Describing the initial inspiration behind his aggressively and amusingly trying amphetamine-fueled tome a: A Novel in his more palatable The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), Andy Warhol explains, “I think it all started because I was trying to do a book. A friend had written me a note saying that everybody we knew was writing a book, so that made me want to keep up and do one too” (94-95).
While certainly an amusing sentiment like many of Warhol’s witticisms, the Andy Warhol Museum’s expansive exhibition Warhol By the Book, which will travel to New York’s Morgan Library & Museum in February, shows that Warhol’s literary interests run much deeper than peer pressure. Beginning with his Pittsburgh-based college work in the 1940s, Warhol By the Book spans the bewigged artist’s entire creative life from his sometimes cute and often homoerotic 50’s illustrations to his Silver Factory 60’s and finally, his celebrity and party-driven work in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Curated by the Warhol Museum’s chief archivist Matt Wrbican whose knowledge of Warhol’s art and ephemera is possibly unrivaled, the exhibition not only presents Warhol’s illustrations and paintings of authors, but also a multitude of cabinets filled with books by Warhol, illustrated by Warhol or just owned by Warhol. In addition, the museum features several iPads, which allow viewers to virtually page through some of Warhol’s rare texts.
With these various works on display, Warhol By the Book can admittedly overwhelm. However, this textual overload is also effective in asserting the importance of Warhol’s book art to his already extensively and frequently mined oeuvre.
As Warhol’s films, which were underappreciated for years, become increasingly screened and analyzed, Warhol’s literary forays are perhaps the most ignored and overlooked aspect of his artistic career. Like his silkscreened paintings, films and other works, Warhol attacked the page with the same fervor and passion, creating an incredible amount of book covers, artist’s books, photography books and books written–well, with the help of Pat Hackett–by the artist himself.
Organized by decade with even the wall colors corresponding to his interiors in each period, the exhibition aims to depict how the evolution of Warhol’s aesthetic can be traced through his books themselves. In addition to these more formal art historical concerns, Warhol By the Book also reveals Warhol’s continuous conversation with the history and ongoing legacy of queer literature.
Since the decadent writers, and even before, queerness has languished in literary texts, coded and hidden for the right eyes only. Throughout the exhibition, it becomes quite clear that Warhol certainly recognizes this veiled literary genealogy, attempting to engage with both his queer elders and contemporaries.
After the section of his student work from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, which includes an illustration of the infamous Kingfish and fabulously corrupt politician Huey Long, Warhol’s New York-based 1950s illustrations begin to expose his engagement with queer literary elders such as Marcel Proust. For example, a series of lithographed illustrations of shoes line the walls from a 1955 portfolio entitled A la recherche du shoe perdu.
While Warhol’s commercial illustrations and even, his self-published artist’s books can tend toward the saccharine with angels and the cats in 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy (No hate mail from cat ladies–I still like that book), Warhol’s 1950’s works also contain some hilarious and not-too-coded puns including “Fat Fairies: A book for fairies.” Perhaps Warhol’s most artistically successful illustrations of his early career are his beautiful and intuitive drawings of men, which resemble Jean Cocteau’s illustrations for Genet’s Querelle. As the 1950s were still quite a repressive era for gay men like Warhol, his sensitive portraits based on photographs of his lover Edward Wallowitch in the gold-leafed A Gold Book become radical representations of same-sex desire.
The 1950’s segment of Warhol By the Book also highlights Warhol’s obsession with his future friend Truman Capote, sparked by the gorgeous Harold Halma photographs of young Truman on his book jackets. One of the most fun stories about Warhol I’ve ever read concerns Warhol creepily attempting to contact Capote when he first arrived in New York. Eventually, Capote’s mother had to get involved to tell Warhol to bugger off. Of course, once Warhol became more famous and successful, suddenly Capote–that fame whore–was interested as an invite to Capote’s legendary Black-And-White Dance in a vitrine attests.
Moving into the 1960s, drugs and sexuality become more overt from the Superstar-filled, Pop-up Andy Warhol’s Index to his first and only novel a: A Novel. His most experimental book and my favorite Warhol literary endeavor based on sheer aggression alone, a: A Novel is based on two tape recorded conversations over a two-year period centering around the Factory’s chief queer speed freak Ondine. Mirroring the non-stop talking at the Factory sparked by amphetamine pokes–hence the title a, the novel was transcribed by four different typists including Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker, as well as two high school girls. With each Factory regular given different nicknames such as Warhol’s Drella, the conversation becomes almost impossible to follow since each typist had their own abbreviations, typos and inconsistencies, which were all faithfully preserved on the page.
Yes, I have read a: A Novel and occasionally briefly consider reading it again then remember the excruciating pain of getting through the novel. Whether conscious or not, Warhol’s novel unquestionably reflects the similarly impenetrable cut-up technique of fellow literary outlaw William S. Burroughs whose photograph with Keith Haring hangs in the exhibition.
With books such as Andy Warhol’s Exposures, Warhol…well…exposes the centrality of nightclubs to his life and work in the 1970s and 1980s with photographs of Jerry Hall, Liza Minnelli, Grace Jones and others in Studio 54. Even Warhol’s diaries–dictated on the phone to his faithful friend and collaborator Pat Hackett–reveal his daily parties with queer icons such as Halston and John Sex. Although nightlife becomes an important aspect of Warhol’s later years, Warhol maintains interest in queer literary figures with silkscreened portraits of Gertrude Stein and our own filth elder Tennessee Williams, whose own partying overlapped with Warhol’s own as documented in Andy Warhol’s Party Book.
Warhol By the Book aims to and succeeds in cementing the significance of Warhol’s books to his larger body of work. But lest we think it’s all about literature for Andy, let’s remember his statement from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: “I would rather watch somebody buy their underwear than read a book they wrote” (229).