“I love everything that’s bad with America and that’s what I make movies about,” explains our preeminent filth elder John Waters. John isn’t the only one. Shortly before Waters’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (barely) graced screens, Andy Warhol was publicly embracing the tacky, trashy and terribly capitalist side of American culture. From cheaply and quickly made consumer products to garish obsessions with Hollywood icons and their downfalls to our even darker and more depraved tabloid rag fascination with death and disasters to the subcultural underground combination of drugs and queerness, Warhol, too, loved everything deliciously unseemly about America.
“I’m not trying to criticize the U.S. in any way, not trying to show up any ugliness at all: I’m just a pure artist I guess,” said Warhol in a notorious 1966 interview with Gretchen Berg in the East Village Other. Though most of Warhol’s self-reflections have been taken as tongue-in-cheek, he’s not wrong. Warhol performed a kind of radical acceptance, at least publicly. Just read his interviews that are filled with descriptions like great, terrific and “Oh, I like them all.”
Of course, an artist that absorbed everything about America only to reflect it back onto itself like a silver-wigged mirror isn’t an easy subject for a retrospective, as seen at the Whitney Museum’s current expansive exhibition Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. An overview of Warhol’s career from the 1950s to his death, curator Donna De Salvo with Christie Mitchell and Mark Loiacono deliver pretty much what you would expect from a safe major institutional blockbuster–mostly the art historically relevant hits with a few under-seen goodies tucked here and there.
Overall, From A to B and Back Again is certainly not breaking any ground on the much-analyzed artist, which begs the question of why the museum would even bother to resurrect Warhol if they weren’t going to say anything new (money). Unsurprisingly, Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again also sports many of the same issues that I pointed out previously in the Whitney’s Wojnarowicz retrospective with less attention paid to his collaborators at the Factory, who, let’s be honest, I sometimes find more interesting than Warhol himself (*cough* Brigid Berlin!). There’s also a lack of a consistent and devoted engagement with the queerer parts of Warhol’s creative output. Sure, the Whitney shows selections from his Ladies and Gentlemen series, featuring drag queens and trans women of color such as Marsha P. Johnson and Hot Peaches’s Wilhelmina Ross, as well as squirrels away Warhol’s Sex Part series, hiding these erotic paintings so carefully that I missed them (only discovering these works were in the show via a friend’s Instagram feed). Even the film screening program is a bit on the benign side–I demand a screening of Taylor Mead’s Ass!
But rather than go on and on, rehashing my many complaints about the Whitney, I’m going to take a page from Warhol, and instead, put my finger to my lips and exclaim, “Oh, greaaaaaat,” while secretly planning the 13 items I most want to steal (the 13 most beautiful, if you will). You heard me right–like Jessica Caroline and my prior listicle on the works we coveted at the Brooklyn Museum’s David Bowie exhibition, I’ve been plotting and planning about the Warholian wares that would go perfectly with my décor. “I like to see things used and re-used. It appeals to my American sense of thrift,” said Warhol in an unpublished interview with David Bourdon. Same, Andy, which is why I can see all these things reused in my apartment!
It’s no secret that one of Warhol’s favorite pastimes was shopping, but who has money to shop anymore? 2018 is all about shop-lifting. And if you think I’d feel bad about nicking items at the museum–nope. Hyperallergic recently reported that Warren B. Kanders, the Museum’s vice chairman and a “significant contributor” to the exhibition itself, is the owner of Safariland and Defense Technology, corporations associated with the tear gas tossed at children migrants at the U.S.–Mexico border by Border Patrol. So fuck your tear gas money–I’m taking back Warhol!
1. Elvis Presely, c. 1956
Made decades before Elvis’s decadent bedazzled jumpsuits that shimmer, dance and thrust in my head when I’m in dreamland, Warhol’s Elvis Presely (sic) is a gilded vision of our Graceland golden boy. A foot fetishist’s precursor to his later silver screen silkscreens, Warhol’s mid-1950s series of golden shoe collages also included bawdy broad Mae West and a flowery and fey tribute to Warhol’s obsession Truman Capote (more on that in a bit). However, I would, undoubtedly, have to swipe this Elvis boot. I can already imagine approaching it on my knees in a near-religious haze–its Byzantine glint catching my eye–as I caterwaul Elvis’s covers of gospel tunes like “He Touched Me,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “Lead Me, Guide Me.” Lead me, oh King!
2. “Truman’s Hand,” 1950s
One of my most cherished stories about Warhol is that when he first arrived in New York from Pittsburgh, he began stalking Truman Capote. Can you blame him?! Have you seen photographs of young Truman?! Apparently, Warhol’s Capote captivation got so bad that he wrote Truman fan mail and called him so relentlessly that Truman’s own mother had to tell Warhol to stop. If that extreme behavior doesn’t inspire role model worship, I don’t know what does. It’s that kind of mania we aspire to, here at Filthy Dreams so as a reminder to always explore our excesses, I need to have one of Warhol’s early odes to Capote. While the Whitney exhibition features a selection of three, I’d pluck Truman’s Hand from the wall, which looks to me like an unabashed celebration of the limp wrist.
3. James Dean, 1955
In 2015, Marion and I went to the James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, Indiana, Dean’s hometown, which radically changed me. Maybe it was the multiple Dean mannequins, but I haven’t been the same since, an evolution I need to relive constantly by helping myself to this 1955 drawing. A gruesome foreshadowing of Warhol’s later Death & Disaster series, this work maintains the same line-drawn style as seen in his sweetly homoerotic Boy Book drawings. Here, though, Warhol doesn’t just render this hunky cinematic icon of ideal rebellious masculinity. Instead, he portrays the star with his head snapped and thrown back after his fatal car crash that is seen in the background, which occurred the same year this drawing was made. It’s bleak, jarring and just the conversation piece to hang over a dinner party.
4. “Pirates Sieze Ship…” 1961
I don’t know if it’s the woman’s dead-eyed, blank toothy grin or the business man’s world-weary drama queen reaction next to her, but this hand-drawn rendering of a Daily News cover has always been a low-key favorite of mine. With the headline “Pirates Sieze Ship,” which Warhol apparently changed the number of 900 passengers to 900,000, this drawing ramps up the camp, particularly with the caption: “A tough day?” Sounds like it!
5. Wigs, 1962
“What’s that on your head? A WIIIIIIIG!” Oh sorry, lost myself there in The B-52’s. It should be obvious why Wigs would be the Pop painting that would send my klepto impulses a-tingling. From Cindy and Kate’s cosmic hair-hopper aesthetic to the Pope of Trash from the hairdo capital of America, wigs hold a special place in the mountain of kitsch I call my heart. More than the soup cans or the Coke bottles from the same Pop era, Warhol’s Wigs contains both an element of drag that continues to pop up (wah wah) again and again throughout his oeuvre, as well as a creeping sense of the macabre with the drips coming off the lower wigs as if they were scalped. Or maybe I’ve just been watching too much Criminal Minds.
6. Lavender Disaster, 1963
Speaking of the morose, I can’t have my own con-(wo)man Warhol collection without at least one piece from the Death & Disaster series. While this series is actually one of my favorites (I’m sick), I don’t necessarily want to munch on lunch over some bloody car crash victims. But, I would like to reminisce about capital punishment so I’m snatching Lavender Disaster, under which I could recite Dawn Davenport’s ultimate acceptance speech from the chair in Female Trouble or just menacingly croon Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’s “The Mercy Seat,” while scrawling “E-V-I-L” on my knuckles. It’s also no mistake that Warhol rendered his mercy seat in lavender, barely a decade after the Lavender Scare.
7. Elvis at Ferus, 1963
Of course, Elvis couldn’t just make one appearance on this list and this film mesmerized me so much that I could have watched it again and again (and again). It doesn’t matter that it is, in fact, one of the most mundane concepts put on film (next to Sleep and Empire, of course). I, too, apparently like boring things. This particular film was shot at Warhol’s show at Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery, presenting his silkscreened Elvis canvases. But, Emily, you might ask: Don’t you want those Elvis paintings? No…Ok, well, yes…but in this film, Warhol’s camera lingers long over Elvis’s repeated face and his…*ahem* belt, as well as flips fast through the paintings, spinning around the gallery as if they were a reel of film themselves. It’s dizzying and certifiably compulsive, almost pathological, which is exactly how I feel about Elvis. I get you, Andy. When I was sitting in the theater, which also featured several Screen Tests, everyone left except for me as this Elvis fixation dragged on. Nobody appreciated it–so come to me!
8. Michael Kostiuk, Andy Warhol vacuuming the carpet for an installation piece at Finch College Museum of Art, c. 1972
“My new art form is vacuum cleaning,” Warhol told Scope’s George Gruskin in 1973. He wasn’t kidding, apparently, as these photographs attest. As a part of the exhibition Art In Process V, Warhol, according to the Whitney’s wall label, “unboxed and assembled a brand-new Eureka canister vacuum, cleaned the gallery’s rug, and then removed and signed the vacuum’s bag, which was included in the exhibition.” What a domestic goddess! I’d hang this proudly in my apartment, reminding me to clean up my filth.
9. Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away! (Positive), 1985-86
I like a reminder of eternal salvation or damnation while contemplating mortality in the bathtub, don’t you? This is why Warhol’s late painting Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away! would be a perfect choice for inciting a bathroom-centric existential crises.
10. Flyers from The Toilet, c. 1976
Speaking of bathrooms, The Toilet has always been one of the most heroically sleazy names in club history. Before even entering, you know you’re not going to have a classy night at The Toilet. It’s going to be dirty and hopefully, full of regret the next morning. Located on West 14th Street, The Toilet was one of the now-bygone storied Meatpacking District clubs, which is most likely now a luxury hi-rise. These flyers come courtesy of Warhol’s archives, which means that, at some point, Warhol descended from his Mount Olympus at Studio 54 to hang with the leather men at The Toilet. Oh, gee!
11. Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, Untitled, 1985
Remember when Madonna was more than your embarrassing drunk aunt who got botched plastic surgery and spends too much time posting mortifying videos on Instagram? I barely can either, which is why I’m scamming this painting from the Whitney. I need this neo-Pop collaboration between Keith Haring and Warhol to remind me of better days when Madge was pushing the erotic envelope rather than dressing up like a clown on social media platforms or texting her way through Hamilton. Returning to Warhol’s earlier works like “Pirates Sieze Ship…,” this trashy newspaper cover quotes Madonna proudly boasting, “I’m not ashamed!” in the face of “nudie pix furor.” And why should she be?! Also notice Haring’s figure covering Ronnie Reagan’s AIDS-ignoring face, perhaps the first (but obviously not the last) nightmarishly Pop president as our American adoration of Hollywood turned abhorrent in a way that would foreshadow our current dystopia.
12. Self Portrait, 1964
I guess you can’t make off with a bunch of Warhol’s without coveting a portrait of the man himself. While my first impulse is to nab the Polaroids of Warhol in drag so we can discuss the real question of our era, which is: who was more unsettling in drag? Warhol or Bowie (remember Boys Keep Swinging)? Ultimately, though, that wouldn’t satisfy my craving for Warhol’s performance of the self so I think I’ll take this classic Silver Factory-era self-portrait. Just revel in his aloofness! Why it makes me want to pop some amphetamine diet pills and belt out “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”
13. Shadow (Diamond Dust), 1978
My last, but certainly not least, heist is going to be Warhol’s series of diamond dust Shadow paintings. On the corresponding wall label, Warhol is quoted as saying: “Someone asked me if [the Shadow paintings] were art, and I said no. You see, the opening party had disco, I guess that makes them disco decor. This show will be like all the others, the review will be bad—my reviews always are. But the reviews of the party will be terrific.” Really, all I’ve ever wanted is disco decor. And mentioning discos makes me think of another storied club that heavily features shadows–the Roadhouse from Twin Peaks. So as the Chromatics sing, “Shaaadowwww…take me downnnn…”