Here’s Andy Warhol’s ear. Here’s Andy Warhol’s eye. Here’s his chin. Here’s his hair. Duane Michals, who knew Andy since his days as an illustrator at iconic New York department store Bonwit Teller, has documented every inch of Andy Warhol, even blowing up portraits into extreme close-ups to show each of his features. As Michals continues his archival excavation, he shows all this and more in his latest offering, Fabulous, a new digital booklet with photographs and collage of Andy Warhol as well as stories from the times they spent together.
Opening with a collage, Michals splices Andy’s face in between Picasso’s famed Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso, noted for his ruthless ability to steal other artists’ work, is merged with Warhol as an irreverent joke, a reminder of what the two artists had in common. “A lot of people would not let Picasso in their studio because he’d steal their art and ideas,” says Duane Michals. “[And] Andy was appropriating everyone else’s work. We had lunch one day and he warned me: he said ‘Be very careful because people will steal your ideas’, and of course he stole everybody’s work!” he continues, laughing. “Only in the art world have they legitimized organized theft.”
Among the multitude of portraits of Andy, one of the most captivating images is of Warhol’s mother, Julia Warhola (Warhol famously chopped the “A” off of his last name). Sitting in the home they shared, wearing pearls and a polka dotted blouse, she looks straight into the camera while her son sits behind her with a smile. One of the few images of Andy smiling, it is a rare and genuine moment for a man whose life and work was seeped in artifice.
“She was a nice little eastern European lady, a babushka, you’d look in the kitchen and she was in there making soup,” says Michals. “Andy, with all the glitz and glamour, was underneath all that essentially a very small town kid with huge ambitions. He’s the great American success story. And I think that he was much better existentialist than he was a painter. He was artist-slash-personality-slash-PR.”
Warhol, one of three sons of working-class immigrants, had attended the prestigious Carnegie Mellon university, an education that comes with a high price tag. “His father knew Andy would have a hard time surviving in the real world, so he saved up and put him through Carnegie Mellon,” tells Duane Michals. “His brothers could be truck drivers, but Andy could never do anything. He was just not equipped. But he was his own kind of genius,” he says. Warhol, with only meager means, built himself into a legend, a larger-than-life figure with the kind of money and fame that most artists can only dream about.
Fabulous has its poignant moments, too. One image shows Warhol and Gerard Malanga casually reclining on a couch, with a shirtless young man sitting atop the couch’s back, positioned between the two. Scrawled underneath in Michals’ hand is a story of how he received a call from a woman in Texas who said she was the mother of the boy in the photograph. He had died of a drug overdose, and she was trying to piece together what had happened to her son. “Did you know him?” she asked Michals, desperate for information, but Michals could provide none—the boy simply happened to be present at the time he took the photo, but was otherwise anonymous to him. “It was heartbreaking,” says Michals. “That’s the underside of fuckin’ fame. I hate all that. I hate the cheapness, the tawdriness, the shallowness. There were all those Andy Warhol wannabe acolytes with stupid names, all those creatures that survived only while they stayed in the afterglow of Andy’s name.”
“Fame is way overrated,” he continues. “That’s like [Mark David Chapman] shooting Lennon to be famous. That’s how revolting fame is. It’s a sickness in the culture.”
Warhol may be considered a singular talent, made possible only by the era in which he lived, but Michals thinks he’s replicable—or, at least, that artists have successfully replicated his model. “We have people like Jeff Koons, he’s the updated version of Andy, or Richard Prince. There’s a whole group of these who are personality-slash-celebrity-slash-art world fixtures.”
The issue, though, is that once they achieve that goal—fame, money, social status—they can’t continue to grow artistically. “People get trapped in their own success,” he says. “They have a gem of an original idea, then they beat it to death. They become a product, a brand. And then they can’t stray out of that brand. If you’re still doing the same concept that you did five years ago then you’re dead creatively. To be creative you have to not know what you’re doing. If you already know in advance what you’re going to do, that’s not creative. Creativity is a crisis of not knowing what’s next, and figuring it out.”
When Andy Warhol was shot in 1968 by feminist activist Valerie Solanas, the timing was bad, says Michals, because Bobby Kennedy was assassinated just a few days later, resulting in a total media eclipse. Warhol’s own assassination attempt was yesterday’s news. Fabulous closes with the image of Warhol’s grave (who died in 1987 from a heart attack), with the grave of his parents Julia and Andrew Warhola behind him. Atop Warhol’s tombstone is a bouquet of white flowers sitting in a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can.
“Andy is the one to beat, he’s the one that all artists of that ilk want to be,” says Michals. “He’s transcended being a mere artist, he’s a phenomenon. Andy was phenomenal. And he still is, and he will get stronger as time goes on.”
By Christina Caccouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
More information on Duane Michals here.