The first time I really experienced Warhol was coincidentally the first time I experienced being in drag. I found myself in a dive bar in San Francisco dressed up as Candy Darling in front a crowd of people at the queercentric drag night called “Trannyshack”. It was here, where Fudgie Frottage, a drag king dressed up like Andy, would give me a fake hit of acid like it was Catholic communion, and I proceeded to flip out with two other queens dressed up as Holly Woodlawn (Edie Modular) and Jackie Curtis (Nutella Versace) to Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man”.
Before that I knew only of his work and minor mischaracterizations of his persona, which made me dislike his art. It was unfortunate that in my youth I relied on hearsay rather than history to determine my liking someones aesthetic, but…well … I was young, and insecure, and filled with doubt about art and the world.
I had a lot of growing up to do. What exponentially helped me in that process was people, the media, and art critics judging me. The comments I heard about my work were the same as my comments about my predecessors… and that made everything become VERY clear about who I was, my maturity, and my relying on judgement without research (which was a very insecure thing to do) in the world.
Fast forward….past my insecure youth, past young adulthood with that beginning glimmer of a drag career via channeling Candy Darling, to my late thirties out in Chicago, during this Art Outsiders project. .. my perspective had certainly changed. The first words out of my mouth were:
“How did such awkwardness, such queerness, become so revolutionary as a concept from a single person in an era that threatened it?”
Lets talk about that.
Andy Warhol was born on August 6th, 1928, out in the downtrodden smokey industrial city of Pittsburgh, PA. His parents were Carpatho-Rusyns (now Slovakians) immigrants who became working class citizens of the Northeastern U.S. He was extremely fragile as a child, even more so when he became ill with Sydenham’s Chorea (otherwise known as St. Vitus’ Dance), which at the time cast him out of his school and rendered him bedridden for many months. In this critical time, his family supplied him with entertainment from the radio, signed autographs from starlets, and endless supplies of hollywood magazines. Historians believe that this was the most important part of developing his focus as an artist (and I concur).
I wonder if this is the pivotal point in the development of his personality, being shunned from his school peers, and being bedridden, only to be saved by the celebrity soundwaves brushing through the radio to him during his sickness. I wonder if this is where his dismissal of the general public, and focus only on those writers, actors/actresses, models, and anyone on a media built pedestal started.
Regardless, this idea of fame got lodged inside Andy’s brain at a young age, and it sprouted this unbelievable resilience and his acceptance of NOTHING but SUCCESS. Clearly this worked for him, but it did not come easy. We all know, don’t we, that the road to success is never a beeline from point A to point B. Andy, while triumphant almost immediately upon landing in New York as a commercial artist, was consistently rejected in every other aspect of his life. He had this unquenchable thirst to be among the elite, and he was consistently shot down. After all, people barely knew who he was.
Not only was he shot down because he was at the bottom rung of the art world, being a commercial artist, but he was shot down because of he was public about his homosexuality. At this point in history, art had been dominated by heterosexual men. In this specific generation of abstract expressionists like Pollock, Rothko, and De Kooning, there was this emphasis on the masculine, sexist, brooding, male archetype, and the art world gravitated towards that. These artists not only hated the rising attention to Pop Art, but they vehemently disdained homosexuality, as well.
Andy Warhol was entirely antithetical to abstract expressionism and society’s masculine heterosexual archetype of an artist so lauded at the time. The most revolutionary part of him is that he made no apologies for it. Clearly rejected by society, he was also rejected by his gay artist peers in the Pop Art Movement. Both Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns consistently turned down Andy’s requests to be a part of their shows, in fear that it would out them, and therefore destroy their careers.
Here were two homosexuals (like Andy) who were previous commercial artists (also like Andy), who had become successful by turning their commercial careers into fine art (which was something that Andy desired). This was a perfect fit and a direct road for Andy, and yet with all those similarities, he was shunned because he was too ‘queer’.
This rejection was devastating to him.
Confiding in Emile De Antonio, he asked why Johns and Rauschenberg wouldn’t let him be a part of their movement… and he said “Because you are a commercial artist, and because you are too swishy and campy”
To that Warhol said:
“There was nothing I say to that, it was all too true, I decided I just wasn’t going to care because those were all things that I didn’t want to change, that I didn’t think that I should want to change. De Antonio was the only person I knew then who could see past those old social distinctions to the art itself”
It is in this exact moment point where Andy Warhol changed the world. Rather than apologize and slink back into the shadows, Andy took rejection about his queerness, and used it as tool to forge his way into the art world. He embraced the dichotomy of being brash, yet in an unaffected, silent way. He refused the word ‘no’, refused rejection and did whatever suited him anyway. He was done asking for permission. He didn’t care about reviews from art critics and the public, even to the point of turning a mirror back to them in jest. It was Andy Warhol who destroyed the dominance of the masculine heterosexual male artist archetype, and paved a new path for queer brilliance and eccentricity.
While I can’t and won’t turn a blind eye to his often questionable behavior towards the people he worked with, I can and must give him thanks and credit for what he has done for the art world and our society.
Without him it’s unlikely we would have the queer art movement we do today.. Without him I would probably never have had the gall to be a painter myself, let alone to become a fake acid-eating drag queen in San Francisco all those years ago.