Gilda Williams Explores Gothic Content in the Art-Making and Self-narration of Andy Warhol.
I, Monster: Gothic Metaphor in the Making and Unmaking of Andy Warhol
‘There was […] enough Andy in Dracula — the pale, lifeless Carpathian vampire, embarrassed by his roots, lost in the modern world […]’
— Victor Brockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol, Self-portrait with Skull, c.1976. Polaroid, 108 x 86 mm.
‘If someone asked me, “What’s your problem?”,’ Warhol wrote in 1975, ‘I’d have to say “skin”.’ In fact Warhol — a commercially trained artist, a church-goer and homosexual, the unhandsome son of impoverished immigrants and all-round ‘colossal creep’ (as described by an acquaintance in 1960), who lived with his mother until the age of 43 — suffered plenty more severe ‘problems’, at least by the standards of an artist trying to make it in the early-1960s Manhattan art world. A childhood bout with St Vitus’ Dance left him permanently with albino-like, acne-ridden skin, prone to unpredictable blotches of red; Warhol seems to have channelled his multiple, ‘problem’ sources of Otherness towards a lifelong preoccupation with his flawed complexion.
Skin is always the damning signal of Gothic monstrosity: skin that is too tight (Frankenstein’s creature), too dark (Mr Hyde), too pale (Dracula), too superficial (Dorian Grey), too loose (Leatherface). Such is the brilliant thesis argued by literary theorist Judith Halberstam in Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995). In the film The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), serial killer and gender catastrophe Buffalo Bill is preoccupied with sewing a dress from the skin of his victims, a macabre crafts project to which actress Jodie Foster, in the role of Clarice Starling, almost bodily contributes. In the early nineteenth century, writes Halberstam, the newly invented Gothic literary genre turned skin into the membrane-thin mark of monstrosity —with all the racist connotations therein well-intact, whether in slavery-ridden US or Empire-drunk Britain. In contrast with Gothic demons, monsters from pre-Enlightenment times openly declared their non-belonging to humankind. We are not exactly gnawed by doubt when conversing with a woman growing live serpents from her head, or an oversized man with the head of a bull, wondering, ‘am I dealing with a … a monster?’ No; the beasts of antiquity announced their monstrosity right from ‘how do you do?’, often through their semi-animal exterior. Instead a Gothic monster disturbingly approximates a human, attempts to pass for human, and is able to fool children, careless females and other trusting souls who fall victim to its cruel intentions. The new source of horror introduced by the Gothic monster was precisely this: duplicity; evil masquerading behind a borderline human exterior. Our fear of the monster lies in the risk that the final reckoning — ‘OMG! He’s not human!’ — arrives all too late, when fangs have been inserted, zombiehood inflicted. An attentive observer learns to spy the telltale clues that give the monster away, averting mortal danger.
James Whale, Frankenstein, 1931. Filmstill.
Tod Browning, Dracula, 1931. Filmstill.
Warhol’s very early childhood marked the years when Hollywood was achieving heights in the early horror film genre which often reworked Gothic literary classics: Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932). Surely the movie-crazy boy, regularly attending the pictures near his Pittsburgh ghetto, would have been familiar with those recent, popular thrills and the ongoing horror craze. I’m going to suggest that Warhol sometimes resorted to Gothic monster-making strategies — probably without deliberation — in constructing his unorthodox artist persona, communicating to the wide public that he craved the nature of his unrecognizable new art through his self-presentation as an equally unfamiliar entity: the artist-monster. Such a presentation was then usurped and expanded by critics and hangers-on in coming to terms with his unorthodox art and baffling persona. To be sure, Gothic metaphor abounds in the writing surrounding Andy Warhol.
Andy Warhol, Camouflage Self-portrait, 1986. Silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas, 204.5 x 193 cm.
Warhol was forever drawing attention to his weird, indefinably shaded skin. Consider his description of his daily beauty regimen in the effort of concealing his chronic acne:
‘When the alcohol is dry […] I’m ready to apply the flesh-colored acne-pimple medication that doesn’t resemble any human flesh I’ve ever seen, though it does come pretty close to mine […]
‘So now the pimple’s covered. But am I covered?’ (Warhol: 1975, 17)
Here Warhol self-depicts his creepy skin as barely human, more like the chemical product of a pharmaceutical laboratory than the human epidermis. For Halberstam, the hallmark of Gothic-monster skin is its inability fully to disguise the hideous immoral/immortal being lurking underneath. ‘The hide no longer conceals or contains’, writes Halberstam; skin fails to mask the inescapable monstrosity beneath. In Warhol’s account, the skin/pimple is covered, ‘but am I covered?’ he asks, questioning whether the non-human cosmetic will distract from the unsuspected but equally non-human creature existing beneath it. His late Camouflage Self-portraits (1986), in which Warhol’s fright-wig Polaroid self-portrait was silkscreened onto camouflage fabric, exaggerate both his unnatural, patchy coloring as well as, perhaps, his attempts to conceal himself beneath naturalistic cover. For his self-portrait the artist here abandoned his usual embellishing techniques for the commissioned portraits, where he snipped out double chins, wrinkles, and bags to produce rejuvenated faces for his high-paying clients. Instead for his own portrait he actually accentuates his skin’s preternatural lumpiness, its slack ill-fit to his Slavic jaw. His ‘monstrosity’ is abundantly disclosed on the skin/canvas. Warhol claimed that his art was ‘just surface’; perhaps, like the artist’s ‘problem’ skin, the thin canvas surface could barely contain the strange being — making ‘strange’ art, surrounded by ‘strange’ people, occupying a ‘strange’ world — behind it.
Andy Warhol, Self-portrait, 1986. Silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas, 203 x 203 cm.
In his final fright-wig self-portraits from 1986 Warhol looks cadaverous, a ghostly association which took on macabre significance when the artist died within a year of their making. Critic Jennifer Higgie described the face seen there as ‘disembodied and blank’ — like a zombie — with skin caving in around his pronounced skull. Film critic and early Warhol associate Amy Taubin discussed this ‘death’s head-like 1986 self-portrait’, as she called it, which greeted visitors to the then-newly opened Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, dwelling on the artist’s
‘hair standing on end like petrified spikes, skull bones outlined through thin skin that glows as if radioactive, gaze frozen in bewildered horror before what it sees — which is nothing more than its own reflection in the lens of the camera […] “the camera shows death at work” […] [I]t’s the face of someone trapped between Hiroshima and the age of AIDS, someone for whom death has the luminescence of the television screen.’ (Taubin: 1997, 28)
Taubin’s description — ‘hair standing on end’; ‘skin that glows’; ‘gaze frozen in bewildered horror’, ‘death at work’ — could have practically been lifted from a spooky novel to describe some terrifying central character. For Taubin, Warhol’s skull-like visage doesn’t just speak of death in general; his is an unmistakably contemporary mask of death: ‘radioactive’, poised ‘between Hiroshima and [ … ] AIDS’. The subject here becomes collective, mediatized death — the very same subject of his Death and Disasters from some two decades before. Such a Gothicization of the artist finds instant verification in his art, as Warhol’s artwork is made to fully correspond, through self-portraiture, with the monstrously half-living man who produced them. Taubin’s discussion of the final self-portrait turns tautological: Warhol is modern death, and modern death is Warhol.
Andy Warhol, ‘I thought I was too small for Drexel Burnham’, 1986. Magazine advertisement.
I thought I was too small for Drexel Burnham (1986) is a little-known magazine advertisement for an investment bank featuring the world-famous artist in a double self-portrait. We see in the foreground the everyday ‘human’ Warhol — small, youthful, and unthreatening, poised shyly on the edge of a chair and able to speak the lingua franca of capitalism. On the back wall looms the immense, demonic 1986 self-portrait: behind its unassuming maker, the giant head stares out, stunned and toothless in a spiky wig. This self-construction — replicating a candid Warhol studio shot taken previously (Hickey et. al.:2006, 588) — operates as the modern-day rendering of a Gothic staple: the painted portrait supernaturally coming alive, emerging from the canvas. This stock horror trope has been repeated since Horace Walpole’s seminal Castle of Otranto (1764); this image rehearses in particular the narrative crux of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The scarred painted figure behind Warhol offers an on-canvas performance of the ‘monstrous’ Pop artist, betraying the allegedly damaged soul of the living Warhol who, like Dorian Gray, remains youthfully untarnished in ‘real life’ before us. In this advertisement, aimed at an audience potentially well outside the art world, we can see exploited a self-construction of the artist as his own double, the innocent version of a dark ‘real’ self — a central monster-making literary technique here put to work in Warhol’s mainstream self-imaging.
References to a ‘spectre’ and the ‘spectral’ recur with particular frequency in descriptions around Warhol, the terms conveniently drawing together both his phantasmatic persona and his extreme pallor. Factory member Ondine described Warhol as ‘a gray specter’ (Stein: 1982, 209); New York Times critic John Leonard described the Factory-carer as a ‘spectral janitor’ (Carroll, 1969, in Pratt, ed.: 1997, 42). For Hal Foster, the experience of celebrity to which the artist was both devoted witness and over-exposed participant contributed to the artist’s unstable, ‘in-between’ identity signaled by his ‘strange presence’, which was marked by his ‘very white, even spectral’ physical appearance’ (Foster: 1996, 124). Italian film actress Gina Lollobrigida, meeting Warhol for the first time in 1973, is said to have referred to the artist as ‘Death’ (Colacello: 1990, 189); while photographer Cecil Beaton, recalling his 1968 Factory photo shoot, described the place as a ‘haunted world, presided over by a zombie’ (Hickey et al., 428). In his 1966 interview with Gretchen Berg, Warhol claimed he didn’t ‘have strong feelings on anything’; the monster, too, is numb to ordinary sensations. The zombie, as Marina Warner writes, is forced to live ‘in a state of anomie degree zero, disaffection to the point of numbness’ (Warner: 2006, 358), a description which perhaps tallies with frequent reports of Warhol’s disengaged, monosyllabic blankness.
Continuing the earlier passage from Warhol’s THE Philosophy, ‘A’ (‘Andy’) describes himself further to ‘B’ (possibly Brigid Berlin):
‘I have to look in the mirror for some more clues. Nothing is missing. It’s all there. The affectless gaze. The diffracted grace …
The bored languor, the wasted pallor …
‘The chic freakiness, the basically passive astonishment, the enthralling secret knowledge …
‘[T]he chalky, puckish mask, the slightly Slavic look …
‘The child-like, gum-chewing naivety […] the shadowy, voyeuristic, sinister aura …
‘The albino-chalk skin, Parchmentlike. Reptilian. Almost blue …
‘[T]he roadmap of scars. The long bony arms, so white they look bleached. The arresting hands. The pinhead eyes …
‘The graying lips […]’
What exactly is the nature of this ageless human concoction, laughing at this obscene catalogue of deformities, which lists a mask-like face, bone-white limbs and paper skin? Just about everything about Warhol’s physical appearance — not just the reptilian skin but the zombie-like ‘affectless gaze’, the Draculian ‘diffracted grace’ — betrays a deeper, metaphysical monstrosity. Warhol’s ‘problem’ skin — scarred and pallid, bleached and translucent, ‘almost blue’ — can hardly contain the ‘real problems’ of this dehumanized emotional enigma, conjured here as passive, naïve, languorous, and disaffected,
Usually, for Warhol ‘having a problem’ was a euphemism for ‘being gay’; when Warhol whispered ‘does he have a problem?’, it was code for, ‘Is he gay?’ Around the time Warhol was pining for gallery recognition in the early 1960s, ignored by the New York scene in part because, as Warhol friend and art critic Emil De Antonio put it, he was ‘too swish’, prominent literary historian Leslie Fiedler, in his influential — and brazenly homophobic — Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), was interpreting the nature of the modern American Gothic villain. Fiedler locates the twentieth-century monster as the urbane and effete homosexual, unapologetically described as both ‘deviant’ and ‘freak’ (Fiedler, 441). For Fiedler, novelist Truman Capote — the quintessential 1950s American ‘queen’ (to adopt Fiedler’s term, typical of the period), exemplifies a new form of living Gothic anti-hero who endears himself to wealthy American women thanks to his campy overlap of good and evil, the sensitive and the Satanic. Warhol idolized and eventually befriended Capote, who, as Simon Watney writes, was like Warhol ‘an exemplary fifties queer, a pilgrim in New York, drawn to its glamour and secrets’ (Watney: 1996, 24). For Fiedler writing in 1960, such a figure binds together homosexuality with Gothic content,
‘Overt homosexuality carries with it, however, still the sense of taboo, and is almost always rendered, therefore, in Gothic terms […] The child and the freak haunt such landscapes […]’ (Fiedler, 441-42)
Child (‘child-like, gum-chewing naivety’), freak (‘chic freakishness’): Fiedler’s words are the very terms with which Warhol later builds his Othered persona. The damning, pre-Stonewall renderings of the homosexual-as-monster evidenced in Fiedler’s then-respected writings are reflective of the condemning cultural milieu in American in which Warhol began shyly to explore his sexual inclinations in the 1950s. Warhol never fully declared the open secret of his homosexuality, suggesting perhaps an ongoing shamed notion of gay sexuality (impermissible, some have claimed, within his family’s values and religious heritage) which finds expression in Fiedler’s insistence on a ‘sense of taboo’ demanded for the subject. Fielder connects the allegedly doomed, homosexual Gothic figure epitomized in Capote with the failed love story among two male deaf-mutes in Carson McCullers’s Gothic tale, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). Such characterizations might have had some influence on Capote himself, who some twenty years later made explicit the connection between McCullers and Warhol
‘In [The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter] you’ll remember that this deaf mute, Mr Singer, this person who doesn’t communicate at all, is finally revealed in a subtle way to be a completely empty, heartless person […] Andy is kind of like Mr Singer.’ (Stein, 239)
Harold Halma, controversial portrait of Truman Capote published on the back cover of Other Voices Other Rooms, 1947; Warhol photographing himself in a similar style, c. 1957.
For George Haggerty writing in Queer Gothic (2006), homosexuality in early Gothic fiction was regularly associated with extreme bodily abjection, ‘dung, guts and blood’ as Haggerty summarizes. Consider in this light, how when Warhol produced his own B-film brand of camp-Gothic film, Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula (both 1973; directed by Paul Morissey), his soft-porn, homosexualized variations on the horror classics included arguably the most extreme gore in Warhol’s entire film oeuvre: the vomiting of blood and devouring of blood-soaked bread; close-ups of scars and surgical stitches; a stream of dismemberments; and a laboratory finale in Frankenstein that descends into carnage. Evidently promiscuity, queerness and physical abjection seemed compatible, onscreen subject matter for Warhol/Morissey.
Andy Warhol (dir. Paul Morissey), Flesh for Frankenstein, 1973. Filmstill.
Andy Warhol (dir. Paul Morissey), Blood for Dracula, 1973. Filmstill.
A few firsthand accounts from gallerist Ivan Karp and gallerist/curator Walter Hopps of visits in the early 1960s to the artist’s home and studio suggest the encounter with the strange inhabitant of a B-film haunted house.
‘Andy’s studio was a rather sumptuously bizarre Victorian setting. The lighting was subdued, the windows all covered, and he himself sort of hovered in the shadow.’ (Karp, cited in Stein, 195)
‘[A]t the door was a peculiar, fey, strange-looking person […] The townhouse, gloomy and large, was peculiarly unfurnished. It was more of a collecting depot, a warehouse of things […] He was some strange, isolated figure in his laboratory of taste experiments.’ (Hopps, cited in Stein, 192)
Each visitor rehearses a slew of creepy horror-movie stereotypes: a vast, dark, antiquated house; a strange variety of objects somehow barely filling an uninviting lab-like space. Complementing this Hammer Horror-film-like interior is Warhol himself: a shadowy, ‘strange-looking’, isolated figure, like a stock character drawn from scary-movie cliché. Such visions of the artist and his home are repeated, with some variation, in Jonathan Jones’s later interpretation of Warhol as a ‘twentieth-century Poe’ (frieze 55). The B-film stereotype is borrowed in the construction of an unfamiliar, potentially frightening Otherness that Warhol easily enacted, emphasizing the outrageousness of his person, his environment, and, by extension, his strange new art.
In these portrayals Warhol is both demure and demonic, not unlike Capote’s allegedly infantile yet corrupted gay persona, as Fiedler damningly depicted him. This confounding mix of overlapping opposites is echoed in Warhol’s hybridized Silver Factory nickname ‘Drella’, which emerged around 1964. ‘Drella’ merged together Dracula and Cinderella, with all the implicit gendered and mythical connotations of kindness and evil, purity and corruption, youth and agelessness. For Hal Foster the nickname was a ‘fitting contradiction’ for the artist (Foster: 2008); art historian Caroline Jones too claims that Warhol, with his ‘blend of charmed innocence and sepulchral power’ was well suited to the vampiric co-appellative (Jones: 1996, 237). On various occasions Warhol asserted that, like the vampire, he possessed no mirror reflection (‘It’s too hard to look in the mirror. There’s nothing there’, Warhol cited in Krandall, in Goldsmith, ed.: 2004: 350): the alleged ‘emptiness’ of Warhol and his art is as if reflected in the imagined vacant mirror. In vampire lore, the absence of a mirror reflection functions as evidence for the monster’s false, infernal nature. As Gothic literary theorist Fred Botting writes, the missing reflection signals an ‘unnaturalness that threatens all cultural values and distinctions’ (Botting, 1996:149); in Warhol’s case, distinctions might be compromised between artist and charlatan, between a human art and a non-human (machine-made, heartless) non-art. Though never specifying any reference to vampires, Warhol self-imaging as a transparent or purely reflective being introduces a Gothic affiliation able to enhance his enigmatic persona with added moral hollowness and mystique.
Like Warhol, the vampire originally hailed from some mysterious Eastern European outback. The demon’s extreme pallor — presumably indicative of a craving for human blood — is an indispensable vampiric feature, from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice and beyond. When Warhol associate Patrick O’Higgins, a friend who saw Warhol’s post-shooting mutilated torso firsthand, described the artist’s devastated body, he claimed there was no redness to his scars. The ‘ghastly tracks and scars and holes are white on white — white on that pale stomach of his. No red welts. Pale, pale as could be’, O’Higgins gasps (Stein, 294), as if suggesting that the excessively pale oddity of the artist’s outer layer, when punctured, revealed another even stranger, bloodlessness underneath — like physical ‘proof’ of a dubious humanity. Halberstam writes, ‘Skin becomes a kind of metonym for the human; and its colour, its pallor, its shape mean everything within a semiotic of monstrosity.’ One might here recall Richard Avedon’s 1969 portrait of Warhol taken a year after the shooting, in which the artist lifts his black leather jacket to reveal his marble-white, scarred torn beneath. On Halberstam’s terms, Warhol raises his outer animal ‘skin’ — which points towards the tough, urbane artist, coolly dressed in black — to reveal another, inner damaged being: the contrasting, unnaturally pale and fragile body beneath, sliced and stitched (like Frankenstein’s Creature), and exposing his true, vulnerable and no longer fully human, unearthly body.
Richard Avedon, Andy Warhol, artist, New York City, 1969. Silver gelatin print, 25 x 20 cm.
As Wayne Koestenbaum writes, the name ‘Drella’ semi-equates Warhol with the all-powerful, unearthly Dracula partially in terms of the ‘bloodsucking’ relationship he allegedly cultivated with those around him: ‘[T]he moniker signalled his early poverty and his current pathos, as well as his vampiric relation with his entourage’ (Koestenbaum: 2000, 59). In 1969, Factory ‘Superstar’ Viva described Warhol to Playboy magazine as ‘Satan’, a kind of powerful, hypnotic evildoer whom she could not help but follow blindly (Carroll, 55). Artist Roy Lichtenstein described Edie Sedgwick’s obedience to Warhol as zombie-like (‘Edie seemed more like Andy’s zombie than his partner’, Brockris: 1989, 234). Particularly as depicted in the popular press, Warhol’s ‘Superstars’ — a coterie of unpaid, stunning women, inexplicably devoted to him — seem to replicate the vampire’s intense yet sexless bond with a coterie of terrifyingly desirable temptresses. In the literature, the modern vampire becomes an increasing communal rather than solitary figure, evidenced in late twentieth-century vampire films and novels most prominently beginning with Rice’s ground-breaking Interview with the Vampire (1976) — a fictionalized, novel-length celebrity interview published the very year Warhol’s own Interview magazine began to gain mainstream status. Warhol’s following of ‘Superstars’, hangers-on, employees, acquaintances, collectors, friends, and business associates fits the popular imagination with the contemporary, Lestat-like vampire as a socially powerful but treacherous outsider, a super-human success story.
Warhol, of course, was officially pronounced dead after the assassination attempt by Valerie Solanas in early summer 1968; medics reanimated him back to life. In one of his final books, America (1985), alongside images of graveyards Warhol narrated his unexpected return to life after his assassination attempt and the future prospect of death, representing himself as a kind of transparent non-being returning from the dead.
‘When I got shot, two bullets went through my stomach, liver, spleen, esophagus, left lung and right lung. The doctors and everyone else, including me, was [sic] sure I was going to die, so we all got ready, and then I didn’t do it […]
‘I never understood why when you died, you didn’t just vanish, and everything could just keep going the way it was only you just wouldn’t be there.
‘I always though I’d like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph, and no name.
‘Well, actually, I’d like it to say “figment”.’ (Warhol, 1985: 126; 129)
Here Warhol, having narrowly escaped death, presents himself as doubly emptied of life: as a blank tombstone in death, and an invisible ghostly presence haunting the imagination — a figment — in life. Using contradictory logic, first Warhol wishes he could vanish when he dies, then hints that he’d never really been here corporeally in the first place. The implication is that Warhol is as alive in death as he is in life (or, equally, just as dead in life as he is in death). He starts off his self-presentation, like most Gothic monsters, as a puzzlingly undead figure (‘everyone […] including me, was sure I was going to die’). Warhol played up this deathly self-image in some carefully staged post-shooting self-portraits, such as the 1976 Polaroids of himself (later made into painted silkscreens) in the company of a skull, the artist’s trademark pale skin offering a kind of double to the bright white bone beside him. Around the same time Warhol described himself as ‘more half-there than all-there’ (Warhol, 1975: 87) suggesting a figure permanently sited somewhere between existing and non-existing.
Andy Warhol, Self-portrait with Skull, c.1978. Silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas, 41 x 33 cm.
The notion of post-1968 Andy Warhol as a deathly Doppelgänger to his living former self is rehearsed throughout the literature around him; ‘Warhol emanated a flat uncanniness — as if he were his own double, his own stand-in’, Hal Foster writes (Foster, 1996: 128). Having literally returned from the grave, Warhol’s physiological half-death was subsequently literalized in the common reading of the post-shooting art as a kind of ‘ghostly’ double of the better early work. The oft-repeated portrayal of a half-living, substitute Warhol who lingered phantom-like after the near-fatal shooting and producing equally diminished art was most imaginatively examined in critic Stuart Morgan’s essay ‘Andy and Andy, the Warhol Twins: A Theme and Variations’ (1987). In Morgan’s view, just as Warhol was reduced to his own phantasmatic double after Solanas shot him, the subsequent artworks were doubles for the ‘real’ art that Warhol had produced in the 1960s. Throughout the career, the artist and his work were made by the artist to function as doubles or stand-ins for the other: both equally machine-like; indifferent to art-historical convention; obsessively fixated on fame, success, beauty. This pattern, whereby the artist’s biographical self is perceived as perfectly mirrored in the art, was especially adaptable in the post-shooting history of the artist, in which his art and his identity were together pronounced ‘dead’: anemic substitutes for the ‘living’ art and the thriving artist that his public had known before, deceptively proffered after 1968 to his audience as the ‘real thing’.
The uncanny appearance of a human double, whether literal or metaphorical, is a Gothic mainstay (particularly evident in the Victorian period) and a central defining point of the uncanny for Freud. The idea of doubling has also informed readings of metaphorically doubled characters which recur in the literature, i.e., Frankenstein and his Creature; Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason; the second Mrs. De Winter and Rebecca, and more. For literary theorists David Punter and Glennis Byron, the Gothic double serves the purpose of undermining both the stability of self and Other, as well as for the sake of confusing boundaries between good and evil (Punter and Byron, 2004: 266). Art & Language’s bitterly condemning review of Warhol’s last Self-portraits in 1986 offers a similar Gothicized usage of the double, of a co-existing passive and sinister Warhol. The reviewers ask,
‘Is he like Milton’s Satan, an evildoer who does not perceive or cannot perceive the gravity of his own plight, or is he an “author”, simply bewildered before his own text?’ (Art&Language, Artscribe, Oct/Nov, 1986, 69)
Here Warhol is unsympathetically doubled, portrayed as caught between either evil stupidity or confused blankness. Art & Language eventually claim he is the latter: an artist ‘bewitched’ before his own pictures, unable at the end of his life to replicate — or ‘double’ — the Silver Factory of the 60s. In their view, the 1980s Warhol art-making machine has been pathetically reduced to a genuinely repetitive, distressingly factory-like production of art-commodities. Once again, as with Morgan’s post-shooting Doppelgänger depiction, near the end of his life Warhol is presented as a passive and lifeless double of his former self, reflected in what these critics see as mechanically produced, meaningless artworks catering solely to an inflated market fueled by the author’s calculated celebrity. Art & Language dub Warhol’s late art as a ‘better-heeled simulacrum’: an art even worse than its mere double, given its claims to bearing enough cultural and artistic weight to compensate for its apparent emptiness — an emptiness which has turned all too real. Warhol here is seen to commit the ultimate artistic monstrosity: betraying his early genius, ignoring his artistic roots and peers, and ‘faking it’ for the sake of profit.
In Gothic literature the monster becomes above all a moral monster, one whose very outlandishness defines normalcy. The Gothic monster represents what society rejects and yet embodies, the ‘logical and inevitable product’ of that very same, flawed society, as Punter and Byron write. Warhol’s ‘monstrosity’ was in the eyes of some the extreme yet ‘natural’ result of an excessively consumeristic, celebrity-crazed, hedonistic late twentieth-century. The decline of art and society could be projected in tandem on the screen of Warhol’s inscrutable white face: a blank, money-loving, strange-looking semi-human, in the same ways that his art was characterized by its detractors as hopelessly empty, market-driven, produced by artist-surrogates — either real machines or robotically obedient assistants.
Virtually all Gothic monsters exist in an ontologically ill-defined state between life and death. The terror genre is populated by an ever-expandable gallery of undead figures enduring a problematic, irresolvable place, operating in a permanent state of liminality, whether Frankenstein creatures, vampires, ghosts, zombies, replicants, and more. Others are symbolically undead — Du Maurier’s unsinkable Rebecca (1938), or Norman Bates’s undying mother, the talking cadaver seen in Hitchcock’s film Psycho (1960). In her remarkable essay ‘Andy Warhol: Performances in Death in America’ (1999), Peggy Phelan presents Warhol’s semi-human identity as mimicking some half living/half dead, self-erased, and machine-like creature — a barely human existential condition reflected in the artist’s efforts to remove traces of his hand from his artworks. For Phelan, occupying the very epicentre of the artist’s concerns, as witnessed in the Death and Disasters series, is not (as Foster had claimed in his psychoanalytical ‘Death in America’ text) the mass subject, but the spatial and temporal divide between living and dying, ‘the liminal space between life and death’. Warhol’s art for Phelan was an ‘endlessly projected attempt to draw a line between life and death’.
Andy Warhol, Suicide (Silver Jumping Man), 1963. Silkscreen ink and silver paint on linen, 359 x 202 cm.
This crucial ontological boundary is literally represented in Warhol’s Suicide (Silver Jumping Man) (1963) in which a jumping silhouetted figure is pictured mid-flight, fatally leaping from a skyscraper. For Phelan, the long hard edge of the building in shadow, starkly drawn against the grey mottled sky, symbolically represents this final fault-line between the living and the dead. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein certainly had this same line —‘the awful boundary between life and death’, as Shelley describes it — as the irresistible, indefinable place that drives her story, igniting the ambitions of her main character, pushing him ambitiously to cross that frontier before all others. This very line for Phelan literally slices through Warhol’s Suicide, dividing the canvas in two. In the Suicide silkscreen, a human life is caught between existential states, observed in the few nano-seconds that this human body hangs suspended in undeath. In fact all the Death and Disasters — especially the Car Crashes such as 5 Deaths, whose teenage victims stare back at us from a place close to death, pinned beneath a crushed automobile, horrifically bleeding — show us the modern undead, caught at the ultimate existential juncture, in some unearthly place between life and death which they will occupy, through Warhol’s art, forever. The Death and Disaster series are a lot more Gothic than they are Pop, the usual (and by now exhausted) Warholian art-historical appellative and one which has always felt hideously unsuited to this cheerless group of artworks.
Andy Warhol, 5 Deaths, 1963. Silkscreen ink and acrylic on linen, 51 x 76 cm.
To be clear, my idea is certainly not that Andy Warhol really was some kind of monster, or that he literally shared Gothic-monster traits. He was a flesh-and-blood human with flaws like the rest of us — if accompanied by phenomenal charisma, and possessing an artistic brilliance without compare. The artist ingeniously fabricated his persona in part through what we can now recognize as Gothic-born strategies, as I am proposing, but he has been successfully compared to both sinner and saint, from Thierry de Duve’s (arguably misfired) ‘Madame’ analogy, to Koestenbaum’s (mostly questioning) parallels between Warhol and Christ. I think that Gothic-inflected monster-making techniques intensified Warhol’s self-fashioning into what Homi Bhabha has defined as a blessed/damned ‘transindividual’: ‘a hybrid creature that is both a familiar presence and a phantasmatic icon’ (Bhabha, 1998: 109). The Drella nickname, like the title of Bob Colacello’s fabulous 1970s account of the artist, Holy Terror (1990), points to the mixture of the sacred and the profane, the blessed and the damned, habitually enlisted to invent ways to express, in mere words, Warhol’s endlessly stupefying art and persona — ‘immortal’ not so much in the classical sense of ‘enduring’ or ‘ever-lasting’, but perhaps in the Gothic sense of ‘forever undead’.
Andy Warhol, Skull, 1976. Silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas, 38 x 48 cm.
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Jonathan Jones, ‘A House Is Not a Home’, frieze 55 (Nov-Dec 2000).
Wayne Koestenbaum, Andy Warhol, Phoenix, 2000.
Stuart Morgan, ‘Andy and Andy, the Warhol Twins: A Theme and Variations’, Parkett 12, 1987, 34-43.
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Jean Stein, with George Plimpton, Edie: American Girl, Grove Press, 1982
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Simon Watney, ‘Queer Andy’, Pop Out: Queer Warhol, ed.s Jennifer Doyle, Jonathan Flatley, and Juan Esteban Munoz, Duke, 1996, 20-30.
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