Almost twenty years on from The Velvet Years, in your recently published collection of essays, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? 2014, you find yourself still musing on Andy. What fascinates you about him?
Warhol’s work is part of the way I think. I saw it first when I was a young teenager, and his art – his method, let’s say – changed me. What he made, and how he made it affected me. I have some interest in why, also. Warhol as a psychological being: Wild in some ways, breaking rules, rebelling, and conservative in others. He lived with his mother, went to church, shopped madly but kept packages unopened in shopping bags. Contradictions generally interest me.
You’ve said your subjects in The Velvet Years understood their place in history. Did Warhol?
I don’t know if he did [understand his place in history]. To me, an artist in mid-20th century imagining his place in history wouldn’t be in his time, and Warhol was. But he addressed history. Art history, in his Last Supper paintings. Politics and American history in his Jackie O paintings, his electric chairs, and the 13 Most Wanted Men 1964. His portraits documented the famous, rich, important, or celebrities. But his interest in portraiture, to a novelist like me, is about characters and types. In his films, Warhol made powerful, often transgressive social and sexual commentary. He was aware of his time and place in his time. But about where he’d be in the future – I think he was present-minded.
He’s regularly misunderstood, even considered a charlatan. You’ve said that ‘Warhol chose promiscuity’. Is it the ‘seeming lack of “taste” or “discrimination” between so-called high and low culture’ that irritates his detractors?
That makes people crazy, yes. Where there are detractors, scratch that surface, and you find Warhol’s indifference to blurring high and low art and life (though he knew the difference, for sure) is what infuriates them. End of Western civ! Warhol didn’t police those borders. His ideas about art, if we have to use the word, were radical. He wasn’t a class traitor, he wasn’t of the upper classes. He loved shoes, and he drew shoes. His lines are delicate, beautiful. Beauty was in the method, not necessarily residing in the object, like a soup can; but then he also disturbed the idea of what was beautiful or could be.
You’ve described him as a ‘cultural omnivore’. What would he make of the immediacy of today’s post-digital world and the Internet?
I can’t know. That’s why he’s Warhol and I’m not. But I think he would have used it all. YouTube – he’d have loads of stuff there. Maybe he’d have finally done his Bible. Tweets, sure. Deadpan tweets.
How different would art, and culture generally, be had Andy Warhol not been around?
I can’t imagine it.
John Cale has said that: ‘He [Warhol] had this very, very broad appeal, generosity, to whatever he used as art … I think Andy’s approach was always for the common man.’ There’s also the Warhol assertion that ‘art should be for everyone’. How central a concern was this to his process?
John knew him personally. He knew him in ways I never did. I never visited the Factory. And I’d never want to assert my beliefs about his work for his. To me, the desire to make ‘art for everyone’ seems built into the work. Common as soup cans; common as car crashes; common as racism and celebrity. These objects are in the every day. Warhol enjoyed the quotidian. His films are engaged with that but they’re formally different, and the forms he employed are not commonly liked and used. Paul Morrissey tried to make them more Hollywood after Warhol quit making movies. But they’re not Warhol films.
You’ve said that ‘He constructed another kind of artist, one who directs machines and people, who uses technology, whose imprint was virtual.’ He was also really interested in ideas around authorship, seemingly dismissing the sense of the artist-as-genius. Was he in thrall to dispelling this notion?
Why did he want to dispel the notion? That requires a deeply psychological understanding of him, I think. I can only speculate about why he’d want to dispel those ideas. Maybe he never felt he could be a genius, maybe he believed that no one owned ideas. Maybe negating those notions made him feel freer to make his work. I don’t know. I love that he asked people, What do you think I should make? I have done that sometimes.
There’s this school of thought that says Warhol used people. Edie Sedgwick is often given as an example. You, however, have said that he offered people something – ‘work or a feeling of significance’, that he ‘believed in them’. Has he been misunderstood?
When I wrote The Velvet Years, I was very aware of this school of thought; it almost predominated and maybe still does. The Factory people I spoke to didn’t, for the most part, see Warhol that way. Each case was an individual matter, I learned. What we take from others, as well as what we give others, isn’t the same and can shift. Relationships vary. The same person can be very different with this one or that. I think Warhol taught some of the people in the Factory, like Stephen Shore, Lou Reed, John [Cale]; and they learned directly or indirectly. Let’s say, these people ‘used’ him, too. Others got nothing from him, and felt used. Think about the dynamic in sado-masochism. It strikes me that Warhol was capable of being both, as all of us are. It was all magnified in his theater, the Factory.
Interview by Mike Pinnington
Transmitting Andy Warhol is on display at Tate Liverpool from 7 November 2014 until 8 February 2015