'You Were Right, Andy'

Getting beneath the surface of Andy Warhol with Tom Sokolowski

Tom Sokolowski, director, Andy Warhol Museum
Tom Sokolowski, director, Andy Warhol Museum

The "Andy Warhol" exhibition at the Austin Museum of Art is the first opportunity ever for Central Texans to get a comprehensive view of original works by one of the most famous artists of the past century and one of the most widely misunderstood. Talking to Tom Sokolowski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and someone who knew the artist personally, was a chance to get a better idea of what the artist was really all about from someone who is well informed. Sokolowski will be in town to lecture on the topic "Andy Warhol: The Candy-Coated American Dream -- Or Not?" at AMOA on Oct. 30.

Austin Chronicle: What do you regard as Warhol's most important art? Why?

Tom Sokolowski: His most important art was his strategizing: All his work he produced in 35 some odd years -- the movies, the idea of going out to discos, his brilliant PR. One could say he was the greatest post-production artist of the second half of the 20th century. He understood innately that it was not simply enough to have a good product or idea; one had to spin it. "Sell the sizzle, not the steak," was the adage in the advertising community in those years. Even today, 18 years after his death, and 40 years after the explosion of his popularity, the artwork is seen as so vital and lively. If we look around ourselves, at reality TV, making ordinary people into stars, we see that it fits into some of ... [Warhol's] ideas. He picks different modes of exploration but underneath all of it, that is the leading stream.

AC: What kind of art did he do that is not widely known that you think should be?

TS: Probably his film work is the least well known. Pre-Paul Morrissey, before Flesh and Trash and Heat and all that. They are rather difficult and complicated to watch.

AC: Can you offer any clues that would give the public a better grasp of this type of work?

TS: Rather than see Warhol as a brittle, sarcastic, sardonic commentator, I think the thing that absolutely is the grounding of his work is the kid who is born in poverty. ... He basically made work that is by and for the people. This is an immortalization of work that is made in factories that is nutritious and inexpensive and tasty -- what is more the American dream than that? The stars weren't saints; they weren't people from medieval history; they were people that were important to everyday people. Silk-screening was all about legibility. His early work was hard to understand. Then he said, if I can make the kind of art that in some way adapted the subject matter, the techniques that people have no trouble looking at, then maybe I can make something that will speak to the people. He had the idea of applying customization to art. [He thought the] ... best kind of art was business art -- art that literally could be sold. He liked making money. In his early advertising work, one of the reasons he was so quickly respected and successful was that Warhol would unbegrudgingly switch to get what the client wanted and give it to them very quickly. He wanted to make a communication. He showed both the high side and the underbelly, something it did not take a genius to get. The American dream could perhaps be tainted with the American nightmare.

AC: What do you think are some important questions that this poses? And answers?

TS: Can art have a potent effect that is ostensibly neutral? For example, we have a print of the electric chair. The electric chair is sitting in an empty room. Those who are in favor of the death penalty see one thing; those who are opposed see another. "If you want to understand me or my art, look at the surface. It's all there," [refers to the song "I'll Be Your Mirror" by the Velvet Underground]. If you see the death penalty, car crashes, suicide [in Warhol's art], that's something that's happening. It reflects reality. If the art seems to be superficial, well, that's your society. Do something about it.

AC: What can people learn from the way Warhol achieved his success?

<i>Self-Portrait</i>, 1986. Synthetic polymer paint and screenprint on canvas.
Self-Portrait, 1986. Synthetic polymer paint and screenprint on canvas.

TS: One of the things that I like to say -- of course as the director of the Andy Warhol Museum but also, really, I like to say this -- Warhol is the consummate example of the success of the American dream. He was born in such strong poverty in a working-class neighborhood, the first member of his family to go to the university. He then became the person not following the rules, but creating them. He was the one who said that let's have film, let's have flashing lights with the Velvet Underground. Who's the one who created the idea of going out at night to discos? Warhol created that idea. He created Interview magazine -- which is still going, by the way -- in which he said if you get a popular, talented person to interview a famous person and keep it short, people will read it. He would have loved to have seen the advent of the Internet, of cell phones, getting the gossip immediately. He would have adored that.

AC: What can artists, specifically, learn from him?

TS: One of the things that Warhol encapsulated -- brought to the fore -- is there's always high and low art, and that there's no difference between them. That's something we see now in all of our popular culture.

AC: Do you think the Factory is a good model for artists to follow?

TS: The Factory seemed very exotic and glamorous, but the center was Warhol; he was always working. People were constantly jumping around doing crazy things, and he was always working, working, working, right in the middle of it. Assistants helping with the production pushed the notion to the fore -- working with people who might help you, might give you better skills -- he turned to some of the best silk-screen artists to help him.

AC: What influences do you see that Warhol had on artists working today?

TS: He was the first one to really do things with Polaroids, video, movies. Now if you go to any major exhibit, half the art is electronic. He's the one who really made it accessible.

AC: How will he be seen 100 years from now?

TS: He will be seen as the defining artist of the second half of the 20th century. I don't see any of the things that he predicted lessening, just intensifying. When he did the Kennedy assassination ... it was the first time ever that history was made on television. That notion, that we would look to television for veracity -- he was one of the first to recognize that.

AC: How do you separate Warhol's life from his art?

TS: You can't. His whole life was his artwork. Every artist devotes him or herself to his art. At some point he was asked what he would want as the epitaph for his tombstone. He thought about it and said that he would want one word on it, and that word would be "figment." Just as Monroe was Norma Jean Baker, he was born "Warhola" and changed it. What he did was to say, "I'm going to transform myself." He was born in '28, so he was much older than many of the people who surrounded him. Then you get to this swinging scene, and he has to transform himself, and that's what he did. The private person Warhola was kind of put in the grave -- shy, religious, ethnic. [Instead], he became the American dream.

<i>Liz</i>, 1964. Offset lithograph on paper.
Liz, 1964. Offset lithograph on paper.

AC: Is it important for artists themselves to participate physically in their creations?

TS: That's different with everyone. It just depends on who and what they are. Reproductions have made art accessible to everyone, but is it as good? Sometimes looking at works from hundreds of years ago and from antiquity, the reproduction from 20 years ago can show what an artwork looked like closer to what it is supposed to be, before some of the deterioration.

If you look back at antiquity, there was a separation between "ars et ingenium." "Ars" is the philosophical side of it; "ingenium" was the physical craft. Although craft is important, the idea of creating a particular composition is the extraordinary part. We put so much stress on craft, and yet it is that philosophical side of it that is the most important. Artists who are photographers for years have given the developing of it to others who can do a better job. Machines can sometimes do a better job than physically changing the apertures.

AC: Are there any important misunderstandings about the artist you'd like to clear up?

TS: Well, I think one of them is just what we were talking about. Just because you're not standing there sweating blood doesn't mean you're not doing anything important. Making something look easy has its value. That can only happen when you struggle with it for a long time.

Warhol laid one of the pitfalls himself; the images just were what they were -- you know, people looked at it and thought it was so easy. But looking at it deeper, you look at it and say it's not simply a beautiful woman, it's a total constructed person. It was a hairdresser and the couturier, the agent, the coach that made Monroe who she was. And she couldn't sustain being Monroe. There's kind of a tenseness and horror in that image. The American dream may be wonderful, but it has a price. And look, she died of an overdose. That's kind of where we are.

AC: What would you say to Warhol if you met him today?

TS: Well, not to be facetious, but I think I'd say, "You were right, Andy." I'm sure he would have done something with Monica's dress. I think he would have definitely made a picture of JonBenet Ramsey. It was all about artifice.

Andy Addenda

The Austin Museum of Art has scheduled several special events in conjunction with its "Andy Warhol" exhibition, including tours of the show and lectures at the museum, 823 Congress, and screenings of his films from the Factory at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown, 409 Colorado. For information and ticket prices, call 495-9224 x224

Oct. 19: The Chelsea Girls. The film The Chelsea Girls (1966) will be screened. Alamo, 7pm.

Oct. 26: Selections From the Underground. The films My Hustler (1965) and Hedy (1966) will be screened. Alamo, 7pm.

Oct. 30: "Andy Warhol: The Candy-Coated American Dream -- Or Not?" a lecture by Tom Sokolowski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. AMOA, 7pm.

Nov. 1: First Saturday Tour. AMOA, 2pm.

"Andy Warhol" runs through Nov. 9 at the Austin Museum of Art, 823 Congress. For more information, call 495-9224 or visit www.amoa.org.

For more Warholian excitement, see Louis Black's On Ondine on Film.

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