a receipt… Victor had a “big black number” coming over to his house that he wanted me to photograph as a “landscape”, so we cabbed back ($3.60)… Victor and I cabbed [to] Studio 54 ($3). It was filled with beautiful people. Went back to Halston's, Halston wasn't home, waited for the "landscape." Took pictures when he got there until I ran out of a film. when I opened the door it was bright daylight. I was surprised. Home at 7:00.” [Andy Warhol’s Diaries, pp.57-8, July 2, 1977]
“Victor is my new Ondine, he even uses a TWA flight bag like Ondine used to. But it’s getting kind of too heavy, seeing him so much.” [Andy Warhol’s Diaries, pp.58, July 3, 1977]
“Victor and I had a feast in the kitchen – we made popcorn and I had orange juice and vodka. We left Bianca and Maximilian hugging and kissing in the other room. Halston took Linda and went to bed. Then we went over to Studio 54 and it was jumping.” [Andy Warhol’s Diaries, p.105, January 29, 1978]
“Victor picked me up and we went to China Town... We stopped at the O K Harris gallery… Then we went around the corner costume-hunting to a store where… Then we went over to Fabulous Fashions.” [Andy Warhol’s Diaries, p.106]
“Victor came by and pissed on some drawings for me.” [Andy Warhol’s Diaries, p.122]
“Victor called and started talking about ideas, did I have any “sophisticated ideas.” [Andy Warhol’s Diaries, p.203, February 10, 1979]
“Read the good art books that Victor always has around.” [Andy Warhol’s Diaries, p.452]
For Warhol, the collaboration with the younger artists regenerated him artistically and emotionally, renewing his energetic creativity in the final seven years of his life, giving Andy a new leaf on his artistic life leading him to produce some of his most ambitious, surprising, and wonderful art to crown his life work. Beginning with the ‘Shadows series in 1979, Warhol is in a “new-old” artistic territory: painting abstract as he had done only before the 1960s. Early In 1980, Warhol creates a new rendition of his iconic 1962’s ‘Marilyn’, the ‘Negative Marilyn’, and a new rendition of his 1963’s ‘Mona Lisa’, the ‘White-on-White Mona Lisa’. This was followed by the ‘Ladies & Gentlemen series, in 1982, the ‘Yarn’ series in 1983, the ‘Rorschach’ series in 1984, and the ‘Camouflage’ series in 1986 capping this “avalanche” of output with his monumental take on Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper. With this new lease on his art came a new ambition to reach further and Warhol was contemplating making life-size portrait sculptures:
“Andy started a new collection in 1986: pedestals. Wood pedestals, marble pedestals, alabaster pedestals, and wood pedestals are painted to look like marble and alabaster. They were to be used for the new sculptures he wanted to make: portrait busts. ‘The whole point,’ Said Stuart Pivar, a collector who often accompanied Andy on his shopping forays in the mid-eighties, ‘was to go back to the portrait clients and sell them busts of themselves. He was always debating, Should it be life-size? Should it be larger than life?’” [Colacello, p.482]
“Anything negative you say, or even think, about Andy Warhol as an artist may come back to humble you.” [Peter Schjeldahl, ”Late Great”, ‘The New Yorker, August 9, 2010]
Andy was first and foremost an artist beholden to his eyes, his sense of humor, and, most importantly, to his modern sense of enjoyable voyeurism. He benefitted immensely from his collaborations with the younger artists because, among other things, he was enriched by their new ideas and new imagination, new spirits, and new age.
What is wonderful about his late works is their assured naturalness: betraying no anxious intentionality, no pretensions, just great ease of orchestration – see his “Crosses”; “Eggs”; “Abstract Paintings, 1982”; ”Pollock & Drips”, “Yarn” created in his old printing technique, exploring the world of presentation and abstraction, painting & printing, and the interplay of surface & meaning, displaying calmness, composure, and assured focus – Warhol proceeded to create his last hurrah, his ‘Self Portraits’, ‘Camouflage’, and the ‘Last Supper. With his deadpan sense of humor, Warhol said about his work on the ‘Last Supper:
“I painted them all by hand – I; so now I’ve become a Sunday painter…That’s why the project took so long. But I worked with passion.” [Schultz – Huffman, ‘Andy Warhol, The Last Supper, p.29]
Making art is an active performance and it is achievable in all the fields of human creative activities it is rewarded and accepted as art when the action performance is exceptionally excellent.
Andy Warhol was deeply democratic and un-snobbish towards artists, art making, and the art they created. He never believed that artists are special, that art is anything other than work, and that the product of art was different than other products. He truly believed that all excellent human production or performance, be it a painting, a car, a building, a conversation, a song, a book, an affair, or whatever else it may be, is art if it is truly exceptionally and excellently created. He, himself, did not grasp his specialness, the difference of his seeing from anyone else’s. He believed, and said so many times, that his paintings did not have a hidden meaning, that they showed all there was to be seen; that his films were just the neutral recording of the going-on; that his words meant their literal meaning. Warhol truly believed, and the meaning of what he was saying, was not ironic. It is maybe only in the art he created in his last years that we may begin to see a reflective Warhol, taking on a deeply moving tone, breaking new ground by creating newer renditions of the negative, black on black, ‘Marilyn’, a white on white ‘Mona Lisa’, and his ‘The Last Supper. It is here that we witness a deep change in Andy Warhol engaging in a daring “conversation” with his early self and with a great old master. Andy Warhol, aspiring to be a great artist, exploring a great spectrum of media – painting, printing, photography, drawing, filmmaking, fashion, music, and sculptures – felt trapped by his public celebrity. He got fame, money, and accolades, but not acceptable to the universe of High Art.
Even as he was arriving at this stage of convulsive art production and semblance of acceptance by the “High Art” community, Andy Warhol, aspired to be a great artist, exploring a great spectrum of media, trying every idea, invention, and technique in creating art – painting, printing, photography, drawing, film making, fashion, music, sculptures – making Pop Art the art scene of the Twentieth Century, setting a universal acceptance of Pop culture all over the world, making it a synonymous with his name – felt trapped by his public celebrity. He got fame, money, and accolades, but not the acceptance to the universe of “High Art”. Andy Warhol never realized that he liberated art and the world from that mislabeling.
Written by George Holmes
Andy Warhol foundation: https://warholfoundation.org
JM Art Management
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