in Frieze | 06 MAY 94
Featured in
Issue 16

Andy's Books

Warhol's writing is unique, not least because it was written by someone else

in Frieze | 06 MAY 94

The audacious neatness of this paradox is wholly in keeping with Warhol's aesthetic of assembly-line art and total simplicity. And, as with his paintings and his movies, it was by way of this technique that he maintained and intensified his identity as an artist. His first outing in prose, a, a novel (1968) is a collage of tape transcripts. Recordings of the circular and trivial gossip of the Factory hangers-on were typed up and edited, largely by Bob Colacello, and the resulting book is a cross between Derrida's Glas, with its columns of reflective texts, and the screenplay of a seemingly plot-less soap opera. Thus, a could be read as a piece of conceptual art - a kind of conversational interpretation of Robbe-Grillet's 'white writing' - or as a camp example of social documentation, not dissimilar to Hello magazine. What is remarkable about this early text is that Warhol's involvement with it is wholly minimal, yet it establishes, once and for all, his 'voice' as a writer. It is almost as though, in one neat move, he is side-stepping the literary process in order to fulfil Flaubert's definition of the literary artist, who should be 'like God in His universe, nowhere visible but felt everywhere.'

It is with The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (1975) again, ghostwritten by Bob Colacello, that Warhol, the least intimate of men, develops the witty, laid-back, conversational tone that defines him as a 'writer' in the most traditional sense. The style, which echoes through contemporary American literature in the works of writers as diverse as Douglas Coupland, Brett Easton Ellis and Nicholson Baker, is at once recognisable as Warhol: what pins it down is the mixture of domestic intimacy and deceptively naive pronouncements. When you hear the text in your head, you feel as though you're listening in on the telephone conversation with which The Philosophy begins: 'I wake up and call B.' Even the supposedly sacred art of painting is reduced to a literal description of the process ('I take my blue brush and I put a little bit of blue on that corner'), while an entire chapter ('The Tingle') is devoted to a 'B' telling 'A', over the telephone, how she cleans her apartment.

B gave me a blow-by-blow description of the Barbara Walters show. I wasn't bored because I had forgotten it already. When she got to the point where she was describing what I was watching on my TV in front of me, I interrupted.

'What else is new?'

'I don't know,' snapped B, who hates to be interrupted. 'What are you doing?'

'Cleaning up.'

'Cleaning up is a thing that bugs me twenty-four hours a day,' B answered. She's the sort of person who always has the same problem as you do, only a million times more. 'I always have it on my mind,' she continued enthusiastically. 'Where to clean next - a drawer? the desk? the closet? I've vacuumed the closet, and I'm really going to get it all done today...'

By rights, this sort of prose should be boring at best and pretentious at worst, but it works, like all good literature, because the reader wants to find out what happened next. Seduced by the wit and the aphorisms, the reader of Warhol's books is both flattered and charmed to be invited into the general buzz of conversation. This technique, strangely, resembles naturalistic fiction at its most formal: the removal of all style save for the pure style demanded by the subject. In Warhol's case, ironically and hilariously, the author is both stylistically and literally absent. Hence his comment to his faithful ghostwriter: 'Gee Bob, you ought to put that in the book.'

Andy Warhol's Exposures (1979) and Popism: The Warhol Sixties (1980), in which the texts are less aphoristic and more descriptive, must call up the importance of Pat Hackett, Billy Name and Bob Colacello as Warhol's co-authors and literary 'assistants'. True, Billy Name had done little more than supervise the proofing (to include all typos and errors), of a, but Hackett and Colacello deserve far wider recognition for their work. Warhol's co-writers, they were not so much the sorcerer's apprentices as the true alchemists of the process, synthesising the elusive tone of Warhol's aura into a literary style which would be of tremendous importance even if Warhol had never picked up a paint brush. In his own excellent account of working with Warhol, Holy Terror, Bob Colacello conveys the sheer hard work of becoming the literary operative on the Factory assembly-line.

'Pat ended up writing more of the Philosophy book than I did, and I ended up paying her half of my half of the advance. She deserved a percentage of its future income as well, but Andy absolutely refused to consider it. Andy liked to set his collaborators against each other... When it came to doing business with his Factory workers, Andy played every emotion.'

But that was not the Factory way. Everything and everyone that passed through the Factory was simply (or rather, vitally) an addition to Warhol's ice-cold crystal. Warhol's books, in their banality and their gossipy tone, convey a lesson in literary style to writers of the postmodern age. This lesson was rehearsed by Hemmingway in his dictum: 'Begin with a truth and follow it with another,' but Warhol's prose takes the process to the limits of legibility. Like a good stand-up comedian, he tells us more in one joke than an intellectual can hammer home in five essays.