Buy this book from Amazon.comThe Selected Andy Warhol Interviews
Thirty-Seven Conversations with the Pop Master
Edited by Kenneth Goldsmith
Carroll & Graf ($17)

by Christopher Luna

Could Andy Warhol have been as superficial as he appeared? Both admirers and detractors of the controversial Pop artist will find material to support their positions in this hefty collection of interviews, as I'll Be Your Mirror outlines several possible reactions to the barrage of witless questions posed to public figures. Both entertaining and enigmatic, Warhol emerges as a 20th-century trickster who is unwilling to succumb to the pretension of the art world elite—a tradition that also includes Marcel Duchamp, Bob Dylan, and Andy Kaufman.

Reva Wolf's informative introduction claims that Warhol's behavior may have been influenced by the notion of the "pseudo-event," described by Daniel J. Boorstin in his 1961 book The Image. Boorstin used the term to refer to media such as photography, advertising, or published interviews:

Concerning the pseudo-event the question, "What does it mean?" has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said?

Wolf cites Warhol's "masterful use of evasion" when faced with questions of fundamental importance. This tactic allowed Warhol to challenge the usefulness of all interviews, and to expose the "predictability" of the questions asked. Warhol's boredom facilitated some extremely interesting articles; by the mid-1960s, the artist actively encouraged interviewers to invent the answers to their own questions.

Perhaps Warhol's evasions were a reasonable attempt to allow the work to speak for itself. "It's true that I don't have anything to say," he tells one interviewer, "and that I'm not smart enough to reconstruct the same things every day, so I just don't say anything." Warhol's efforts to sabotage interviews included one-word answers, repeating the question, or answering with a "yes" or "no." But he could also be downright effusive; Frederick Ted Castle's transcription of an exchange that took place when Warhol was a passenger in his cab demonstrates that, when so inclined, the typically vague artist could carry on a conversation at length. And even in the midst of his reticence, Warhol was eminently quotable; "I think everybody should be a machine," he once said, a statement relevant to his use of tracing, reproduction, and appropriation of found materials. Elsewhere Warhol admits that his methods made it impossible for him to identify a fake of one of his paintings.

Warhol described his painting technique as "a kind of mental Braille, I just pass my hand over the surface of things." He projected an image of himself as an egoless worker bee who made art because it interested him, and was uninterested in schools of thought or unnecessary labor:

I feel I represent the U.S. in my art but I'm not a social critic: I just paint those objects in my paintings because those are the things I know best. I'm not trying to criticize the U.S. in any way, not trying to show up any ugliness at all: I'm just a pure artist, I guess. But I can't say if I take myself very seriously as an artist: I just hadn't thought about it.

His definition of Pop Art picked up on these themes:

It's just taking the outside and putting it on the inside or taking the inside and putting it on the outside, bringing the ordinary objects into the home. Pop Art is for everyone. I don't think art should be only for the select few, I think it should be for the mass of American people and they usually accept art anyway. I think Pop Art is a legitimate form of art like any other, Impressionism, etc. It's not just a put-on. I'm not the High Priest of Pop Art, that is, Popular art, I'm just one of the workers in it. I'm neither bothered by what is written about me or what people may think of me reading it. . . . I feel I'm very much a part of my times, of my culture, as much a part of it as rockets and television.

Many of the interviews are hilarious, such as Victor Bockris's account of a dinner party with William S. Burroughs at which the two icons of gay culture engage in graphic discussion of sex, the proper method for roach extermination, and the sexual deviance of the British. Elsewhere Warhol refers to Walt Disney as America's greatest living artist and jokes that his "first big break was when John Giorno pushed me down the stairs."

Warhol accurately assessed his own unbearably lengthy films like Empire and Sleep, works that focused upon virtually stationary objects, to be "better talked about than seen." He compared his "passive" style to watching the street from his window. Film critic Joseph Gelmis refers to Warhol as a "listener and observer who absorbs and absorbs and absorbs." Warhol possessed a genuine fascination with people, and a love for the artificial. "Everything is sort of artificial, I don't know where the artificial stops and the real starts." Warhol's enthusiasm for life was so expansive that it is positively childlike; one of his most frequently repeated exclamations was, "Oh, wow."

Goldsmith's book is ultimately about the nature of interviews, and it would be difficult to imagine a celebrity more suited to a thorough examination of the subject. In his afterword, Andy Warhol author Wayne Kostenbaum claims that "Andy's aim, in the interviews, was ambient destabilization. He unhinges everyone in the vicinity—especially those who think they know the difference between good and bad art, between worthwhile and useless behavior, and between elation and depression."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004