The Warhol gift shop at the Met. Photo by Jason Metcalf.
Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, recently opened to some very negative reviews. Intended to examine the range of influence exerted by Warhol on artists from the 1960s and 70s through to subsequent generations, and promoted by the museum as "the first major exhibition to do so," you end up wondering: Who's propping up whom? Is it Warhol who needs to be revived by the "star power" and currency of artists working today, or do they need a boost from the great Pop master? The show, unfortunately, is such a colossal disaster that another critical thrashing seems entirely pointless. The only critic who might have anything of value to add to the discussion is Warhol himself, and so it was that he joined me, in spirit, for a tour of the Met's train wreck of a show. It seemed appropriate to begin in the gift shop rather than in the galleries, since this most commercial of fine artists was also a notorious shopaholic, and he more or less insisted.
Bob Nickas: You really want to start here?
Andy Warhol: Oh yeah. They've been making money off of me for years, and I want to see what's for sale.
You probably earn more now than when you were alive.
I know, and I don't get a dime. I'm actually working harder than ever.
Lots of people have greater earning power in the after-life. Look at Marilyn Monroe. She's been gone for a half century and today she's one of the highest paid celebrities. Same with Elvis. It's all about licensing their image.
Well, they're icons, and I helped, because I made iconic images of them. Most artists today—like some of the ones in this show, who I'm supposed to have influenced—what they do is pretty forgettable. They don't know how to make images like that.
That resonate across time?
Right. Jasper Johns did it with a flag, but once you paint the flag, where do you go from there?
Here's a camouflage coffee mug. It's $25.
[turns it over and shakes his head] Made in China. I bet they don't have any coffee mugs with a picture of Mao.
How about a Flowers jigsaw puzzle for $19.95.
Today people pay $8 to $10 million for a big Flower painting. When we sold them in 1967 they were only $5,000.
But that was a lot of money back then. The average price of a house in 1967 was only about 20 grand.
And I made loads of Flower paintings, maybe 500, 600…
When I went to the Warhol Museum a few years ago I was very impressed with the gift shop, and a lot of stuff was on sale. I got a jigsaw puzzle with images from the movie Blow Job, and it was only $5, marked down from $18.
That's Pittsburgh for ya—cheap, cheap, cheap. I mean, of all the places to give me a museum… it's the pits! I couldn't wait to get out of there, and they dragged me right back. A five-dollar blow job? You get what you pay for.
From left to right: Front page of the Daily News, June 3, 1968. Lili Taylor as Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol.
One thing that was shocking to me in that gift shop was that they were selling copies of the Valerie Solanas book, the S.C.U.M. Manifesto.
What??? That crazy bitch tried to kill me, and they sell her book in my museum? She shot me and I almost died. I was actually clinically dead for a few seconds. She did take my life, because really, for me, that was the beginning of the end. Do you know what S.C.U.M. stands for? The Society for Cutting Up Men. And you know what she calls me in that book? Andy War-Hole. They even made a movie about her shooting me, and it was sympathetic—as if I deserved it!
Maybe it's time to head upstairs to see the show. There's an even bigger gift shop with better stuff. They have banana skateboards for $59.95.
Can you imagine me on a skateboard?
Like slipping on a banana peel.
Going up these stairs I always felt like I was on my way to Heaven.
The "Stairway to Heaven" at the Met.
And now you're really there.
You bet I am. I went to church every Sunday—St. Vincent Ferrer. And I made all those Last Supper paintings. Thank God for those. I don't care what anyone says about those paintings—even I don't think they're very good. But boy, did they help me get to Heaven.
Who else is there?
You should ask me who's not there.
OK. Who didn't make the cut?
Funny you should put it that way. Valerie Solanas, for starters. She's not there, not by a long shot.
What about Basquiat?
Oh no, Jean-Michel is in Heaven. And so are Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring. Liz Taylor, for all the work she did for AIDS research. She's there. And Jackie…
Jackie Kennedy. You know who I meant.
Andy Warhol, Nico, Screen Test, 1966.
All the drag queens are there—Candy and Jackie… and Truman Capote. And all the drug addicts. Edie is there. Ondine is there. In fact, it seems like the speed freaks got there faster. Even Nico is there, although she sort of snuck in when no one was looking. Nico was like that. Quiet as a mouse.
Maybe the people who suffered, or had a kind of Hell on Earth, maybe they have a better chance of getting to Heaven.
I never thought of it that way.
So who's not there? Marilyn? They don't let suicides in Heaven, right?
As a Catholic I always believed that was true, but it turns out it's not. Anyway, Marilyn wasn't really a suicide. She's there and she's angelic, as sad and beautiful as ever.
So who's not in Heaven? Give me a clue.
Someone whose portrait I painted.
Some clue. I don't know… the Shah of Iran?
No way. Not in Heaven. Not even close.
There are no Nazis or Nazi sympathizers in Heaven. C'mon, you're not even trying to guess for real.
How about Reagan?
Ronald Reagan is definitely not in Heaven. And neither is Nixon. The big-time Republicans are pretty much under-represented in Heaven.
Can you see the total look of surprise on my face? I thought you liked Reagan?
The way I liked a lot of people.
Until the check cleared? Or bounced.
Hey! You're supposed to be on my side.
Of course I am… in my own way.
So where's my show? I always get lost in this museum. You make a wrong turn and you find yourself in another century.
It's over there. Just follow the crowds that are squeezing in.
I guess I'm still pretty popular after all.
Andy Warhol continues to haunt the art world, and probably will for some time to come.
You said that the show's in different parts. What's this first one called?
"From Banality to Disaster," and it kicks off with all these newspaper and magazine artworks. Lots of artists have used newspaper images and headlines. But why these particular artists are here seems sort of random. Sarah Lucas, Vik Muniz?
I wouldn't have chosen works by them.
But that Sigmar Polke painting is really great, and so is the Vija Celmins.
Two big hits from 1965.
There are some important early works of yours here, Corns, and the nose job painting, Before and After, both from the Met's collection.
Halston gave them those paintings. Too many people sell art when they could be giving it to the museums.
And there's the Gerhard Richter cow painting from '64.
They should have hung it on my Cow wallpaper.
I bet they asked and he said no.
Richter was better when he was a pop artist. Now he's supposed to be the world's greatest living painter. Go figure.
What do you think of this Jeff Koons sculpture? It's titled Ushering In Banality.
Jeff Koons ushered in banality, not me. And why does he make all those knock-off Jim Rosenquist paintings? I bet you can get a major Rosenquist for less—better and for less. But the Koons sculpture with the floor polishers and the fluorescent lights is one of my favorites, displayed in the big plexi boxes. Reminds me of Snow White's glass coffin, and he throws in a Dan Flavin for free.
Can you tell me why on earth there are Matthew Barney photographs in this show?
Because he's a famous artist and he makes movies? It doesn't make sense to me, either.
Here's a big pharmacy cabinet by Damien Hirst. It's probably the first work that actually deserves to be in a show like this. They've got it in a room with your Coca Cola Bottles and some of the Brillo Boxes.
But why are all the works jammed in together?
It's probably meant to reference the supermarket.
It's just a bad, crowded installation if you ask me. And with all these people it looks more like a shopping mall than a museum. Too bad the Chanel Chainsaw by Tom Sachs is made out of cardboard. We could have used it to get to the next gallery.
Kelley Walker's Black Star Press, 2004-2005.
Here's a race riot triptych by Kelley Walker.
That's pretty great. Silkscreened with three kinds of chocolate. And on the opposite wall is my little Birmingham Race Riot ...
Andy Warhol, Race Riot over Robert Gober, Hanging Man/Sleeping Man wallpaper.
…installed on top of Bob Gober's Hanging Man/Sleeping Man wallpaper.
That I really love. It's perfect. One of the few successful combinations in the whole show. The race riots in the south in the early 60s came out of that whole horrible history of lynchings, which still went on in the 30s. Plenty of people were old enough to remember.
From left to right: Cady Noland, Bluewald, 1989. Steven Parrino, Bunny Glamazon, 1992.
It's a perfect prelude to the "Disaster" part of the show, and here's a masterpiece, Cady Noland's Bluewald, based on the famous photo of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby. But there should be a Jack Ruby painting by Wayne Gonzales in this room.
I know. That would have been good, but these curators aren't that smart. And what about Cady? She's Kenneth Noland's daughter, right? Her piece is just great. Now that's an iconic image. And it goes really well with my electric chair painting, and with the car crash.
So why isn't there a John Chamberlain sculpture with crushed car parts, or a Steven Parrino painting with all the pulled and distorted folds of canvas?
Parrino is the single glaring omission from this show. Of all the artists of the 80s, he is the one who probably best understood your work in relation to the history of painting. He once made a painting with a big cut-out in the canvas, and titled it Andy Warhol's Cunt. The art dealer John Gibson was afraid he wouldn’t be able to sell it to anyone with a title like that, so he told collectors that it was Andy Warhol's Aunt. And he still wasn't able to sell the painting!
That's funny. Typical, but funny.
Now the show starts to get problematic, with a section titled "Portraiture: Celebrity and Power." This grouping is rather astoundingly atrocious.Karen Kilimnik's portrait of Marie Antoinette—who's made to look like more of a cross between Paris Hilton and Gwyneth Paltrow; Elizabeth Peyton's portrait of Kurt Cobain, which looks almost nothing like him; and completing the bizarre scene, the Koons sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles.
Plastic surgery, but with paint? If this is "Celebrity and Power," I'm not buying.
There's a whole generation of artists, some of whom are included in this show, who, as Jeff Wall once told me, took the permission you gave them to run after money and celebrity, to indulge in all manner of self-promotion and marketing, and to feel little or no guilt about wanting fame for themselves.
I didn't give anyone permission to do that. That's just who I was. I was living my life. I wasn't copying anyone. I didn't say to younger artists, "You should be like me. You should copy me." And if I influenced anything, I certainly didn't mean to. Do people really believe that I was totally in love with fame? It's funny how wrong ideas get perpetuated, and go on and on. You know how in the movie Bonnie & Clyde, when Bonnie, played by Faye Dunaway, is asked why they rob banks, and she says, as if it's the most obvious thing in the whole world, "Because that's where the money is." Well, it wasn't all that different with me. I was just trying to make a living, and I wasn't stealing from anyone.
And the so-called flowering of Warholism…
You can't pin any of that on me. Especially the art that's really lame. And all the artists who speak about me, and call me Andy. Did they know me? Were we friends? Did they visit my studio and see how hard I was working every day? And what about the collectors? The ones who buy and sell my paintings but never bought anything in my lifetime. I don't know them. We didn't pal around together. But they go around pretending they knew me. They're not experts on my work. You know how they can tell if a work's important? By the price and the date. Isn't that just great. And where's the scholarship for my work? Or what passes for scholarship.
In auction catalogs.
It's received wisdom… deceived wisdom.
Received stupidity is more like it. The ideas that people have about me and my work are lazy ideas that get repeated over and over again. If I could go back in time I wouldn't give a single interview. Let them figure it out for themselves. And actually, does anyone think that I was being as honest as I could be when I answered all those boring, predictable questions from journalists? Andy Warhol… scout's honor.
What do you think of the artists who are commonly referred to as the most Warholian? Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami…
Jeff used to be a great artist—really nutty—but a great artist, and then I don't know what happened to him. Damien Hirst and Murakami are great business artists, but not great artists.
It's not the same thing?
Not anymore. When Damien Hirst staged the auction of his own work, that was kind of incredible. I mean, the nerve. That had never been done before. I wouldn't have had the nerve to do that myself. Anyway, the auctions today aren't really auctions at all. Most of the sales are set up ahead of time, most of the bigger dealers and collector-dealers decide in advance how high they want the prices to go. It's price-fixing as theater.
Damien Hirst was incredibly lucky with the timing of his 2008 auction, because it happened almost on the eve of the global financial meltdown. If it had been a week later, there's no way it would have pulled in $200 million.
But you know, a lot of those high bidders and high rollers, when it came time to pay for all that expensive art after their investments collapsed, they probably couldn't! Now that's funny. You have to wonder how much of that money was actually collected.
Butterflies aren't free.
You're telling me.
Do you think there will ever be a museum exhibition like this one devoted to Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst?
Regarding Koons? Regarding Hirst? Never happen. And you know what else should have never happened? This Regarding Warhol show. A bad idea done badly.
What do you make of the quote/unquote political section of the show? With Hans Haacke's portrait of an imperious, regal Margaret Thatcher, and the pictures of Fidel Castro, Malcolm X, and Condoleeza Rice.
Why don't they have the Louise Lawler photo of the corporate boardroom, with my print of the Wicked Witch of the West? Now that would be political.
Louise Lawler, Who Says Who Shows Who Counts, 1989.
And timely. An image of the one percent, wickedly casting their evil spell…
…and laughing all the way to the bank.
Almost no one gets your work on an emotional level—at least by way of photography—the way that Louise Lawler does.
That's really true. She photographed my Gold Marilyn and made two prints. One is titled Does Andy Warhol Make You Cry? And the other is titled Does Marilyn Monroe Make You Cry?
And what about Kara Walker?
Kara Walker makes me laugh, even if I shouldn't be laughing. They could have had some of her silhouettes in this show with one of my Rorschach paintings. That would have been pretty unexpected. But no, so many of the choices are way too obvious. If you take out some of the art by other artists, and leave more of my paintings, it's definitely a better show.
If you don't say so yourself.
But it's true, and you of all people know it's true.
Without all this other work, it would just be another Warhol show.
And what's wrong with that? There could be a museum show of my work every ten years, and they could bring through school groups. Introduce my art to them the same way they introduce math and science and any other subject. If you have a thesis to prove, sit down and write an essay. You don't have to turn it into a show.
Andy Warhol, Sex Parts, 1978.
Well, get ready for the next room, "Queer Studies: Camouflage and Shifting Identities." Now we descend into academia.
Look at the painting of mine that's here, Torso From Behind. A fleshy bubble butt that's upside down. It's a really safe choice, and not very sexy. They could have had some of the Sex Parts paintings instead, but that would have meant big dicks at the Met. The only dicks at the Met are the teeny-tiny ones on the marble statues.
There's basically nothing erotic in this entire room.
It's sex without sex.
Welcome to the museum.
What's this next part? "Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality."
Why don't they have a painting by Sturtevant here? She made paintings of her own that were done directly from your silkscreens back in the 60s.
Silkscreens that I loaned to her, that I let her use.
She's the first appropriation artist, even if she hates the term.
Maybe they asked her to be in the show and she said, No. Elaine Sturtevant was always difficult, always the most contrary person. Even more than me.
Who's the other appropriation artist from back then who should be here but isn't?
Not to be confused with Raymond Pettibon.
Right. What Richard did that was so great was that he made versions of my most famous paintings, but he made them as miniatures. They're little tiny versions of an Electric Chair or a Jackie Kennedy portrait, just a few inches by a few inches.
You know who's not in the show, even though he did that tribute to you, the sculpture that was set up in Union Square in front of the old Factory? Rob Pruitt. And after going to all that trouble.
I actually tried to knock that sculpture over, but I don't have supernatural powers or anything. Being dead isn't all it’s cracked up to be.
From left to right: Warhol reveals his scars to Richard Avedon. Joan Wallace, Portrait of Andy Warhol (A Surgical Incision).
For the abstract part of this show they definitely should have had that painting by Joan Wallace, Portrait of Andy Warhol—A Surgical Incision. She made a baby blue monochrome that sits off the wall, and there's a window cut into the canvas, and behind that there's a cube, painted the same shade of blue, and lit by a bendable clamp light. She literalized and made physical that famous quote of yours …
I know the one she means. "If you want to know everything about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." Her painting would have been great to pair with the Surrogates by Allan McCollum, and the John Baldessari painting over there, "A Two-Dimensional Surface Without Any Articulation Is a Dead Experience." If I can be accused of anything, it should be of making my work and my life over-articulated.
Speaking of dead experiences, I don't know about you, but I'm kind of running out of what little enthusiasm I had when we first got here.
So let's skip the last part, "No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle."
The Met may have no boundaries, but at least I know my limits.
This show reminds me of an idea I had years ago, to bring together all of your biggest failures and flops, and mix in some of the real gems. And to be honest, I got the idea from you—The Worst of Warhol.
I really, really wanted to do that show, but all of my dealers were totally against it. My collectors and the museum curators hated it. I couldn't convince anyone. They said it would be bad for my reputation, bad for business. Well, I think I know a thing or two about business and publicity. I made a lot of money for those people—and I'm still making money for them—and I don't get a penny! That show would have gotten a lot of attention, believe me, and we could have raised the prices on all my clunkers. They would have been worth a whole lot more, and just because we admitted that they weren't so great. People would have thought the opposite was true.
Reverse child psychology.
Well, that's what you have to use on collectors and dealers, and on critics and the public. If anyone could have made it work, it would have been me.
The Worst of Warhol.
Now that's a show I'd love to see.