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Marc Siegel

Doing it for Andy Zur Warhol-Retrospektive in Berlin

Andy-Warhol-Retrospektive, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, 2001, Raumansicht Andy-Warhol-Retrospektive, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, 2001, Raumansicht

When American fags are gossiping amongst ourselves and we want to confirm that someone is one of us, we might say, "She goes to our church." If for instance our best friend's younger male cousin is visiting us in the big city for the first time, we might playfully ask, "Does she go to our church?" We would never, however, ask such a question about Andy Warhol. In terms of Andy, our accounts were settled long ago: Not only did she go to our church, but she's one of our most famous members. Indeed, Andy Warhol's life and work, which spanned the homophobic 1950s, sexual liberation of the '60s and '70s and continued through the post-Stonewall era, play a major role in just about any significant account of twentieth century queer history. Critical analyses of Warhol's massive output of paintings, drawings, films, photographs, videos, audiotapes, books and magazines continue to detail the complexities of his savvy negotiation of the changing codes regulating the representation of homosexuality and homoeroticism in the United States in the last half of the twentieth century. Warhol's Marilyns, Liz's, Elvises, and Warrens, for example, implicitly attest to a longstanding gay male interest in flamboyant female and sexy male stars. But it is his Edies, Ondines, Candys, Jackies, and Hollys, that is, his film work and the well-known context of his film production-the Factory of the 1960s-that explicitly represented the open-ended desires and glamorous queer differences of the years prior to the institutionalization of the gay liberation movement. As Simon Watney recalls, "The first time I got busted was together with some two hundred people watching "Lonesome Cowboys" in its first week of screening in London in 1969. Serious structuralist film critics undoubtedly attended too, but by and large it was a very queer audience indeed, as were the audiences for all Warhol's film screenings in London in the seventies--and to this day. To this teenager, two years before the first meetings of the U.K. Gay Liberation Front at the London School of Economics, Warhol positively reeked of a seductive American queer culture at its most exaltedly blatant." Given then that Andy Warhol was not just any old twentieth century fag, but one whose life and multi-media art production offered and continues to offer to legions of young queers the exaltedly blatant promise of another way of life, I was shocked by the Warhol retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie that not only made no mention of homosexuality, nor of any of the scholarship on ist centrality to Warhol's work, but even more preposterously proposed that Andy Warhol went to a different church altogether!

It is a rather awkward anachronistic burden one faces in the year 2001 in having to point out that it's just not o.k. to organize a major Warhol retrospective and completely ignore the queer production and reception of his work. Given the success and praise accorded the show, and the fact that to my mind the show's erasure of queerness is part of a broader conservative thrust of the exhibition, I think the issue is worth discussing in greater detail.

This major retrospective includes an enormous selection of Warhol's paintings, drawings, and prints-from his early ink and pencil drawings of the late 1940s and 1950s through the silkscreens and famous Pop Art works of the 1960s to his later portraits and abstract pieces of the '70s and '80s. While touching on the entirety of Warhol's career achievements on paper and canvas, the retrospective relies heavily on a vast number of the artist's most famous Pop Art images-the Campbell's soup cans, Coke Bottles, Marilyns, Jackies, and Elvises, etc-with only a limited number of examples of his later lesser-known and/or less-well regarded works (the "Shadow", "Camouflage", and "Oxidation" series', as well as his numerous commissioned portraits). One of the spectacular surprises promised by the exhibition was to be the reunion of all of Warhol's "Thirteen Most Wanted Men", his series of black-and-white silkscreened FBI mug shots, together again for the first time since the work was commissioned and promptly censored at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Despite the breadth of the retrospective, curator Heiner Bastian placed a thematic emphasis on the Disaster and "Death in America" series, that is, on Warhol's "Atomic Bombs", "Electric Chairs", "Car Crashes", and "Suicides" for instance.

This juxtaposition of Warhol's familiar Pop Art images with his more socially explicit "Disaster" paintings plays into Bastian's project of rethinking the category of Pop Art as descriptive of Warhol's work. For Bastian, Warhol is a highly moral artist in the tradition of the great masters, and is therefore less Pop than part of what he calls the "Klassische Moderne". Hence, the frequent associations in the catalog of Warhol to Raffael, Matisse, and Goya. Such a curatorial perspective, however fanciful, is nothing new. As Simon Watney notes, "In the course of the seventies, European critics became far more interested in the "Flower" pictures and the "Disasters", which they could safely regard as Goyaesque. Hence the incomparably strange critical incarnation of Andy Warhol as a warrior of the class struggle in the interpretive work of many critics. To imagine that one might find some hidden subtext of revolutionary socialism in the work of Andy Warhol must have struck many other gay men like myself as particularly absurd and fanciful. And, ultimately, insulting, insofar as it sustained a continued refusal to engage with the most glaringly obvious motif in Warhol's career-his homosexuality."

Likewise, in Bastian's retrospective of 2001, neither the massive biography of the artist that covers the length of one wall leading into the exhibition, nor the catalog complete with ist almost twenty page "Andy Warhol - Eine Chronologie in Amerika" so much as hint at Warhol's homosexuality let alone include any significant social or political event affecting the representation of it in his work. In order to claim Warhol as a great master, this retrospective thus does away not only with the label Pop Art, but also with the queer context within which Pop Art was produced.

Bastian's refusal to engage with the queerness in and around Warhol's work is made more insulting by the fact that he proposes a very different theme indeed not as a particular motif, but as the key defining feature of Warhol's work: Catholicism! Without troubling himself to argue this point, Bastian makes the following proclamation towards the end of his catalog essay. The voice one finds "hinter der Maske der Distanziertheit (ebenso der existentiellen Irritation), hinter dem Ausdruck der vermeintlichen Leere in Wirklichkeit Moral und Glaube (Psyche) ist. Warhols Katholizität, <that is what he at heart remained> (John Richardson) hatte sich in Wahrheit in die Oberfläche dieser Werke schon immer und für immer verwoben. Man liest diese Moral in einem fort. Wenn Warhols angeblich metaphernlose Extreme das Unerträgliche emotionslos dokumentieren, so ist es vor allem eben die Metapher der Katholizität, die wie eine panisch verschwiegene Leerstelle der verbogene Teil dieser Extreme ist."

Absurd as it may sound, even this assessment of Warhol's life and work, like the denial of his homosexuality, is nothing new. As Gary Indiana notes, such an insipid claim was rampant among the speakers at Warhol's 1987 memorial service-among them John Richardson--who one after the other stressed the artist's Christian spirit. "As further proof of Andy's intense spirituality, his eulogist quoted the line about wanting to be reincarnated as the ring on Liz Taylor's finger. Clearly, Catholicism is exactly what it used to be." People often say dumb things about religion at funerals because they don't know what else to say. Why must we hear such dumb things from the curator of a major Warhol exhibition, an exhibition, mind you, that arrogantly confers upon itself the title: "Andy Warhol-The Retrospective?" Faced with Bastian's Warhol Retrospective, we might then say that clearly large institutional art exhibitions are exactly what they used to be: hypocritical, homophobic, arrogant, and politically offensive.'

Andy-Warhol-Retrospektive, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, 2001, Raumansicht Andy-Warhol-Retrospektive, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, 2001, Raumansicht

Since the show emphasized Warhol's disaster images, among them images of people jumping to their deaths from New York City skyscrapers, and opened just three weeks after the September 11 attacks and destruction of New York's World Trade Center, Bastian found his retrospective to have unexpected contemporary political and social associations, certain of which he wanted to dispel. Were it not for an interview he conducted in response to the events of September 11 - conveniently included as part of the Pressespiegel on the wall at the entrance to the exhibition - I might have been able to write off the whole Catholicism thing as a typo. However, given Bastian's response to these contemporary political events, I am more inclined to think of this turn to Catholicism as something like a bluff or a moralistic distraction from the extent of Warhol's committment to and engagement in the countercultural scene of the 1960s.

Despite going to the trouble of collecting the series of "Thirteen Most Wanted Men" in order to display them for the first time as a mural in the original grid format conceived by Warhol for the 1964 World's Fair, Bastian, faced with the events and aftermath of September 11, chose against it. His reason: "Um keine falschen Konnotationen zu erzeugen, habe ich davon Abstand genommen." Faced then with the possibility of the mural arousing "falsche" contemporary political connotations, Bastian in effect decided to censor it once again. And, like a good censor, he did so without specifying exactly which connotations were the false ones. Many analyses of the mural's 1964 censorship suggest that its subversiveness resides in its radical critique of state power and, specifically, in the queer nature of that critique, what Richard Meyer characterizes as the "circuitry set up between the image of the outlaw and Warhol's outlawed desire for that image - and for these men. To put it another way, 'Thirteen Most Wanted Men' crosswires the codes of criminality, looking, and homoerotic desire.... it is not only that these men are wanted by the FBI, but that the very act of 'wanting men' constitutes a form of criminality if the wanter is also male, if, say, the wanter is Warhol."

Douglas Crimp has recently extended Meyer's arguments by situating the censorship of "Most Wanted Men" within the context of a wider crackdown on queer life and the countercultural scene in New York carried out in anticipation of the 1964 World's Fair.

If the threat posed by a queer critique of state power motivated the mural's censorship in 1964, what motivated it in 2001? Of course, the coincidental timing of the exhibition's opening with the release of a new FBI list of most wanted men may have played a role here. Given the broad sexualization of the FBI's contemporary most wanted (Arabic) men in the media-and the complex imbrication of homoeroticism, racism, and homophobia therein--the prominent display of Warhol's "Most Wanted Men" in the entryway to the Neue Nationalgalerie might have provoked an historically informed discussion of contemporary race and sexual politics. In opening up particular political associations in the present, then, the prominent display of "Most Wanted Men" might as well have opened up the present political context to the past, that is, to the political and cultural scene of the 1960s. But making such specific political and cultural associations with Warhol's work are exactly what Bastian's retro perspective of "Warhol, the great Catholic master" is directed against, as indicated by the work he chose to replace "Thirteen Most Wanted Men" in the entryway to the Neue Nationalgalerie, a work presumably limiting falsche political connotations: "The Last Supper".

Though the exhibition claimed to situate Warhol in "his time" it was clearly directed at removing him from a specific - and determinant - aspect of that time, namely the '60s countercultural scene that consolidated around the Factory. This was a scene of high society and middle class drop-outs, 42nd Street hustlers, homosexuals, drag queens, drug users, underground filmmakers, poets, dancers and writers, a scene that was unified in its resistance to the normalizing, disciplinary regime of respectable, heterosexual, middle-class society. This resistance indicated as well a commitment to a different cultural project, one of experimentation with other ways of living, thinking, working, being. About this project, Bastian doesn't mince words. For him, the individual freedoms expressed by the '60s counterculture were merely "ein Schein! Und dennoch waren die sechziger Jahre auch jenes Jahrzehnt des gerade vergangenen Jahrhunderts, das die Individualität bereits als programmatische Individualität in all ihren affirmativen Zügen erfand. ‚Freiheit' war nur ein Schein, in Wahrheit deren progressive Annihilation." Though noting the role of Warhol's Factory as an important countercultural meeting place and as central in securing Warhol's fame as a cultural figure, Bastian is careful to establish a distance between the artist and the countercultural types with whom he frequented. Describing the Factory as a kind of "Heilsarmee" for social outcasts, Bastian writes: "Auf dem Höhepunkt seines Ruhms wird Andy Warhols Alleinsein in der Gegenwart anderer zur umgekehrten Distanz seiner Bewunderer. Was Andy Warhol in all seinen neuen Bekanntschaften anzog, ließ ihn zu gleich auch zurückschrecken und vertiefte dieses Alleinsein."

The picture of Warhol in his '60s Factory that Bastian offers here is that of an increasingly lonely, alienated, fearful man, a benevolent Christian perhaps, distanced from the threatening countercultural types around him, but kind enough to lend them a place to rest their weary souls.. In order to make of Warhol a Catholic master in the great art tradition, Bastian then must try to divert our attention not only away from the radical promise of the Factory scene, but also from the hundreds of films Warhol produced there. Warhol's prolific film production, which in the context of Bastian's retrospective were restricted to the seeming afterthought of film series at the Arsenal, represents a variety of forms of '60s countercultural resistance, which is to say that in addition to being explicitly homoerotic, they are also explicitly critical of Catholicism.

In a 1969 essay on Warhol's Blue Movie, critic Parker Tyler touches on a distinctive aspect of Warhol's filmmaking that I consider central to understanding Warhol's unique involvement in the '60s countercultural scene. In opposition to the idea that Warhol simply and passively pointed his camera at reality, Tyler suggests that his inspiration was rather "to decide to be literal toward attitudes about reality, or more specifically, attitudes inventing reality before our eyes." He distinguishes Warhol's literalism from the typical manufacturing of reality in the "fiction and so-called fact" mass media where through editing and the selective reconstruction of events they produce a mere "reality-myth...a rational effort to formally summarize 'normal' behavior." Warhol's literalism on the other hand functions quite differently. According to Tyler, most of Warhol's films are more or less "unarranged reports on what certain people who desire camera publicity, or consent to it, are willing to do while enjoying that publicity...This is not to say that the usually off-beat characters who work for Warhol's cameras (by now their names are fairly well-known) are either innerly depraved, morbid exhibitionists or simple frauds. What we see in Fuck is not what might happen (certainly not yet) in broad daylight on Times Square. No! This episode in sexual conjugation is something the couple here 'did for Andy.'....We are watching 'reality' in the instance of two organic human bodies on a bed, and elsewhere, intent on doing something, but doing it only as they are prompted by some inner impulse to do it; part of which, as I say, is doing it for Andy."

Tyler's analysis strikes me as important for its way of singling out the productive aspects of Warhol's filmmaking project, without morally judging either Warhol or his Superstars for their commitment to this project. The "off-beat characters" who desired camera publicity in Warhol's Factory were those of Pope Ondine's flock: perverts of all kinds, thieves, the rejected by society, as Ondine puts it in "Chelsea Girls". Warhol's literalism toward attitudes about this particular reality was therefore a calculated provocation. As such, his literalism indicates as well his commitment to challenging normalizing and moralizing attitudes toward countercultural differences. Tyler's pithy formulation of the dynamics at work in Warhol's cinema-doing it for Andy-suggest therefore a mutual exchange. What they do for Andy is not something they would necessarily do otherwise. They do something for Andy, because he does something for them.

In order to recognize Andy's literalism as something he did, as indeed constitutive of what Douglas Crimp calls an "ethical project of making visible queer differences and singularities," we must move beyond those facile and phobic analyses that only view Warhol in a negative relationship to the '60s countercultural scene. This means we need to dispense with the typical terms that pepper such analyses, terms used against Warhol and this scene, such as voyeur, passive, distanced, distracted, alienated, bored, etc. The usage of these terms not only hinders but actively prohibits an understanding of exactly what it is and why it is that Warhol did what he did in the '60s. In her typically astute and beautiful phrasing, Callie Angell suggests that "the often problematic uniqueness of Warhol's cinema is at least partly explained by the erotically charged nature of his filmmaking: in even his simplest and most straightforward films, the deeply personal transaction that takes place between the prurient, appreciative spectatorship of Warhol's camera and the self-revelatory performances of his subjects approaches something like erotic intimacy, an interaction that is consummated not in a sexual act-but for Warhol, at least, if not for his stars-as a finished film."

Following Angell and Crimp, I would like to propose that we might understand the ethical, erotic, and intimate exchange literalized in Warhol's cinema as a form of cooperation. By using this term, I want to emphasize a particular aspect of the Factory artistic production in the 1960s, namely the commitment of Warhol and his Superstars to a project of aesthetically and erotically publicizing their way of life. By speaking of Warhol's 1960s Factory project as one of cooperation, I intend to link it to other forms of cooperation in the 1960s counterculture, forms that were expressed in various experiments at producing alternative modes of living, working, thinking, and being. In so doing, I also have in mind the recent characterization of the 1960s counterculture in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's book, "Empire". Hardt and Negri view the massive number of drop-outs from the normalized regime of middle-class heterosexual family life as a positive act in the experimentation with new forms of productivity, community, subjectivity. As they see it, this countercultural refusal to belong suggests a massive - Nietzschean - transvaluation of social values, and, hence an insistence on other forms of belonging.

"'Dropping Out' was really a poor conception of what was going on in Haight-Ashbury and across the United States in the 1960s. The two essential operations were the refusal of the disciplinary regime and the experimentation with new forms of productivity. The refusal appeared in a wide variety of guises and proliferated in thousands of daily practices...The entire panoply of movements and the entire emerging counterculture highlighted the social value of cooperation and communication. The massive transvaluation of the values of social production and production of new subjectivities opened the way for a powerful transformation of labor power.

In attending to the massive transvaluation of values in the 1960s, Hardt and Negri account for the effects of these social and cultural activities on the reorganization of economic relations in the 1970s. Their delineation of what they-after feminist theorists-call "affective labor," a labor productive of social networks, forms of community and belonging, could help us in specifying the particular form of cooperation represented by Warhol's film Factory of the 1960s.

If we want to understand Andy Warhol's art "in its time," we might start with an analysis of the Factory that sees its mode of production as a specific form of cooperation among Andy and a fabulous group of social outcasts, a form of cooperation on an aesthetic project of publicizing (queer) countercultural differences and singularities.