Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Day in New York

That Saturday—as fresh and blue-skied a spring morning as one could possibly want for a stroll up Fifth Avenue—I walked happily, block after block, a Jersey boy on a pilgrimage to the Upper East Side. I was twenty-four, an aspiring writer in whom certain tastes had already settled deep and firm: favorite author, Truman Capote; favorite band, Blondie; favorite artist, Andy Warhol. Warhol had died a year earlier, and now the much-anticipated Sotheby’s auction of his estate promised a public view of the artist’s massive and wildly eclectic accumulation of possessions, all of which would be on display prior to the auction itself. On display today, April 23, 1988; which was why I, a young man with no interest in auctions and no intention of bidding, was headed to Sotheby’s to seize a once-in-an-eternity opportunity: to walk through a momentary museum of Warhol’s acquisitions before their dispersal.

“That painting looks like the Duchess.”

“Oh, she’d like that. She’s got a fascination with nudes.”

I did not recognize the speakers, but that bit of overheard conversation reached me as soon as I entered Sotheby’s and began milling about. Not far behind me, near the entrance, a television news crew was interviewing a handsome young gay man with a gigantic Mohawk haircut; he told them he was an artist and that his appearance was necessary to attract attention to his art, and he easily connected this concept to Andy Warhol, or perhaps to Warhol’s wig, I don’t recall which; but somehow between his presence and that stray remark of the friends of the Duchess (and was she a genuine Duchess? Or was that a nickname? Or was “she” a drag queen friend of Andy’s?), I felt that I’d stepped into Warhol’s world.

Around me, and in the spaces that I and many other visitors would soon explore, rested Andy’s expansive collection. Beyond the amazing reality that one guy had amassed it all, its oddest attribute was that its mad mix of elements—a Fred Flintstone watch next to a Cartier, junk jewelry next to treasures fit for royalty, American Indian artifacts a stone’s throw from subway-graffiti-inspired paintings—somehow all fit together. As I wandered, the definite unity of the whole wacky assortment made me wonder: Is it possible to have great taste in garbage? And I understood differently a remark Warhol had made: “I just like everything. Everything looks so great.” Because walking through Sotheby’s everything did look great, and I wished it could stay together as a museum. Items that caught my eye, but were only small curiosities on their own, fed into the larger elusive “something” of Andy’s treasure trove. Here, for example, was an Andy Warhol Director’s chair; a display of giant Coke bottles, giant crystals, and a Campbell’s soup can full of smaller crystals; a TV script for Truman Capote’s “Children On Their Birthdays” inscribed “Happy Birthday dearest Andy—Truman”; and art by both the French cartoonist Hergé, who had autographed a pencil Tintin page to Andy, and by John Lennon (a “John Lennon Bag”). Whatever power these things might each hold in isolation couldn’t compare to their role here, as part of a vast network, in tandem with, for example, art deco objects or a brilliant canvas that Warhol had painted with Jean-Michel Basquiat.

In this, their cumulative effect, Warhol’s possessions hinted at a central aspect of his artistic legacy: his uncanny ability to combine two seemingly contradictory qualities, the selectivity of the artist and the inclusiveness of the insatiable collector. Viewed en masse his works are an overwhelming portrait of his times and culture: guns, flowers, celebrities, cows, skulls, balloons, electric chairs, cupids, shoes, money, advertisements, and so on, all in an unprecedented array—and I haven’t even mentioned the soup cans and Brillo boxes (or the films, the live events, the interviews-as-performance-art). While few of his own works were part of the Sotheby’s sale, they were, of course, everywhere in the consciousness of the browsing visitors.

The boldness of his color choices, the innovation of his silk screen technique, and the acuteness with which he selected images that he could position on a pedestal, so to speak, and endow with iconic status (and, despite the acuteness of his selectivity, his ability and desire to find more and more and more such images) allowed him to take in and epitomize American culture with deceptive simplicity (and, make no mistake, a green Mao is an American image, just as a camouflage Statue of Liberty is a deceptively simple way of making multiple statements at once). Like many artists, but with far greater effect than most, Warhol could stand back pokerfaced and let a painting “read” in different ways simultaneously. Is his vision of Marilyn Monroe, in garish make-up and depicted like a mass-produced object, intended as tribute, putdown, critique of Hollywood culture, wisecrack, or deliberate provocation? Is his cow wallpaper art or anti-art; product, décor, affectionate joke? Is his camouflage Statue of Liberty a political statement, an aesthetic statement, or “merely” a conflation of two aspects of American culture? Are his works charged primarily with philosophy or with the profit motive? Are they symbolic, symptomatic, or existentially empty?

To say his ironic wit was double-edged is a reduction: in his best paintings the possibilities are far more than double and the wit unquantifiable. He combined the virtues of abstraction (ambiguity that allows for flexibility of meaning and interpretation; near-endless possibilities for decorative and symbolic resonance; freedom from the more stifling aspects of specificity) with the solidity and “thing-ness” of representational art—and while seizing the possibilities before him, he mixed distillation and accumulation in unprecedented ways; he became the artist as consumer of everything.

Admittedly, not all the items at Sotheby’s fed my enthusiasm. I browsed Andy’s bookshelves to peek at what he had read, or perhaps left unopened: the books included The Two Mrs. Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne; Stardust, a hack biography of David Bowie co-written by a friend of Andy’s; a High Times book of drug lore; Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins; Dali, a book about Warhol’s surrealist hero; and the Ed Koch opus Mayor—nothing I’d be tempted to add to my own bookshelf. All of these books, however, feed in their different ways into or off of the celebrity culture of which he was a part, and in which he made himself into a kind of icon, revered (not always for the right reasons) by younger artists.

*****

When I recall that spring Saturday now, twenty-two years later, it’s not only the Warhol auction that comes to mind but the entire weekend. After I left Sotheby’s I walked to the Whitney Museum of Art and looked at Warhol’s Mao, his Flowers, a Self-Portrait, Green Coke Bottles, and Ethel Scull Thirty-six Times; also Jackson Pollock’s Number 27 (about which I had once written a poem), and many other works for which I had a youthful breathless reverence. Then I headed to the New York Society Library, simply because in his book Music for Chameleons Truman Capote had mentioned it as a “pleasant shelter” where he had met Willa Cather in the late 1940s. The library had, I found, the right ambience for that kind of literary anecdote; tasteful, elegant, and sleek, it fit the image I had conjured of a perfect place to come in from the rain and fill one’s notebook by writing or one’s mind by reading. The essay in which Capote had told the Cather anecdote had originally been written, like much of Music for Chameleons, for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.

Eventually I walked all the way from the Upper East Side through midtown, downtown, and into and around Greenwich Village. Then I took a train back out to New Jersey to see my friend Phil West sing and play guitar that evening at a coffee house called The Other End, on the campus of my alma mater, Drew University. It all made for a long and exhausting day, but a satisfying one. Phil stayed over at my apartment in Morristown—I cooked rice in the wee hours of the morning because he had never eaten dinner and was starving—and on Sunday morning we ate at a favorite local restaurant, Calaloo Café, and discussed Europe: my recent trip to Italy and France, and his experiences there in the past, an “exotic” contrast to our day-to-day lives of mostly menial work and low-budget living.

All these years later, Phil and I are still good friends; and though my cultural tastes have expanded, Capote remains a cherished literary inspiration and Blondie is still my favorite band. As for Warhol—my interest in him waned for some years, having been satiated after I had read thousands of pages by and about him, and had sufficiently experienced his works. At times, however, the bright ingenuity of his paintings still delights me. In the odd way that a life often has of following and weaving together its most resonant threads, my own life led me to several years of work in an art museum that included Warhols in its collection, and later to a publishing job in which I’ve served as publicist for books about Warhol; but these facts are tiny points amid the vast weave of cultural influences in my life and the synchronicities and intersections of those influences with, within, and throughout my reality. When I think back on not merely the “bright ingenuity” of Warhol’s paintings but the bright ingenuity of that long-ago spring day in Manhattan, what resonates is its freshness and my wide-eyed receptiveness, and how well its blue-skied grace looks now, shining like a precious object amid a vast network of collected moments, some of them junk and some of them treasure, but all together suggesting a definite unity, the selectivity of the artist and the inclusiveness of the insatiable collector.

Originally published in the second issue of the Folio Club. Copyright 2010 by Robert Pranzatelli. All rights reserved.

Image: Andy Warhol, Flowers.