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Daddy Warhol

Steven Watson’s excellent new history of Warhol in the sixties shows him as a highly permissive father in a Manhattan avant-garde sitcom.

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Fifteen More Minutes: Unlike the superstars he created, Andy Warhol had a second act.  

A large part of Andy Warhol’s hold on the New York imagination has to do with how flawlessly he fits into the fundamental Manhattan dream of the social scene as idealized family—a world without rules or boundaries where you can be loved for what you are, whatever your race, sexual orientation, or artificial hair color. Among the habitués of Warhol’s Factory in the sixties—the subject of Steven Watson’s excellent and comprehensive new history, Factory Made—one of Warhol’s nicknames was the Great White Father—a highly permissive if distant parent. He praised everything—“Great! Wow!”—and forbade nothing. He followed suggestions, no matter how seemingly harebrained. He was always ready to play. Who hasn’t wanted a dad like that?

Looking at Warhol’s soup cans and Brillo boxes, Jasper Johns grudgingly admired the “dumbness of the relationship between the thought and the technology.” He didn’t know the half of it. In Factory Made, Watson gets as close as anyone has to Warhol’s brilliant passivity, a genius polluted by nothing so crude as an idea. An in-joke among regulars at his East 47th Street Factory was to try to get Andy to pan the camera. He never did. Paul Morrissey came upon his wallpaper of silk-screened cows at Leo Castelli and tried to give him some technical advice. “I know this isn’t the way to do wallpaper,” Warhol said. “That’s why I’m doing it this way.”

Factory Made is an ensemble drama—a Cheers of the sixties Manhattan avant-garde—and Warhol is only one of the stars. At the beginning of the sixties, he was at the height of his profession as a commercial artist, with a closetful of Brooks Brothers suits and Italian shoes in his own townhouse. Inspired by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, he was searching for a way to break into the art-world major leagues. As always, his schemes were winningly transparent. The gallery director Ivan Karp, looking at his earliest product paintings, asked him why some of them had drips and smudges. “But you have to drip,” he said. “Otherwise they think you are not sensitive.”

Johns and Rauschenberg, lovers at the time, reportedly found Warhol “too swish”—not the way a major artist should comport himself. But if the remark, passed along by a mutual friend, distressed him, he didn’t show it. He furnished his new studio with homosexuals and misfits from the outer boroughs and even more Podunky places (the girls, from Baby Jane Holzer to Edie Sedgwick to Nico, tended to have more illustrious pedigrees). When they arrived, they were in the process of transformation, but their Manhattan identities were embryonic. The stars of this book are Ondine, né Bob Olivio, an opera lover from Red Hook with a famously biting wit, and Billy Name, formerly Billy Linich, a tall, handsome, outwardly all-American boy who’d been president of his high-school class in Poughkeepsie.

Name had the amphetamine-inspired idea to paper his apartment in aluminum. Warhol saw it and decreed that it would be the perfect look for his new 47th Street studio. Name moved in and began unfurling countless rolls of Reynolds Wrap, filling in with silver spray paint.

In the Silver Factory, Billy Name was the mom, providing stability, keeping the family albums, making sure the chaos didn’t spin out of control. In their early homemaking phase, Name and Warhol were lovers, but the sex part didn’t work out. “We were both too Jimmy Dean–ish,” Name said later. But the two stayed married. “It was a total wedding,” said Ondine, speaking of their collaboration.

For all but a couple of them, the Factory wasn’t a paying job. Ondine spent a summer living in Central Park. He’d wake up “by the lake,” writes Watson, “take a morning swim, and then drop in on Rotten Rita, the amphetamine dealer on 86th Street. They shot speed and put on Maria Callas very loud, with Rotten singing along.” Then he’d go to Edie Sedgwick’s apartment to wake her up.

As the decade accelerated, the Factory began to seem like just one more kooky subculture, the Manhattan equivalent of a commune. And the Factory denizens didn’t like being part of the sixties. When Warhol’s road show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, went to San Francisco, Paul Morrissey would shout “get a haircut” at passersby and asked concert promoter Bill Graham about one of his bands, “Why don’t they take heroin? That’s what all the really good musicians take.” (Frank Zappa, on the same Fillmore Auditorium bill, said into an open mike that the Velvets “really suck.”)

Warhol’s crowd was realizing that they stood for something. Of course, the notion of standing for something had been foreign to the Factory of a couple of years before. Morrissey, with his more conventional ideas, had been on the scene for a few years, but he’d gradually gotten closer to Warhol. He was a control freak, at least in that chaotic context; the movies he presided over had beginnings, middles, and ends. In 1968, they moved into a more polished space on Union Square, one much less hospitable to Silver Factory denizens, chief among them Billy Name. “It’s going to be a problem,” Morrissey told Warhol, “because he’ll come here now and live in the back and at night he’ll come out and spray everything silver again.”

Warhol would likely have rejected the narrative unities Watson finds in his story, but they are hard to get around. Valerie Solanas, the most marginal of Factory hangers-on (she had major daddy issues, having been molested by her own father), circles closer, fueled by a poisonous, distorted mixture of literary ambition and proto-feminism. Finally, she corners him. After Morrissey cuttingly tells her to leave, she fires, hitting Warhol in the stomach. Warhol, head cradled in Billy Name’s lap, says, “Don’t make me laugh, Billy. It hurts too much.” As Warhol hovers in the hospital between life and death, Warhol’s friend Henry Geldzahler, the Met curator, says to his lover, “Do you know what that does to the value of the paintings?” Then, embarrassed, he instructs him to forget he ever said it.

Unlike most of the superstars he helped create, Warhol had an extensive second act, and he abandoned most of his children, overshadowing the rest. Almost alone among them, Morrissey bridled at the credit he got. "It can only be deemed ironic,” he said, that people persist in crediting Warhol for movies he, Paul Morrissey, directed—simultaneously getting the point and totally missing it.

Purchase this book at bn.com.


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