BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 11 APR 11

‘Downtown, No Finer Place for Sure …'

What Rob Pruitt’s The Andy Monument says about a changing New York 

BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 11 APR 11

A new public art work has recently appeared in New York’s Union Square. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, Rob Pruitt’s The Andy Monument (2011), is a statue of Andy Warhol made from chromed, glass-fibre-reinforced polyester resin and stood atop a concrete plinth. His Warhol shares the square with monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Mohandas Gandhi, and is the Warhol of the 1970s and ‘80s: big glasses, shirt, tie and casual blazer, a Bloomingdales ‘medium brown bag’ in his right hand, and a Polaroid camera slung around his neck. The Andy Monument is located at the psychogeographic heart of Warhol’s New York. It stands sentinel at the northwest corner of Union Square (until it comes down in October this year) outside 860 Broadway, where the Factory was located from 1974 until 1984. One block away is 33 Union Square West, the Factory’s location from 1968 until ‘74 (and where Valerie Solanas shot Warhol in ‘68), and a short hop around the corner is 213 Park Avenue South, today an innocuous café, but once known as Factory hangout and punk birthplace Max’s Kansas City.

Symbolically, 14th Street, which forms the south end of Union Square, is the border between midtown and downtown, and ‘downtown’ is a word with all kinds of romantic associations stuck to it like carbuncles. New York is a city haunted by cherished, grime-tinted memories of its subcultural past. The success of Patti Smith’s recent memoir of her years with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids (2010), is testament to the persistence of these memories. Documentary films such as Blank City (2010) – which looks at the city’s underground scene of the late ’70s, and is currently playing at New York’s IFC cinema – keep the stories in circulation. New York is not unique in this: as with many a city that boasts a large chapter in pop history, even if those artistic, musical or bohemian intellectual scenes are long dead, they often still exert a presence, perhaps more so for those who don’t live there than those who do. Amongst the ghosts that haunt London, for instance, are the most famous exponents of late 1970s punk – The Clash, the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood; punks who were already haunted by the Mod London of the 1960s, and who would go on to spook the New Romantics of the ’80s, and the ’90s Britpop and yBa scenes. For Berliners, aside from the well-documented Anglophone history of Hansa studios (Eno, Bowie, Iggy et al.), its pop-cultural romance can be detected in memories of the radical leftist anarcho-hippie scene of the ’70s, and Rio Reiser’s band Ton Steine Scherben, or the 1980s industrial nihilism of Einstürzende Neubauten and Australian expats Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In Paris, the long-dead but persistent stylistic echoes of 1960s nouvelle vague films and images of revolutionary intellectuals still resonate in many visitors’ minds. In the corners of a city such as Sydney, you might still find the un-exorcised spectres of the Push, the influential bohemian, intellectual circle of the 1950s and ’60s, whose luminaries included Robert Hughes, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Lillian Coxon.

New York’s pop cultural history is as densely layered as a medieval cemetery, dead subcultures stacked one on top of the other, each once-radical art, music, theatre, dance and club scene crumbling into the dust of the last. The part played by Warhol in creating one of the archetypal ideas of New York bohemianism is, of course, huge (albeit, for a city as diverse as this, from a particularly white cultural perspective). At the unveiling of The Andy Monument, hawkers sold vintage copies of Interview magazine and secondhand monographs, whilst votive offerings of tins of Campbell’s Soup were placed at the foot of the statue; tiny indicators of a successful heritage industry that is based as much on a lingering fascination with Warholian lifestyle, and the ‘bad old days’ of a crime-ridden, infrastructurally derelict but creatively fecund 1970s and ’80s downtown, as it is the art works created by Warhol in his own lifetime.

Although there’s a certain amount of winking, deadpan irony bouncing off the reflective surface of Pruitt’s statue, it also skates close to sentimentality. Speaking about the sculpture, Pruitt has said that ‘Every day a thousand more kids come to New York propelled by [Warhol’s] legacy. And even if the decades pass and Warhol’s legacy becomes further distant, there is a direct link to him – this pilgrimage, coming here to make it big, to be an artist. Like Oscar Wilde’s grave at Père Lachaise, there should be a destination in New York to mark that journey. I think something needs to be in the streets of New York, something you could visit at 4:30 in the morning.’ It may be a corny thing to say, but even if the comparison with Wilde’s grave doesn’t hold up, there’s some truth to the part about the mystique of New York. In writing about the statue, there’s a part of me that wants to be cool-headed and ‘critically-distanced’ from it, but there’s another part that secretly finds its pathos appealing. From a personal perspective – that of someone who grew up in the British countryside, far away from any urban demi-monde – I can trace my serious interest in modern art back to the moment I found out about Warhol. I was aged 13, and a friend had lent me a copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) on cassette tape. I found it confusing that the name ‘Andy Warhol’ was on the cover rather than that of the band, and so, wondering who this person was, I looked him up in the school library. From that moment, the New York of my imagination shifted from being one shaped by Ghostbusters (1984) and Batman comics to one inspired by some vague fantasy of The Factory and ‘downtown’ Manhattan, whatever the hell my adolescent mind thought that was. As Pruitt’s statement suggests, I’m sure my experience was not unique.

Now that I live in New York, I can see from the gentrified avenues of the East Village or the sanitized streets of SoHo that the Manhattan of my adolescent imaginary ceased to exist a long time ago. Union Square is no longer run-down, dangerous and full of drug dealers as it was during Warhol’s time. Today it has a Whole Foods, a Starbucks, a Pret A Manger and a Barnes & Noble. A thriving farmer’s market, first established in 1976 when the square’s reputation was at rock bottom, appears four days a week selling organic and local produce. On sunny days, people sit in the park enjoying their lunch, a craft market sells pretty festive gifts during the winter holidays, and the only visible hustling is for games of speed chess outside the subway entrance. None of which is to suggest that New York is any the less creative today, it’s just different.

Lamenting change here is an old sport. Writing in 1948, E.B. White, in his famous essay ‘Here is New York’, describes how the city had lost many of the things that he had first loved about it as a young man. Yet in that same essay he writes about something that may not have entirely disappeared; the ‘three’ New Yorks. First there is the New York of those who grow up here. The second is the New York of suburban commuters coming in for the day. And then ‘there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last – the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.’ It is the idea of this third city to which The Andy Monument makes its appeals.

The Andy Monument is certainly an indicator of how a city markets its myths both to itself and to outsiders. It is a monument to a famous part of the city’s artistic heritage but also a mirror to New York heritage tourism. The polished surface of the statue throws off hard shards of light in the spring sunshine, yet its form is soft around the edges; it has no crispness, looking like a plastic toy figure that’s been left to melt in the sun – a hazy idea of Warhol. Depicted with his smart-casual ‘business art’ look, shopping bag and camera, this portrait of the artist looks like a middle-aged tourist wandering Manhattan in search of ‘Manhattan’. The only words on the plinth read ‘The Andy Monument’; there is no biographic information or hagiographic epitaph of the kind usually found on a statue to a famous public figure. The informal use of ‘Andy’ suggests familiarity, the first-name-terms shorthand of the art world: using exclusive knowledge in the same way that subcultures use it to define themselves – and the art world is nothing if not a subculture – it assumes that we’re already in the know about whom this is. (My favourite comment, overheard at the unveiling, was a mother explaining to her daughter that the statue is of ‘a famous artist who used to make paintings of shopping bags’.) The base of the statue doesn’t quite sit flush with the ground; whether deliberate or not, this gives it the fitting look of something temporary, something that might disappear tomorrow rather than stay for time immemorial with ivy growing up its sides. It is a statue of a ghost of an idea of New York.

Dan Fox is a writer and a recipient of the 2021 Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He lives in New York, USA.