27 December 2007
Without ever formally coming out, Andy Warhol was openly, obviously
and famously queer almost a decade before Gay Liberation urged us
"out of the closets and into the streets".
Writing in The New York Times in 2002, Holland Cotter went so far as
to call Warhol "the first major postwar artist to put gay identity …
at the very centre of his work". Says Cotter: "Just by being himself,
a public sissy, he automatically became one of the most important
political artists of his tim." For Cotter, sex was a "main
ingredient" of Warhol's work. "He did whole series of sexually
explicit paintings and took hundreds, probably thousands of explicit
photographs … almost exclusively of men and male sex parts."
As a rising star in the commercial art world of New York, Warhol had
first attempted to go public with explicit homoerotica in 1957, a
time when the fear of homosexuals was second only to the fear of
communists in the American psyche. That year, New York's hip Tanager
Gallery refused to display Warhol's drawings of boys kissing. "The
style of his work was too decorative, the subject to gay, and he was
too femme," Cotter writes.
After Warhol rose to international fame in 1962 with his repetitious
paintings of the Campbell's soup cans, the sexuality in his work
became more covert, but only briefly so. The shimmering silver
silk-screens of the young Elvis and Brando speak for themselves but
the artist went so far as to claim his paintings of cartoon
characters were also sexually inspired. He once claimed his mother
had caught him "playing with myself and looking at a Popeye cartoon".
By 1964, just two years into his fame, Warhol announced he was giving
up painting in favour of 'underground' filmmaking, which he did until
he was shot in 1968. Praised by critics but largely unseen by
audiences, many of Warhol's films were drenched in sexuality. Witness
titles such as Blow Job, Taylor Mead's Ass, My Hustler and the
Brokeback Mountain of 1968, Lonesome Cowboys. Even Sleep shows
Warhol's then lover John Giorno sleeping nude for an interminable
eight hours. Warhol's "actors" or "superstars", as he called them,
were rarely required to act. Rather, Warhol would record the real
life activities of the artists, heiresses, hustlers, transsexuals and
speed freaks that gravitated towards his 'Factory'.
One such hustler and speed freak was Lou Reed, who first rose to fame
in 1966 when Warhol managed Reed's band, The Velvet Underground.
Taking their name from a BDSM pulp novel, the leather-clad Velvets'
deliberately dissonant sounds and streetwise celebrations of illicit
substances and kinky sex were out of tune with the lovey-dovey Summer
of Love. They were, however, the perfect soundtrack for Warhol's
Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a travelling multimedia 'happening'
that combined Warhol's films and photographs with a pioneering light
show and a suggestive 'whip dance' that screamed S&M. The Velvets
would go on to write 'Sister Ray', a 17-minute noisefest about an
amphetamine-fuelled orgy between sailors and drag queens. Just what
they made of it in Kansas is anyone's guess.
After the shooting, Warhol closed the Factory doors to the street
people of New York. He handed over the cine-cam to Paul Morrissey and
returned to painting and Polaroids. Though Warhol's work after 1968
is often derided for its concentration on commissioned portraiture,
the artist retained an experimental as well as a sexual edge. The
Oxidation series of paintings involved the artist and his cohorts
pissing on specially prepared canvasses, whilst the Sex Parts series
is a collection of enlarged and painted Polaroid close-ups of
explicit gay sex acts.
But what of Warhol's own sex life? He had cultivated an image of
himself as a sexless voyeur, interested only in the act of looking
and of recording rather than doing. He even claimed medical
complications from childhood chorea left him hypersensitive to touch.
But away from the self-made mythology, Warhol did enjoy an active
queer sex life. According to Giorno, Warhol loved nothing more than
"servicing" his men. And recently, twins Richard and Robert DuPont
went public about their time as precocious runaways in the Studio
54-era Warhol camp. Andy, it seems, had a thing for twins.
"He would kiss me, and yes he touched me – he would sometimes jerk me
off," says Richard. Warhol also used Richard to recruit "cute
friends" to take part in the creation of the oxidation paintings.
"Andy would watch. He didn't touch himself, but he did this moaning.
'Oh!…Oh!…' It was like he was having an orgasm while he watched us.
Or at least faking one. And then he would take us to lunch and give
us $100, or some of his silk-screen wallpaper of the cow or Mao."
Richard says that while he has some regrets about his time in the
Warhol entourage, "a lot of the things that make me angry to remember
are the things that I enjoyed too."
"I went along with it all, playing the game and having fun. I was not
chewed up and spit out by any of these people – if I didn't like
them, I always could have left."
Andy Warhol is on show at Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art until
March 30. More info at www.qag.qld.gov.au