A cultural storm swept through the 1960s - Pop Art, Bob Dylan, psychedelia, underground movies - and at its centre sat a bemused young artist with silver hair: Andy Warhol. Andy knew everybody (from the cultural commissioner of New York to drug-driven drag queens) and everybody knew Andy. His studio, the Factory, was the place: where he created the large canvases of soup cans and Pop icons that defined Pop Art, where one could listen to the Velvet Underground and rub elbows with Edie Sedgwick and where Warhol himself could observe the comings and goings of the avant-guarde.
Extract from POPism by Andy Warhol
One evening De and I were having dinner at “21.” I was always sort of starry-eyed, I guess, asking him about the artists he knew, and this night he was describing for me “the greatest art exhibit” he’d ever been to. In the mid-fifties, Jasper Johns had called De up and very formally invited him to dinner “a week from Wednesday.” De and his wife at the time — I think it was his third — were on the kind of terms with Jasper where they’d call each other up and say what’re you doing tonight? so this “week from Wednesday” business was unusual, the kind of formal thing they never did. (“Jasper was reserved,” De said, “but he wasn’t that reserved!”) When the day came, De and his wife went down to the building on Pearl Street where Jasper and Bob Rauschenberg lived. In those days Pearl Street was so beautiful and narrow that if there was a car parked on it you couldn’t get by. Jasper’s loft usually had paint and materials strewn all over, De said, because he worked there, too, but this particular Wednesday it was immaculate, there wasn’t a sign of his everyday life visible, except that on the walls were all his early paintings — the big American Flag, the first Targets, the first Numbers. (For me, just thinking about what that must have been like was thrilling.) “I was knocked out,” De said. “You feel something like that with your insides; the words for it come later — dryness, austerity... And to think there were people who’d seen those pictures when
they were first painted and had laughed, just like they’d laughed at Rauschenberg!”
I’ve often wondered why people who could look at incredible new art and laugh at it bothered to involve themselves with art at all. And yet you’d run into so many of these types around the art scene.
De always said that the hardest thing was to have a friend who was an artist whose work you just couldn’t respect: “You have to stop being friends with them, because it’s too hard to look at their work and think, ‘yuk.” So everyone that De was friends with he respected. At a party of his once, I heard him answer the phone and tell someone, “Yes, I do mind, because I don’t like his politics.” Someone had wanted to bring Adlai Stevenson.
As we sat at “21” (I remember I had the National Enquirer in my lap — I was fascinated by all the Thalidomide stories) we talked about the art around town — about Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine’s street exhibit at the Judson Gallery, about Oldenburg’s beach collages in a group show at the Martha Jackson, about Tom Wesselmann’s first exhibit of the Great American Nude series at the Tanager Gallery — but my mind kept going back to what De had just told me about that exhibition that Jasper had made for himself in his own loft. De was such good friends with both Jasper and Bob that I figured he could probably tell me something I’d been wanting to know for a long time: why didn’t they like me? Every time I saw them, they cut me dead. So when the waiter brought the brandy, I finally popped the question, and De said, “Okay, Andy, if you really want to hear it straight, I’ll lay it out for you. You’re too swish, and that upsets them.”
I was embarrassed, but De didn’t stop. I’m sure he saw that my feelings were hurt, but I’d asked him a question and he was going to let me have the whole answer. “First, the post—Abstract Expressionist sensibility is, of course, a homosexual one, but these two guys wear three-button suits — they were in the army or navy or something! Second, you make them nervous because you collect paintings, and traditionally artists don’t buy the work of other artists, it just isn’t done. And third,” De concluded, “you’re a commercial artist, which really bugs them because when they do commercial art — windows and other jobs I find them — they do it just ‘to survive.’ They won’t even use their real names. Whereas you’ve won prizes! You’re famous for it!”
It was perfectly true, what De said. I was well known as a commercial artist. I got a real kick out of seeing my name listed under “Fashion” in a novelty book called A Thousand New York Names and Where to Drop Them. But if you wanted to be considered a “serious” artist, you weren’t supposed to have anything to do with commercial art. De was the only person I knew then who could see past those old social distinctions to the art itself.
What De had just told me hurt a lot. When I’d asked him, “Why don’t they like me?” I’d naturally hoped to get off easier than this. When you ask a question like that, you always hope the person will convince you that you’re just paranoid. I didn’t know what to say. Finally I just said something stupid: “I know plenty of painters who are more swish than me.” And De said, “Yes, Andy, there are others who are more swish — and less talented — and still others who are less swish and just as talented, but the major painters try to look straight; you play up the swish — it’s like an armor with you.”
There was nothing I could say to that. It was all too true. So I decided I just wasn’t going to care, because those were all things that I didn’t want to change anyway, that I didn’t think I should want to change. There was nothing wrong with being a commercial artist and there was nothing wrong with collecting art that you admired. Other people could change their attitudes, but not me — I knew I was right. And as for the “swish” thing, I’d always had a lot of fun with that — just watching the expressions on people’s faces. You’d have to have seen the way all the Abstract Expressionist painters carried themselves and the kinds of images they cultivated, to understand how shocked people were to see a painter coming on swish. I certainly wasn’t a butch kind of guy by nature, but I must admit, I went out of my way to play up the other extreme.