POPism: The Warhol Sixties

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Although the paintings of Andy Warhol are famous for a flatness whose paradoxical depth and nuance speaks volumes about our age, one would expect that since Warhol is not a writer, his book about his most creative and productive period would be only flat – nothing more than a tedious litany of dropped names minutely dissected, resulting in only the barest hint of what the sixties were like.

But one would be wrong. Because Warhol and Hackett have written a book that is as deep and insightful about that decade – and America – as anything I’ve read. Somehow they have managed to convey the feeling of the times that transcends the words on the pages.

There is a palpable, giddy energy one experiences at the beginning of the book (which starts at the beginning of the sixties), an atmosphere of great possibility. The sense that opportunity abounds – for individuals and the nation – and that with hard work and a little luck, miracles are achievable.

And at the end? Unbearable fatigue. A kind of fatness – not a Ruebens-esque voluptuous luxury, but the bloated and flatulent lethargy of careless lassitude. By the end of the book one feels that by the end of the sixties, everyone was just sick of everything. Of the decade, the art, each other, themselves. They are like children who have had too much birthday cake and candy and need to go home. It is an amazing feat and it’s one of the things that makes the book worth reading.

To do it, Warhol and Hackett present an odd and captivating mixture of serious art, tabloid gossip and cogent observations that are deceptively couched in a kind of catty ennui that perfectly evokes Warhol’s laconic drawl. Like this, from the chapter 1964:

“Generally speaking girls were still pretty chubby, but with the new slim clothes coming in, they all went on diets. This was the first year I can remember seeing loads of people drinking low-calorie sodas.”

Which can be dismissed as merely the superficial prattle of the out-of-touch elitist that Warhol often pretended to be, or embraced as the spot-on insight that there was a fundamental change about to hit America – made by someone very aware of what the products people use say about them. Or maybe, like the rest of Warhol’s art, it’s a bit of both.

“POPism” does not purport to be an encyclopedic overview of that entire tumultuous decade. It is only about Warhol’s corner of it, and how that corner waxed and waned as Warhol’s entourage and entanglements evolved. It begins as Pop Art is just starting to appear upon a scene dominated by the monolithic seriousness of Abstract Expressionists like Rothko and Pollock – when Warhol himself was simply a very successful illustrator for the fashion industry – and continues through Warhol’s rise and popularity, both as an artist and as a celebrity. As he moves from a brownstone to “The Factory”. As he meets Edie Sedgwick. As the Velvet Underground are formed. As he shoots “Chelsea Girls”. As  Valerie Solanis shoots him. As he dies, and then is brought back from death. As his life becomes increasingly less about the art and more about the circus the art creates – which becomes its own kind of art.

And then it’s over, capped off by a note at the Factory, scrawled on the bathroom wall by one of his entourage who suddenly disappeared after locking himself inside two years earlier – a message that is as emblematic as it is cryptic: “Andy – I am not here anymore but I am fine – love Billy.”

Most of all, however, “POPism” is a wake-up call for all of us in creative industries. Because you can’t read it – as frankly, you can’t read Steve Harrison’s book on Howard Gossage – without developing a tremendous desire for the mind-boggling level of cross-pollination that was going on then – and that is not going on today. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsburg, Bill Graham, Judy Garland (yes, that Judy Garland), Tennessee Williams, Mick Jagger – they all make appearances either actually at the Factory on in the general Warhol whirlwind. That’s because creative is not a department, it is a way of engaging with the world. And whether that is with a guitar or a typewriter or a paint brush or a movie camera, it all comes back to the same question, the question people once asked each other and which we should begin asking ourselves immediately: “Do you have anything to say?”

Warhol did. And does. Do you?

POPism: The Warhol Sixties by Andy Warhol & Pat Hackett was published by Harvest Books on 09/05/06 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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