SubtleTea Interview with Megan Volpert, author of Sonics in Warholia
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D: Sonics in Warholia is a strange and eclectic collection of rhetorical monologues for Andy Warhol. “Portrait of a Mix Tape” is the title of its introductory piece, and, judging by the following clip, I wonder if the book itself is the “mix tape” for Andy: “Occasionally...the mix tape is meant to chart the entire course of a person’s life, as a sort of greatest hits or magnum opus.” Why does this piece begin the book? Also, why write a book about (to) Andy?
M: The piece begins the book because I think the art of the mix tape is something that will feel familiar to most people. The experience of reading this collection strongly evokes the total immersion experience of trying to keep up with Andy’s world, and that is a daunting task. I thought “Portrait of a Mix Tape” would be the most accessible way in. Yes, the book is absolutely a mix tape for Andy, and for all of us concerned about Andy - which is a lot of people.
Most people have a strong investment in Warhol, whether it’s born of love or hatred and regardless of their larger possible disinterest in pop culture, the art world, or any of the other terrains with which this book is concerned. Andy was a man, but more than most people, he is also a cluster of ideas - a cluster that is particularly useful for addressing a number of things that have generally on my mind. That’s how I arrived at the decision to use him as an object of discussion.
I arrived at the decision to use him as a subject of address, writing the pieces directly to him, because I basically felt I had no choice. The man is dead, but the ideas live on, so I feel past tense discussion is not altogether appropriate. As a ghost, as a spectre, as an idea, he thrives in the present tense. I speak directly to him, but with full acknowledgement that he is deceased as a body. It just seemed like the best of all possible worlds.
D: The kickass image on the book’s front cover (designed by Mona Z. Kraculdy) emulates Andy’s repetitious style, his preoccupation with faces (especially his own), his mixture of glam and death. Andy’d be proud, I think. Tell us about the cover design.
M: To begin with, I am indebted to my publisher, Bryan Borland, for giving me a tremendous amount of input into the cover design. And then, of course, to Mona for her willingness not only to listen, but to transform my suggestions into a clearer visual connection to the concepts in which those suggestions were rooted. One of the reasons I have not sought contracts with big publishing houses is that exercising some degree of control over the jacket art is a priority for me. I think I've done some great covers in the past, but this one completely takes the cake. And it would not have been nearly so good-looking without collaboration from Bryan and Mona.
So, let me break down its elements. The overarching goal was to utilize many of Warhol's own techniques and images, as you say. We started with the bullets and lipstick screen print. We all knew the cover had to incorporate a screen print, which remains Warhol's most recognizable form. The particular image we chose was based on an image I'd actually acquired almost ten years ago, and had been saving for just this occasion. Not that I knew ten years ago I'd write the Warhol book, but I knew this image was weighted and definitely worth holding on to. So the lipstick dictated the red, and we all agreed that some minimalist day-glo or neon contrasts would be best. The yellow came to us first, and then the green.
As a rock and roll enthusiast, I was adamant that my name appears on the cover using the same font that Warhol used in his design of the Velvet Underground album he produced. There was no argument there, and Mona easily divided up the space into thirds: blank top, screen print middle, album bottom. I also suggested the red coloration of "sin" in the title, as the echo of the word in there was one of the main reasons I chose the title.
But I was clueless as to how best to fill the space at the top, because for years my mental picture stopped at the bullets and lipstick. Doing the self-portrait was Mona's idea, and I confess, I fought it at first. I don't mind being photographed, but I nearly always hate the way I look in pictures. The more I thought about it, the more obvious it seemed to me that Mona was completely right. Warhol himself usually did not photograph well, everybody recognizes the layout of our cover as mimicry of the Diaries cover, and photography was an important field for Warhol. Plus, it was subtle; it didn't overwhelm the screen print.
But Mona's perhaps most clever design element is something that has been going largely unnoticed: the spine. The cover wraps around in contrasting colors, but on the spine itself, she wrapped it so perfectly aligned that it has my eye on there! The spine doesn't list title or author. It's blank except for my eye stacked on there three times - spying at you from your bookcase. Brilliant! The spine is very narrow, so we had to move the image over something like two millimeters and then do an extra proof copy to be sure the printer would align it just as Mona intended.
Overall, it gives such a clear and complete sense of the attitude and subject of the book. We've gotten a lot of praise for it, and I wish we could nominate Mona for some kind of award. Meanwhile, Bryan and I have been discussing turning it into a poster or a t-shirt or something. A lot of people have been telling us they want to display it somehow. All three of us are thrilled.
D: Kierkegaard said that we should “heed what the echo answers,” so I wonder about the book’s title. Warholia is self-explanatory (and a sneaky way of replacing that clinging barnacle of an “a” that he kicked off the end of his original surname). Why Sonics? Is this mainly an exercise in acoustics rather than imagined communication with the book’s VIP?
M: "Warholia" did only take me a minute to imagine. "Sonics" took longer. I knew it was something "in Warholia," because the idea is total immersion, as I said earlier. First, I arrived at the need for a plural. As with one of my previous titles, The Desense of Nonfense, I wanted a solid possible mishearing of the title that would allow the word "sin" to be floating around on it because during a lot of the writing, I was thinking about Warhol's unique commitments to Catholicism.
So it was a little like Mad-Libs for awhile, trying to figure out how to fill in that blank. I considered all five senses and a couple of other words with an ambient vibe. And I did consider acoustics. But sonics fell on me when I was revising one of the pieces, "For the love of good machines." There was a crucial sentence that, for me, remains one of the defining moments of the entire book. Originally, the sentence said acoustics, but I did some research and decided to change it to sonics. Because I had considered acoustics for the title, I immediately considered sonics. And there it was. And then I almost changed the word in the piece to something else, because I generally prefer stand-alone titles that don't reference particular poems.
To me, despite the increasingly negative attitude toward Warhol in the book's arch, this is one of the moments in the text that really rings most true, and cuts to the heart or foundation of my personal relationship with Warhol. So the use of "sonic" in that line is a clue of sorts. Here's the section of the piece I'm talking about:
Did you push it to the limit, Andy? The most interesting thing about your placid neon face is the mystery of what is going on underneath it. The wheels aren’t moving, but my breast plate picks up the distinctive hum of an engine vibration. It’s like the sonic thump of the bass against your sternum at a stadium show. We cannot relax. People mistake this for anxiety, and we pretend that this is the case so they will leave us alone. We work alone. We work a lot. We work all the time. We have real anxiety when we cannot work. My engine wants on.
And I think your Kierkegaard quote is running parallel to that also. The book doesn't expect Warhol to reply; the man is dead. But in speaking toward the work and its legacy of ideas, there is certainly an echo. It's a thing we uncover in the process of discussing. The echo is not a reply, but it is an answer of sorts.
D: Needless to say, Andy’s most recognizable works involve name-brand products and celebrities (“Americana of all kinds,” you write), and no Earthling can deny that Jasper Johns’ work – and, I suspect, Dali’s Shirley Temple and Mae West pieces – had a part in Andy’s artistic watershed. Artist Willem de Kooning said, "Everything is already in art. Like a big bowl of soup.” Could this statement be used to describe Andy’s obsessive receptivity? He reached into the soup and fucked with its noodles. What do you think of his creative (or re-creative) process?
M: I think Jasper Johns inspired Warhol on a personal level, more so than on an imagistic level. As Stephen Koch says in Stargazer, both of them come out of Duchamp, but they go separate ways. Johns made objects whose surface was sealed off in refusal of meaning, and Warhol made objects whose surface was immediately overflowing with meaning. Where Johns was an isolationist, Warhol was more playful, permissive of the witty or the naive - and I think ultimately therefore more mysterious.
But on a personal level, Warhol must have both envied and despised Johns. Johns and Rauschenberg and those guys were well into their success. They could have given Warhol a leg up. They didn't; they thought he was too much of a flaming homosexual and didn't want to be personally associated with a personality like him. Warhol was occasionally very vicious about this. In an interview once, when asked what he thinks of Johns, Warhol said, "Oh, I think he's great...he makes such great lunches." That's Warhol's idea of giving Johns the finger.
You're right to point to some Dalí. That Shirley Temple image is from 1939 though, so a significant difference is that Dalí was interested to examine her stardom while she was at the height of it. In 1962, during Warhol's first New York gallery show, the Marilyn Diptych made its debut and this was right after she died. Warhol did many living famous people, but the vast majority of these were commissioned portraits. When he was choosing his own subjects, he generally looked toward dead celebrities, not living ones.
But his obsessive receptivity, as you smartly put it, goes back to a time before he would have been interested in what other artists were doing - perhaps before he even thought of himself as an artist. When Warhol was a boy, there was a long period where his mother kept him out of school. He had a St. Vitus Dance and avoided mockery by just staying home. And he loved tabloids even then, would write to celebrities and ask for autographed photos. He scrap booked all of them. So imagine sickly, agonized little Andy, laying in bed and cutting up publicity stills of Shirley Temple. Perhaps Johns or Dalí can be said to have shaped Warhol's vision, but the raw material does indeed belong quite a bit to Warhol. This is part of the mystery of the man - whether we dismiss his work as all cribbing from others or accept his work as entirely his own, we risk underestimating how astute he was.
As for your de Kooning quotation, I jump immediately to Warhol's many soup cans. Here we have a difference of perspective. The quotation is saying art is like a bowl of soup. Warhol says the bowl of soup is art. This goes back to Duchamp, the ready-mades or found objects. Regarding your extension of the metaphor, I don't really think Warhol fucked with the noodles. He just said, "These are the noodles, and that is enough to fuck with you." Other artists reached in and did something to the noodles, but Warhol valued their surface.
D: The queen of Pittsburgh will exile me for saying so, but I dig Philip Pearlstein much more than I appreciate Andy. Andy’s earlier drawings and commercial art please me more than his later work, and I think his films blow (ahem). They remind me of when I Love You, Alice B. Toklas’ Harold Fine gushes over an art film called Mondo Teeth: “What a concept: teeth, teeth and yet more teeth!” However, a lot of Andy’s stuff somehow attracts me despite its narrative anemia. Why does he deserve 15 famous minutes, 50+ years, beyond? Were his obsessive fixations and reproductions symptomatic of a machine-likeness in him?
M: I think of Pearlstein versus Warhol is much the same way I think about the design of modern digital devices. Some people go with an eBook reader that only does the one function, but does it very well, which is like Pearlstein's portraits. Some people go with a tablet computer that reads eBooks alongside many other functions that it may not be fully devoted to doing well, which is like Warhol. Warhol is multi-function, and Pearlstein is not.
"Narrative anemia" is a smart way to put the problem. Warhol was personally extremely interested in a good story, in the currency of gossip. But as an artist, he often repressed a sense of story in favor of prioritizing characterization. Ok, so you may not want to watch eight hours of the sky behind the Empire State building. But do you want to watch four minutes of Bob Dylan uncomfortably trying to make eye contact? Yes, absolutely. The screen tests are fascinating, and they have no narrative. Something that Warhol understood as implicit in those moments, just like with the portraits of dead celebrities, was nostalgia. Just one second of Bob Dylan or Marilyn Monroe's face, and the viewer is rocketed off on an inner monologue of their own personal associations. No plot required.
As for whether Warhol deserves his fifteen minutes, I don't think it's a matter of deservingness and I don't necessarily find the question productive. What remains clear is the fact that his ideas endure. Why try to evaluate whether he has earned it? It is there, whether he earned it or not. That is, in part, exactly what he was saying about everybody being world famous for fifteen minutes. The fame itself is the phenomenon, not the person riding the wave of it. We can say Warhol expertly rode the wave, or he paid enough dues to earn a ride on the wave, or whatever. But that misses the point. The point is that we are invested in celebrity as a cultural phenomenon.
I do believe Warhol has a certain machine-likeness. It's one of the paths of commonality I trace between us, for better or worse. Let's not go abysmally deep into diagnosing his psychology - or mine, for that matter - but this symptom has many roots. Warhol's heritage and work ethic, his love of religious ritual, his mother's firm daily routines, his health problems and daily pain, his possible autism or Asperger's, his generally high anxiety and specific fear of assassination - they're all in the mix.
D: The two most impressive women in Andy’s life were (pitiable) gendercidist Valerie Solanas and oddly lovely male-to-female tranny Candy Darling (who was a mixture of Sandra Locke, Nancy Spungen and a hungover Paris Hilton). Valerie, who tried to murder Andy due to frustrated-writer/Manson-level resentment, despised men while bombshell-emulous Candy embraced feminine glamour and co-starred in Women in Revolt, the Andy-produced film that satirized Women’s Lib. What could be a snider rebuttal to Valerie’s female chauvinism than casting males and former males for the female roles? Andy said that “drag queens are living testimony to the way women used to want to be, the way some people still want them to be, and the way some women still actually want to be.” What do you think of this statement, of Valerie, and (if you’ve seen it) the film’s mockery?
M: Let me first say that the most impressive woman in Warhol's life was unquestionably his mother, Julia. Only then, certainly, Valerie Solanas. Candy Darling is my favorite superstar among the drag queens, and is indeed very impressive - in Women in Revolt and in her life more generally.
The first piece I wrote for the book was focused on Solanas and her assassination attempt. Ultimately, I cut it from the collection for a number of reasons. Women in Revolt interested me only a little, and primarily in terms of its position on Warhol's timeline. It was the last time he was behind the camera himself, and only because Jackie Curtis refused to work unless he was there. But Paul Morrissey was firmly at the helm of all the films by then. He was the director and the writer in this case. But like many of those films, I suspect a lot of the dialogue was improvised.
What I'm saying is that, in the end, I don't really hold Warhol very responsible for this film. He was in the room because Jackie Curtis wouldn't have it any other way, but he probably spent much of that time off in his own headspace, trying to be encouraging without thinking too much about what the film was doing. Warhol did not discuss Solanas--not personally to his friends and not professionally to the press. So you have these three no-holds-barred drag queens, devotedly doting on Warhol and desperately wanting to weigh in on the assassination, sort of speaking on his behalf through the film. This was just two years after the attempt on his life, and though I'm sure he appreciated the kids trying to stick up for him, I would question the idea that this indeed snide rebuttal to Solanas should be construed as Warhol's.
Regarding that Warhol quotation, I do like it for several reasons. There's the idea of "to want to be," meaning iconography. There's the idea of "used to want," meaning a sense of nostalgia. There's the idea of "living testimony," which has a religious undertow. There's "some people," a careful vagueness compared to "men" and "women." So it has a lot of classic Warhol elements. If you're asking whether I agree with the quotation, I would say that I am agnostic. If work on this book has taught me anything, it is the importance of not letting Warhol trick me into a hard line of agreement or disagreement. It is always only at our own peril, because as the book contends, if "everybody becomes Andy," then when we renounce his life/work/ideas, we renounce ourselves.
D: There are some Andy connections on some of The Smiths’ album and single covers. The image on their self-titled debut album is from Flesh, a still from Women in Revolt is on the “Sheila Take a Bow” single, and Truman Capote decorates “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side.” This is a clunky way of asking if you’re a Smiths fan. Are you?
M: No, I am not a Smiths fan. I was born in 1981 and the band broke up in 1987, so their time together is outside of my music consciousness. In coming to their work only later, as a piece of history, it lacks that certain momentum. My wife is a more of a fan, though not a rabid one, as Smiths fans go. And I don't dislike their work; my interests simply lie elsewhere. My favorite songs would be "How Soon is Now?" and "Ask." I do like many of their influences, like The Cramps and The New York Dolls. I think Morrissey is the very definition of a douchebag, and I have not listened to much of his solo work. I'm more interested in Johnny Marr, who I think is an excellent guitarist and marginally less of an imprudent jerk than Morrissey. The book does not mention any connection between Warhol and the band, but your invention of these pleases me. Part of my project is to promote a sort of ongoing "six degrees of Andy Warhol" thread in the mind of the reader, akin to the nostalgic, freely associative process Warhol expected viewing his art to produce.
D: Sonics celebrates synchronicity (how I despise that term!) and the you-couldn’t-write-this-stuffness of real life. Your detection of parallels and associations deserves a standing ovation: 3-D glasses, Ray Bans, Andy’s first camera, album covers and lyrics, rock videos, mix tapes, Andy’s tape recorder, Mary Mallon’s carrying typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder – the organ of Andy’s fatal surgery, Less Than Zero, the Silver Factory, Edie Sedgwick, the “silver” screen’s ingredients, Edison’s use of foil, Verizon owning the phone number of the late Justin Hilbun as well as the site of Andy’s second Factory in Union Square, Capote’s ashes, Lou Reed, motorcycles, the Leyden jar, electroshock therapy, recycled phone numbers, Notes From Underground, Bertolt Brecht and Bon Jovi. Did this intricacy demand a lot of careful research, or is a lot of it accumulated trivia that you felt needed arrangement?
M: Oh, I researched my ass off. The various people and institutions invested in the estate of Andy Warhol are by and large extremely litigious. Not that my little book is likely to provoke much of their attention, but I took the cross-referencing and fact-checking quite seriously. The arrangement of all these connections, moments, facets, and whatnot is the part where there was artistry, poetry - it's the way my brain is wired, the multitaskery of making those associative leaps. But the hard part was really verifying as much as I could before attempting to draw lines between any of the dots. The dots are researched and belong to the real; the lines are speculative and belong to me.
D: Fans will be happy to learn that Sonics is accompanied by an audio version recorded in your voice. Though many great writers have sucked at recital of their own work (T.S. Eliot and Hegel come to mind), there are many who excel at it. Your performance experience prepared you perfectly for the task, and you served as a worthy guide as I read along with your inflection-rich delivery. Tell us about your decision to make an audio recording of the book.
M: One of my side-gigs is that I review audio books, so I have long been invested in the format. Combining that with the fact that people often tell me my performance of the work is one of my strongest assets, it seemed like a no-brainer. And I just like to do it; I spend a lot of time in the writing process thinking about how a piece will play out in performance.
The other consideration is that I used to tour all the time, but now that I am settled into the role of high school English teacher, I can't just head out of town any time I feel like it. Only the very most intriguing gigs can talk me into ditching my students for a day or two, and even then, I feel a bit guilty. There's still an ounce of weekend warrior in me, but the idea of a lengthy book tour is completely out of the question. So if I want my voice to reach people all over the place, I have to give it to them via audio book instead of live and in person.
D: In “The Night Steve Jobs Met Andy Warhol” David Sheff recalls when a young Steve Jobs showed Andy an early Macintosh during a party at the Dakota in the wee 1980s. Fascinated, Andy fumbled with an odd thing called a “mouse” until he managed to draw a circle on the computer screen. He was bowled over. What could/would Andy have done in the Internet age, I wonder?
M: Yes, that October 9th was a weird confluence of things. Jobs was bringing a Mac prototype to Sean Lennon for his 9th birthday. Warhol happened to be at the party, alongside a few other prominent artists, including Keith Haring. So Sean is playing with the paint function, and then Warhol asks if he can try it. This amuses me for several reasons. One, it's being presented as a kids' toy, and Andy wants in on it. Two, the kid had drawn a relatively complicated animal and a picture of Boy George, then Andy just drew a circle. Whatever he was thinking in terms of possible applications for his work, he sure as hell wasn't going to give it away with Haring looking over his shoulder. Three, Jobs had been persistently calling the Factory in order to get a meeting with Warhol and show him the Mac. They told Jobs they weren't interested. Warhol could've had that machine in his arsenal months before anybody else saw it, but they passed on it.
However, none of those interesting tidbits compares to the real undercurrent of the situation. Since Jobs died, there has been a flood of biographical material. I'm an Apple devotee, so I do look through a lot of that stuff about Jobs' life and career. The thing that strikes me constantly - really, every time - is how completely alike Jobs and Warhol were. I think I could write an entire book about the parallels between them. They were both such holy terrors: obsessive people, deeply prescient yet semi-moronic people, people who were simultaneously beloved and loathed by even their closest allies.
But regarding your question about what Warhol could have done in the Internet age, it seems clear if you look at what the Internet age has done in Warhol. Through Warhol's vision, the art of cut-and-paste was elevated to the level of apotheosis. The Internet is premised upon replication and dissemination of information. The Web is essentially a place where one has permission to freely associate--one hyperlink link leads to hundreds of others, and our inner monologue rides the tidal wave of information. Warhol understood this phenomenon long before there was an Internet to enable it. His artwork enabled it, as I said earlier. Any given Warhol painting is one flat little link; you look at it and click into it, and your inner monologue of free associations takes you in a million possible directions from there. I'm saying that the Internet is a pop phenomenon, that the process of using it parallels the experience of examining Warhol's work.
D: Andy avoided the funerals of friends and family, including his mother’s. (You cleverly point out that he didn’t attend his own funeral.) This is only one example of how much of a jerk Andy could be. Many folks who knew and admired Andy have expressed a simultaneous awe and disgust for him. Do you like Andy? Did your research for the book change your outlook on him?
M: No, the research for the book did not change my outlook on him as a man. Yes, I like Andy. Yes, I dislike Andy. I think my approach to the concepts in the book moves beyond the judgment of like or dislike, in part because it goes past his mortality. Andy haunts us. His legacy of ideas is always present, no matter our feelings toward him as a person. The tagline for the book is "everybody becomes Andy." He is an extreme example of the best and worst in our shared human nature. As such, we cannot condemn him too thoroughly, lest we damn ourselves. Nor can we praise him too seriously, lest we forget our own shortcomings. He's an antihero, and so are we all. I love Andy's ghost.
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