"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The public grade school in my neighborhood, like so many around the country, is a preposterous edifice of neoclassical posturing, with a miscellany of famous names inscribed across its facade. Neither arbitrary nor encyclopedic, the list seems to me the lasting trace of a spectacularly capricious selection process. Homer and Galileo and Comte. Pericles and Shakespeare. Pasteur and Moses and Wagner. About the only thing the names have in common is that each overshadows the accomplishments of the man it marks. They are names we know before we know why we know them, and better than we’ll ever know the people for whom they once stood: Galileo and Homer are our cultural icons on account of their obliging anonymity, our idols because they embody whatever we desire.
Andy Warhol also had that. He made himself a name, and vanished in our midst. That was his art. Pity anybody who undertakes his biography: Whatever one claims is questionable, and to catch him whole is less feasible, even, than dismissing him out of hand.
Wayne Koestenbaum, English professor and cultural commentator, has made an arresting attempt. His new book — part of the Penguin Lives series profiling such edifice icons as the Buddha, Mozart and Joan of Arc — is an important study in ambivalent sexual identity. Whether “Andy Warhol” truly depicts Andy Warhol is irrelevant, a point with which I have to assume Koestenbaum would agree: Over the decade I’ve been entranced by Warhol, greatest artist of the late 20th century, and I’ve read only perhaps half the sources in Koestenbaum’s eight-page bibliography, yet even I can appreciate the skill with which he’s navigated contradictory accounts to find for his biography a set of facts convenient to his own vision of male sexuality.
The great glory of Warhol is that, even more than with Moses or Mozart, you can believe anything, and find a wealth of material to complicate your theory into a self-sustaining object of study. He is a blank-check metaphor to be spent time and again. The only trouble comes if you try to cash in, mistake hypothetical for history. As Koestenbaum vividly illustrates in his compellingly irrelevant account, even the best and brightest writers are susceptible to that slip into the Warhol abyss.
Koestenbaum’s discourse on gay sex in the ’60s through the ’80s stars Andy Warhol as ugly duckling, and certainly there’s ample physical evidence to support such casting: Before the age of 30, Warhol wore a wig and had been to a surgeon to sand down his bulbous red nose. Combine that with the neurological damage done by chorea while he was still a child — he was hypersensitive to touch for the rest of his life — and the deep divide between his public fame and his intense privacy, and you have all it takes to make up a fascinating sexual profile, especially against a backdrop as free of inhibition as the studio Warhol called his “Factory,” in a world as repressed as America before Stonewall.
Naturally, every kink only adds interest. As Koestenbaum’s inquiry falls into the throes of sex, he finds that, “For Warhol, everything is sexual. Stillness is sexual. Looking and being looked at are sexual. Time is sexual: that is why it must be stopped. Warhol’s art was the sexualized body his actual body largely refused to be.”
Warhol seems to have been amenable to people thinking of him like that. Speaking to one of his ’60s superstars about some of the comic book characters who were the subject of his first pop paintings, he claimed that they’d been his sex idols as a child: “My mother caught me one day playing with myself and looking at a Popeye cartoon,” he confessed.
If we take him at his word, never advisable in his case, that makes those innocuous images consistent with the sexually explicit scenarios characteristic of his films (aptly titled “Blow Job” for example, or “Taylor Mead’s Ass”) and the paintings made late in his life by ejaculating onto canvas.
Look for erotic charge in Warhol’s art, and you probably won’t be disappointed. In his movies alone, there’s enough variety to satisfy just about every taste. My hopelessly heterosexual appetite inclines me toward debutante manqué Edie Sedgwick, whom Koestenbaum perfectly describes as “hypnotized by her own gestural carnival,” but there’s also ample footage of Gerard Malanga, depicted by Koestenbaum as “a beat Beau Brummel,” and even of the Puerto Rican post office worker turned drag queen Maria Montez.
Warhol also made silk-screens of subjects perhaps more physically enticing than those early pictures of Popeye. That Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley were sex idols clear across American culture goes without saying, and his images of each capture them at the prime of their glamour. The series he titled “Torsos” is more explicit, silk-screens made from Warhol’s Polaroids of male and female genitalia, and pictures like “Silver Car Crash” may just qualify as pornography within the J.G. Ballard set. But Koestenbaum is after something more, something different. Perhaps taking his cue from Warhol, who liked to call sex abstract, he gives the following sexual exegesis on Andy’s notorious Campbell’s Soup silk-screens:
“[D]isplacement and other metaphoric processes contributed to his choice of Campbell soup as subject, and connected the image to his erotic hungers. Indeed, cans, in Warhol’s work, continue the task of [his earlier] ‘cock drawings,’ for cans allude to the sexual body, and to limbs iconically isolated from the whole: as a … penis (in his ‘cock drawings’) is featured in relative isolation from face and torso, so the can is alienated from the act of eating that it nonetheless announces as a purchasable possibility. The can’s most arresting word — the eye ignores it for the first hundred times — is condensed: ‘Campbell’s Condensed.’ Condensation is a property of dreams and the unconscious; the soup-can fetish condenses Andy’s unspeakable interior procedures, and gives them a shopwindow’s attractiveness.”
Even ignoring the obvious implausibility of Koestenbaum’s claim, we must consider the more tenuous assumption from which it arises: Rather than taking Warhol’s life and art as two faces of an interesting fiction, he imagines that we can understand Andy’s life by deciphering his art, as if Warhol were an Enigma Machine systematically encoding some known quantity. Certainly those soup cans are loaded with metaphoric potential. So are Warhol’s films, and the stories swarming his life. Yet Koestenbaum, like so many of Warhol’s would-be biographers, confuses metaphor for fact, a mistake as great as assuming that an accurate nautical map spread smooth on a table proves that the world is flat.
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Echoing the estimable art critic Arthur Danto, Koestenbaum says that Warhol was a philosopher. “He used his art to think through problems of space, time, and embodiment, and the center of his metaphysical investigations was the aroused or indifferent body …” I must disagree: Andy Warhol wasn’t a philosopher. He was, and remains, a philosophy.
What I mean is that he interests us not as a commentator but as the object of ever inconclusive commentary, not as an investigator but as the scene of a perfect crime. This may seem odd, as he’s popularly perceived as a voyeur, the man who routinely asked strangers to drop their pants, never went anywhere without a tape recorder (an accessory he suggestively called his wife). But all that was part of his act, facets of the life that was his art. While I don’t doubt that Warhol knew what he was up to with his naïveté, by now I also know better than to quibble: Dismiss Andy’s act and you’ve missed his art, but indulge his naïveté by emulating it, and you start truly to appreciate his work.
Koestenbaum wants to believe that Warhol explored the problems of philosophy as if his Factory were his laboratory, as if each artwork were an experiment with which he came to metaphysical conclusions presented for our edification, concealed in an iconography of Leonardo-like sophistication. What he actually did was less complicated but more difficult: In his life, he embodied ideas worthy of laboratory study.
We’re told that Warhol once had another man in powdered hair impersonate him on a college lecture tour, and also that he wished he could be replaced by a robot. We’re told that he had his mother sign his name to his drawings, that he had studio assistants pull his silk-screens, and acquaintances inseminate his ejaculation paintings. We’re told that he routinely asked people what he should paint, and some of his best subjects, including soup cans, were suggested by others. We’re told that he may have authorized Malanga, that beat Beau Brummel, to run off fraudulent Warhols in Europe. We’re told that Andy authored his only novel by first pursuing his speed-freak groupies with a tape recorder for 24 hours and then insisting that his publisher print the typescript, an erratic document produced in Factory off-hours by various nameless studio squatters, without any copy-editing whatsoever.
Elsewhere we’re told that same story, except that Warhol hired a professional typing service to make the transcript. I prefer the first version, not because it comes from a more credible source but because it involves more accomplices, another chancy element along the ever-unaccountable Warhol assembly line.
Chancier and chancier. I can choose the story I find more suitable, the one that opens more questions, because the Factory systematically overwrote any attempt at one official story. So we’re told not only that Warhol hired an impersonator on the college lecture circuit but also that he expected anybody who answered the Factory telephone to be Andy on his behalf. That was especially important when Warhol was called by interviewers: Even the lies they were told weren’t Andy’s own. Astoundingly, he seems to have accelerated history: It’s taken centuries for us to become as unsure about Shakespeare as we are of Warhol. He could become an icon in his own lifetime because even as we saw him with our own eyes, at a flea market, say, or at a party with Bianca Jagger and Halston, we couldn’t even begin to agree with one another who he really was, couldn’t be sure that anybody, even he, knew the truth.
I should confess that, like Koestenbaum, I never met Warhol. He died in 1987, which was my freshman year in high school. My serious interest didn’t begin until college, brought on by conversations that wouldn’t end, contradictions that couldn’t be resolved. Once I started to see, there was no natural place to stop.
There is too much Warhol. He boasted that in a single year he could produce as many paintings as Picasso did in a lifetime. He shot so much footage that some of his films still haven’t been screened, and others, such as his masterly eight-hour image of an absolutely stationary Empire State Building, challenge the attention span of even the most ardent fan. (Another Warhol story, absolutely unverified, tells of the time a few film students kidnapped Andy, chained him to a seat in an abandoned theater, and started “Empire” on the projector. By the time they returned to run the second reel, he’d escaped, vanished without a trace.)
Too, too much. Beyond what we ordinarily call Andy’s art, there are multiple ghostwritten books, all those cookie jars that cluttered his house. There are his time capsules, boxes filled with each month’s junk, now housed en masse at the colossal Andy Warhol Museum. Koestenbaum starts to catalog one, in which he finds: “porn, fashion magazines, Natalie Wood publicity photos, a newspaper with a picture of John F. Kennedy Jr., a copy of Kenneth Anger’s ‘Hollywood Babylon,’ invitations from Warhol’s 1957 Golden Pictures show at the Bodley Gallery, bills, issues of Life and The New Yorker, a piece of blank canvas, a letter from Gerard Malanga …”
I can think of only one case of a collection that comes close in scope: The dymaxion (a word he coined made from “dynamic” and “maximum”) remains of R. Buckminster Fuller now occupy some 1,500 linear feet of shelf space in a controlled-climate storage facility near Stanford University. Still, the Fuller files are the product of an opposite inclination. Bucky, who called himself Guineapig B, preserved every lecture, letter, sketch and dry cleaning receipt in perfect chronological order, indexed as meticulously as Diderot’s Encyclopédie, to provide history with a single perfect record of a life lived across the 20th century.
In life he attempted to be exemplary, a renaissance everyman, that he might leave a paper trail as universal as it was comprehensive. Of course his project failed: The volume of information precluded comprehension. The range of thought blew the mind. Bucky Fuller became a cultural icon as the amount we knew about him was overwhelmed by the amount we knew we’d never know.
With Warhol, we don’t even have the pretense of comprehension. No Guineapig B, he sometimes called himself Andy Paperbag. The name evokes not experience, but accumulation. As an icon, he out-Buckminstered Fuller in half the lifetime. The boxes just piled up. The parties with Bianca Jagger and Halston bloated his oral diaries. The flea market finds filled his townhouse to warehouse capacity. Ever afraid of death, Warhol buried himself ahead of his years, preserved a little like Pompeii, and now we have all the ambiguity of excavation, the wear of history, intangible antiquity.
We cannot touch Shakespeare or Joan of Arc. Their names are but a façade. We know them by degrees of separation, as hypersensitive Andy held people off with the freak show of his ugly duckling body. No matter who the man in the white wig slept with, the artist Andy Warhol, the icon that is the face of his artwork, is asexual to the degree that he is ahistorical, ahistorical to the extent that he’s immortal. We shouldn’t be surprised that, shackled into viewing his own moving picture, Warhol slipped right out of the theater.
He had no body, no substance to hold him still. His whole life was a vanishing act, dramatic because the ballast he appeared to add — the fame, the paintings, the junk — paradoxically reduced what remained of Andy Paperbag to the iconic shorthand, the laboratory purity, of a Guineapig A. The mystery, how he did it, is the impossible philosophical conundrum he created, the artwork of his lifetime that so aboundingly confounds Koestenbaum, Danto, me.
Maybe the man in the white wig was also a little curious about Andy Warhol. Maybe he was even a philosopher, a man with insight of his own. If so, I’d like to believe he left us a message: In 1985, a New York nightclub called Area briefly showed an Andy Warhol original called “Invisible Sculpture.” On a pedestal against a wall, Warhol momentarily stood beside a label bearing the artist’s name. Then the man in the white wig walked away.
Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.More Jonathon Keats.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)