Orbiting Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory (excerpt)
By Kenneth King
Published in the September 2014 issue of PAJ: Journal of Performance & Art (MIT Press).
I met Andy Warhol in the spring of 1964 right after he moved into his Silver Factory—before he became the Pope of Pop—and appeared in a couple of his early movies. Even though he’s ubiquitous, in 1964 he was just beginning to gain notoriety. More than twenty-five years after his death in 1987 Warhol remains America’s all-time best selling artist.
Andy was a shrewd provocateur and eccentric genius, a combination of a fragile ego with a wide-ranging antennae and the steel armor of a surreptitiously ruthless nonetheless charismatic con man. He operated behind a cool, carefully calculated, seemingly neutral but ironically ambiguous persona. His infatuation with celebrity was like a narcotic, yet at the same time his work held a mirror up to America’s 800-pound gorilla—the culture’s decadence, indulgence, superficiality, nihilism, and narcissism. He played with the ultimate stakes of the forbidden—glamour, beauty, power, fame, sex, death, and destruction.
When I arrived at 231 East 47th Street I didn’t know what to expect. The Factory was located on the fifth floor of an old industrial building, midtown east, near the UN. Andy had found the space earlier that year, in January 1964. The freight elevator, painted silver as well, was as big as a cattle car with a sliding grille gate. When you stepped out of it into the Factory, movie magazines and tabloids were splayed prominently helter-skelter on the right side of the floor in front of the silver pay phone on the wall. Later I would watch Andy, receiver clenched intently to his ear, eagerly getting his dose of tantalizing gossip. I’m sure he depended on this phone for many close encounters—and the distance from callers probably enhanced the transmission of secrets.
Andy was already obsessed with gossip and everything Tinseltown. And anything that could be painted silver or covered with silver foil was—even the bathroom, toilet, and pull-chain. In the middle of the cavernous space there were chairs and a big red couch, but the rest was left empty except for the assembly line of silk screens being produced, or for filmmaking, or both. There was also a large mirrored disco ball lying on the floor and the lower half of a disembodied silver mannequin propped up against one of the foil-wrapped pillars.
One of the two early Warhol movies I was in was Couch. Billy Linich (Billy Name), was responsible for the Factory’s far-out silver decor, and when he found a large old red couch on a midtown street he dragged it back thinking it would make a perfect set for a movie. Whatever you can do, you can do on a couch, right? This was very early Warhol, completely Found Art, junk amplified by glitter.
Unbeknownst to everyone, Andy began making movies that decades later would set the precedent for Reality TV, a future perfect realization of people’s lives exposed as they lived them, that had another 1960s forerunner—Happenings. Remember those? Everyone showed up and whatever they improvised on the spot became the show. No need for script or director, because people were already over-the-top. He loved pop music, too—Rock ‘n Roll, which along with airplanes, movies, and TV, is one of America’s greatest inventions. The Supremes and Dusty Springfield had big hits that year, and one night a group of us danced to Baby Love, Come See About Me, and Walk On By. Andy led me to the couch and told me I could do whatever I wanted. The 16mm Bolex camera was set up on the tripod and he came over to load the film.
Andy seemed very shy, tentative, passive, and self-conscious, but he had an endearing naïf way of trying to decoy his unease. He wore his trademark black stripped shirt and black jeans. He seemed suddenly nervous or unsure, brushing back his hair, like this was all new to him, as if he might not quite know what he was doing. Of course, this could be just Andy’s act, it was so unreal. It was summer, quite humid and felt kind of lazy. He fussed with the camera like it was a brand new toy, double-checking everything.
“Are you ready?” he asked me. I guess I was still waiting for some input or a clue. DIRECTION? Forget it—maybe on Mars. The heat and anticipation started making me spacey. But I kept looking at him, into his eyes, into the camera, and assumed that as he operated the camera, things would get figured out. Suddenly I heard it whirring and then, while I’m still expecting him to do something, he says, well, I’ve gotta go now, and paint. And he walked away!
Holy Smokes, I wasn’t ready for something this drastic! I had to think quickly, but there was nothing to think about—I was on the spot and the film was rolling. It was like having the rug being pulled out from under you, just keep smiling, and pretend everything’s what—roses? Imagine Gloria Swanson not being ready for her close-up! In a scrambled moment, I was caught between reaching for an idea and summoning an intention, but was suddenly stranded with nothing. Luckily I had had my dance class that morning and was warmed up. So I grabbed hold of my heel and did a very slow dancer’s leg extension, stretching my leg above my head while sitting on the couch staring straight at the camera. Everybody is always impressed when a dancer does that, and I just kept gazing at the lens. The body is the best revenge.
Andy was also a great magician. “I believe in low lights and trick mirrors.” Unlike Houdini or David Copperfield, he didn’t do stage tricks, but he created enigmas, beginning with himself. He didn’t make the elephant in your living room disappear, he made it appear. Instead of sawing a woman in half, he filmed her on speed performing her own demise. Instead of prestidigitation or pulling coins out of the air, he was adept at lucrative quick-change celebrity materializations.
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