Do a faithful rendering of a soup can, a silk-screened photograph of a starlet, or a film of an empty chair constitute works of art? They do, poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum ably demonstrates, if their author was Andy Warhol.
Warhol, who once observed that in time everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, himself earned early fame "as artist and whirlwind, as impresario and irritant." That fame endured over a career that stretched over four decades, as does his influence, even in some unexpected quarters: "Martha Stewart owes a lot to Andy Warhol," Koestenbaum volunteers. But Warhol, Koestenbaum argues, was much more than an artist. He helped shape the popular culture of his day; he launched the careers of dozens of musicians and artists; he revolutionized interior design, making his studio, the Factory, "an ambient artwork"; and he used art as a way of exploring matters of life, death, sexuality, and group behavior. He was, in short, a self-made phenomenon, an odd American success story.
The price for that success was high, Koestenbaum writes: the controversies Warhol inspired did not always serve him well, his associates had a habit of dying young, and he himself survived an assassination attempt that gave his later work an air of being "bulletins from the afterlife." This slender biography tells all those stories very well, and students of art and contemporary culture will learn much from it. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
With at least two full-scale biographies in addition to his own voluminous writings in print, it might seem that there is little new to say about the life and career of mass market voyeur Warhol. Koestenbaum, a poet and author of fabulously rococo books on opera (The Queen's Throat) and Jackie Onassis (Jackie Under My Skin), seems acutely aware of this, and gives us a Warhol who is anything but the removed observer of most popular accounts, finding Warhol's own eros and mourning spilling everywhere into his art. The result is an intensely personalized psychologizing of the work; the more philosophically inclined will be horrified, while those looking for a way under "Andy's" implacable surfaces will be fascinated. The famous Brillo boxes become "boxes without openings [that] seem simulacra of Andy's body a queer body that may want to be entered or to enter, but that offers too many feints, too many surfaces, too much braggadocio, and no real opening." Koestenbaum is most trenchant in the sections devoted to Warhol's little-seen films, bringing their shattering experiments in sexual cinema vividly to life, freely and directly relating his own reactions to them
la Pauline Kael at her best. Warhol's achievement in film, while clear to cognoscenti, certainly gets its best popular treatment here. Throughout, Koestenbaum's engagements with Warhol's life and art, tinged with poetic brilliance and surgical dispassion ("these accessories gave [Warhol] an alien aura, as if his vital fluids and gases had been evacuated"), feel very high-stakes indeed, making this book an engrossing battle of wills. (Sept.)Forecast: Koestenbaum, an engaging speaker and notoriously marvelous dresser, should attract fans to his five-city author tour. This book may be a little too queer for the average fan of the Warhol silk screens, but its audacious bodily insistence should win it plenty of reviews and admirers. Theory-heads should check out Andy Warhol, a collection of essays edited by New York University cinema studies professor Annette Michaelson, and including work by the likes of Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss. (MIT, $16.95 paper 132p ISBN 0-262-63242-X; Nov.)
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