in Frieze | 03 MAR 98
Featured in
Issue 39

New York Conversation

Rereading a: A Novel by Andy Warhol

in Frieze | 03 MAR 98

The pro-bloom - 'Pro-bloom she said is the word... Not problem but pro-bloom' 1 - yet again is Andy Warhol, and why, exactly, he will not go away - the blond wig, the pasty skin, the tenacious bringer-home of bacon, the mischievous banality, the perplexing absence, the complicated presence, the fake, the collector, the artist, etc. And now, yet again, there is a to complicate the probloom even more.

What is a about? Warhol tapes Ondine (Bob Oliva) for 24 hours. Ondine takes lots of drugs and talks. a is about talk and drugs; it is about talking as a drug, and the novel mimics various drugged states, from euphoria and silliness to violence and zoning out. At the start of the book and to get things going, Ondine pops six blue Obertrols. He and Drella walk and taxi around town, are snubbed by Robert Rauschenberg, talk on the phone, hire a receptionist for the Factory, discuss rimming, cocksucking and fucking ('If you wanna fuck me, darling, then fuck me, but don't pick my pimples'). They cruise boys or talk about cruising boys (Drella inquires at one point: 'I mean when did cruising start?'), they go out to eat, or in Drella's case, not eat. They blare opera at the Factory - there are more than a few 'Maria Callas interludes', when the volume of the music 'overcomes all replies'. They bathe, and go to the bathroom ('Yeah Drella's here Drella's here, but he, but but but he's he's in the bathroom'). The Duchess (Brigid Berlin), ill and in the hospital, adds to the party: 'Those needles have got to be sharpened right away, right tonight with emery boards, not with nail files but with emery boards, and right tonight they have got to be sterilised and not with uh, uh, what d'ya call it, matches... They've got to be boiled'. Perhaps it would all be somewhat grim if it weren't also very funny.

The novel belies the notion that Warhol was passive, i.e. unsure of what he was doing or what he wanted. As much as it is about anything, a is about 'a' as a letter, as a word, as a person - an absolute referring to and denying its relation to the a of Andy and the a of again. A philosophical riff on 'a'-ness - how in the presence of Andy's suffix-like body, things become what they are and their opposite (aphilosphical, apersonal; just as his fan's taping becomes a kind of stalking) - whatever else a-ness might be, it is also the anus.

'Oh my crud, A.W. stands for Andy Warhol too.

Didn't you know that?

No, I just got - (Laughter). It also means 'all woman'.

And 'all witch'.

But the 'a' cannot mean just anything. At one point, someone asks Warhol if he is asexual. Warhol answers: 'Uh, no'. Ondine makes it clearer: 'No, no he's not. He's A.W., not asexual.' Throughout most of the novel, Warhol is referred to as Drella, as if he were and were not Andy Warhol, identity slipped off like a T-shirt. Perplexed, depressed, resigned, Drella asks - himself? the void?: 'Oh when am I going to find someone who will like A.W?'

Of course, a wasn't Warhol's first foray into such verité documentation, nor his last, since it can be read as a prototype both for a great issue of Interview and for The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975). As with his movies, Warhol's genius was to observe everything going on and not edit. This means that a is, at times, impossible to follow. (Perhaps think about it as Warhol's way of channelling voices: everyone becomes Warholed.) He had the 24 tapes transcribed - the novel is broken into 24 chapters, each with two sides, like a cassette tape - and kept every misspelling and typo just as they were. So a is a mess, just like life, goes on and on and on and on, just like life, stops making sense, just like life, and then comes back into focus just a little too quickly and brutally. People act disgracefully, lustfully, they bore and charm and hate and say unforgivably stupid things, and '[t]hey're not leaving - they're just changing position. No Exit, my love.' In its cataract of verbiage - difficult, engrossing, lonely, necessary and as fascinated by sense as nonsense - a echoes works of Gertrude Stein. The novel is also as important a document of style, manners, and discourse as the Brothers Maysles' Grey Gardens (1975), which it anticipates: a documents glamour going down on the mores of the day, Grey Gardens glamour just barely holding on. They both give voice and words to important background noise too often difficult to hear because deemed illicit, crazed, or beside the point; they excel at refusing the hackneyed rationale of the status quo. In their refusal exists a disarmingly strange elegance.

Not very far into the 24 hours of taping, Ondine has enough of Drella and his tape recorder. 'Please, basta, with the tape Drella, for a little while. Shut it off, let's relax 'cause we'll go crazy. We owe ourselves a well earned rest for a minute. I'm done. Oh objection from. Oh Drella, please we need a rest.' Many hours later he adds: 'Listen to me. I sound like Bela Lugosi's mother. Why don't we sit down for a second, I'm so tired it's an effort for me to say I'm so tired.' The microphone continues to be held near the speaker's face; the tape goes on. Warhol never stops.

Ondine's pining for rest and Warhol's insistent, relentless going-on display one of the greatest aspects of a, the reason it is one of Warhol's most important interventions. The idea of writing a novel in 24 hours thrilled him. Ulysses may take place in a day but it took James Joyce years to write it; Warhol is finished in 24 hours, and he didn't even have to type it, since three amanuenses redacted everything. In a New Yorker review of the recent Warhol style show at the Whitney Museum, Calvin Tomkins suggests that although 'neither Warhol nor Duchamp really left art behind, as each often appeared to have done, Warhol did something even more subversive: in becoming the Most Famous Artist, he made art seem unimportant'. I'm not sure what Warhol's interest in the Novel was beyond the concept of writing one in 24 hours - he enjoyed reading magazines - but I find the implication that this may make the idea of the Novel unimportant exciting.

Warhol didn't tape for 24 consecutive hours of a day, he conceptualised the real. Self-proclaimed 'pop tart', the first conceptual realist, Warhol expanded the parameters of a day being 24 hours just as he expanded art and art-making to include television, collecting, perfume, fashion, modelling, invisibility, movies, magazines - well, you know, just about everything. In doing so he did become the 'Most Famous Artist,' but whatever else he did, he didn't make art unimportant. The question of art's unimportance has been present ever since anyone decided art had any importance at all. The most crucial things always contain within them the possibility of their own undoing, their own demise, just as failure shadows success. Duchamp knew this, certainly, but so did Shakespeare, who delighted in the grave connection between nothing and noting, knew the importance of erasure to writing's manifestation, and was well aware before Hamlet of the question of being or non-being. I think what bothers Tomkins and many others is that Warhol, much of the time, made such questions look fun and glamourous even while - or because - they remain dire; he showed that these matters of importance/non-importance (of art, of life) exist as surely among superstars and transvestites and speed queens and the jet set as anywhere else - if they exist at all. He adored blurring and bypassing any preconceived limit.

At one point Ondine provides a title for the consequences of being taped for 24 hours non-stop, for being Warholed: '"True Slices of Life", the sado-masochistic true confessional.' Many may yearn for a time when contemporary art has more relevance, but that means ignoring what Warhol - in life, in 'art' - never ignored: the fact that now is all the time there is, that the beauty and hurt of now is that it is an irritant from which there is no rest. Warhol keeps returning because no other artist has surpassed his ability to deal with what is going on right now: watch television, stick a needle in your vein, cut a picture of a cute someone from a magazine, get wasted at a club or watch a bunch of glamourous types doing so, make or go to the movies, and if you think about the cultural consequence of any of these things (how meaning attaches to this rather than that; the form that meaning takes), Warhol shadows every thought.

'You, you just pretend I'm not here', Drella tells everyone around him, his tape recorder still taking it all in. Reading a shows that what so many have taken for Warhol's casual command was really a dare.

1. All quotes from a: A Novel by Andy Warhol, 1968, reissued by Grove Press, New York