(Visual) Notes on Culture

Andy Warhol - Penguin Lives
Wayne Koestenbaum
Penguin Lives, Lipper/Viking ~ 2001

Warhol is one of the most written-about artists of the 20th century. Though viewed more a curiosity during his life than a figure of reverence, he has attained supra-mythical status over the last 20 years. His "pop" attitudes permeate all of Western culture, while the vapid reproducibility and clinical impersonality of some of his works invites ready comparisons with an automatized mass society. He was a printmaker, photographer, impresario, critic, celebrity, filmmaker, painter, sculptor, performance guru, and actor. Foes denounced (and continue to denounce) his utter break with previous artistic traditions, while his defenders support how he miraculously made a crisis-in-originality into the most original body of work of the 20th century. My own view is that Warhol and subsequent Warholia is inescapable, for better or worse, and that everybody - from children in elementary school up through your Grannie - ought to at least know a little something about Warhol.

Koestenbaum brings a very personal, avant-critical reading of Warhol's life. He admits the difficulty of doing so in a limited space, but wisely choses to invest his primary readings into a specific area. While Warhol is primarily loved for his mass prints, Koestenbaum finds the realest meaning in Warhol's films. The disjuction between the man and his subjects, between experience and mediation, characterizes Warhol's whole view on life. At times, Koestenbaum's Warhol is more of a tabla rasa text than Warhol. That is, Koestenbaum sees Warhol-the-man as a site for working out issues in sexuality. The reader is constantly reminded of Warhol's supposed asexuality, or abject fear of the intimate, while at the same time clued into his very open taste for men. While this certainly speaks to his attitudes to film - where he avoids the common Hollywood tropes of fetishizing the female body of above the male - it does not precisely speak to his general (to paraphrase Freud) "polymorphous perversity." Also, Warhol's most famous sex-totems are Edie Sedgwick (the "factory girl") and Marlyn Monroe. Thus, Warhol's depictions of sex seem a little more complicated and solid than Koestenbaum lets on, though he does a pretty good job of at least getting the ball rolling on this baffling aspect of Warhol's life.

The Penguin Lives series is meant for the general reader, though much of the text bleeds specialist knowledge. While this certainly isn't inaccessible, it does not necessarily lead to smooth, quick reading. However, the book's presentation and occasional film stills amount to a Warhol-friendly presentation.

Again, this Warhol is a very personal, idiosyncratic, and psycho-sexual Warhol and can in no way be called definitive. However, if any person of the 20th Century invited multiple readings, its Warhol.
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