How tiresome – and rather quickly, too – the various “Life with” books written by Andy Warhol’s cohorts become when read one after another, memoirs numbering, now, in the tens or twenties, a cottage industry whose silver-foiled eaves shimmer with overexposure. The same story told many times over, written or spoken by theatrical-looking names: Ultra Violet, Viva, Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, whose imprimaturs are less impressive, somehow, without “superstar” attached. This is a fact many of Warhol’s self-mythologizing associates seem painfully aware of, with evidence of their perceived susceptibility to tell compulsively, either in print, or for the benefit of eager, young, funded filmmakers, intent on documenting the years preceding Warhol’s great media moment, the years those superstars and other doomed partygoers spent with Him.
In the various memoirs of such Warhol luminaries, the same stories are told with different degrees of intensity: suburban parents, prep school, Catholic school, drugs; Daddy’s money, penury, nervous collapse, Silver Hill; and then the search in New York for a more socially skewered patriarchal figure encouraging of their contrived naughtiness. Children who, after their years with Warhol, their skin now slack, spend their time interpreting the value of their long ago play-space of the Factory, and its lights, cameras, multiple portraits, publishing ventures. With the acuity of fifth-generation Freudians, the Factory having now been relegated to a symbol, an empire is recalled that only a Dad could have built and maintained, since Dads, in their silence and purposefulness, are covetous of the imaginations of children. Fathers in return, with requisite jealousy, act out in order to look down upon their children’s greed, or accept and resent it.
Warhol-as-Mom: Moms take photographs, and want to capture their children as a cipher of their own selves. Warhol took pictures to memorialize the present, even as it happened. Photography-as-death: this moment has past, only to live again in a dead photograph. But Warhol’s pictures are about the vibrancy inherent in the moment, the desire to capture something alive that makes the dying go away. And its banality, too: the cigarettes in the ashtray, the lipstick marks on the half-consumed drink: the ghostly presence of all of Warhol-as-Mom’s children. It was all in the details, his photographs: the life that was rushing by, to be made celebrity of, his transformation into Mom, who kept her eye out for her young, certainly, and to save them from ordinariness.
What Warhol memoirists fail to consider for a moment, or in the time it took them to write their tell-all’s, is that the figure Warhol resonates as in their unconscious –when he resonates as any kind of person at all – was the somewhat more complicated figure of Mom: she of the bad wigs, humility, patience, attention and possessive nature. “If my left foot is dancing a good step, my right foot gets jealous,” Warhol once said to his redactor, Pat Hackett, pointing out, at least in this remark, that his vindictiveness was leveled at himself in the form of a self-deprecating joke. Warhol’s desire to be hollowed-out, a philosophical turn with a girly cast, since being considered “nothing,” or protean, is considered by many women a morally correct social aim, followed by bitterness for adopting this attitude in the first place. Being nothing is the position Moms have taken vis-à-vis their kids, always: Mom defines herself by allowing others to become themselves or superstars first.
In making herself appear unattractive, Warhol-as-She deflected from the possibility of her most pressing and traditional emotional need being satisfied, acquiring a husband who could handle neither the children nor their toys: the spike heels, Cabbage Patch Kids, chattering teeth, and Japanese toy motorcycles.
As a Mom, Warhol-as-She was often “left:” her progeny began abandoning her once they began to accept the skin they were in – an acceptance that resulted in marriage, usually, and thereafter flight from Warhol’s perceived nest or tether, a betrayal that was familiar to Warhol’s idea of love. Around the time Warhol-as-She began taking on those people who rose out of her elevator shaft at the Factory on Union Square, the protracted adolescent needs of her charges were immediately apparent to Her; their needs bound them to Warhol-as-She. And She must have gleaned, again early on, that she could never meet any of their demands, on camera or off.
In effect, Warhol-as-She knew that her actual presence – aside from her role as a producer – didn’t make a difference one way or another since what each of her children was explicitly in search of was what they had known before: the cruelty and indifference of Dads. Warhol, a consummate Mamma’s boy, had never “really” known his father and could not offer this model. In any case, Warhol-as-She thought of men as essentially thinly-charming, stupid, or business-minded, one-dimensional dupes without the wit to want to be Moms, ever.
The first stage in becoming Warhol-as-She was to become “nothing” – a nothing who projected an “affectless gaze” and who had a “ghostly complexion” – the journalist’s quick view of the mask Warhol-as-She wore to shield the world from her prodigious forbearance. Warhol-as-She cultivated her role as a plain female – funky wigs, no make-up, broken-down shoes – as a way of not interfering with the event of her children’s beauty. Moms try not to be beautiful. They do not call attention to their physical attributes until their children do. If Moms comment on the attention they pay in maintaining their physical well-being, they may maim their children’s sense of themselves. No child can accept a mother’s self-interest made apparent.
Warhol’s ghostly complexion was inherited from his Mother as well as the unadorned self-sacrificing, Catholic view of the world and by extension, chaste goodness. Often, Mrs. Warhola’s white-gray poof gives one the impression that her hair has just been washed and set. The freshness of her wash and set makes one believe that the silver pins with teeth used to create waves in her hair have just been put into a plastic container nestled somewhere in her dresser drawer. That plastic container may have also contained a hairnet and some bobby pins. Perhaps her son, Andy, reaching into that drawer to feel her cotton underwear, or to retrieve something else, came across this plastic container and wished that he had hair other than his own thinning mousy brown. Perhaps prefiguring his own stylistic destiny, he imagined himself in a wig more or less the same color as his Mother’s – her hair being short and easy to maintain, an older woman’s hair, the hair of the Mother who survived bringing Andy Warhol into the world. That was the only hair Warhol knew of for such a long time and its significance cannot be underestimated.
One cannot imagine the power in Warhol-as-She having her wig manufactured, first, and then putting it on. It was the only sartorial statement about his feminine life that Andy Warhol was ever to make. He let himself be photographed in it: the wig was the subject of the photograph, not Warhol. The wig was the picture of Warhol’s difference that he preferred to send out into the world. The pictures he took of his children tended to focus less on their actions and more on the signs of their behavior: the ripped stocking, the boring skirt hem, the shirtless shoulders. Amidst his children, Warhol-as-Mom could only photograph himself with his wig, portraying himself as the girl who was not the belle of the ball, but who went to the ball anyway. The leap from having thinning hair to wearing synthetic white hair was as much as he could drag out of the secret internal space out of which Warhol-as-She projected.
Warhol-as-she documented other people in the act of becoming more extravagant versions of themselves – the drag queens in the Ladies and Gentleman portrait series or pancake-white faced and red-lipped divas, for example. But he reached his apotheosis as a Mom encouraging of the theatrical self – especially the theatrical girl self – when he began promoting Candy Darling. Candy Darling’s acting style was that of a woman made out of make-believe; she did not speak her lines but emoted her feelings about the lines originally scripted for and spoken by Hollywood starlets, such as Joan Bennett and Kim Novak. Towards Candy Darling, Warhol-as-She expressed her most tender feelings, perhaps because neither Warhol nor Candy believed they were being leveled at as a real person. Candy Darling was the girl Warhol-as-She felt herself to be – strange, feminized, languageless – or could have become, had Warhol not been more respectful of fear than anything else.
Like any brilliant performer, Warhol was generally more comfortable in character – sometimes it was as a Mom. But within that role of gatekeeper, establisher of rules, nurturer, he exercised a mother’s sentimental prerogative: recording her progeny as they grew and went out into the world. While portraits dominate his production, aspects of Warhol’s photographic work that were of objects, recall a version of Edward Steichen’s legendary 1930 volume, The First Picture Book: Everyday Things for Babies. In that polished work, Steichen made a record of teddy bears, balls and any number of objects that would fill a child’s eye and thus imagination. Warhol’s photographs documented the playthings his children cherished: champagne glasses, glitter, city sidewalks, nail polish, tarnished dreams, and most importantly, hope.