the column of lasting insignificance...
Many of the bizarre personalities who thought of themselves as would-be superstars were not the type you would willingly invite into your home. "They act kind of unpredictably and freak out" explained Gerard Malanga. "It's their insanity--Andy likes to use it; he sees what he can get out it of it artistically. Freakiness just hasn't been exploited in films, and any area to tap, you see, is a market. The market of freaks is a corner".
Who were the people that Gerard felt had influenced Warhol the most?
"Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, television, the movies, John Cage" he said, without a pause.
In one of my many conversations with the art critic David Bourdon I inverted this question and asked him who he thought that Andy himself had influenced? "Everyone", replied David, which is also the answer I received in slightly different form from the photographer Gretchen Berg, one of the first people to do a revealing interview with the notoriously evasive artist. Gretchen said that Andy made you believe that you could "do anything you feel like doing.
"For instance, I was talking to him once about the silk screening process which he was explaining to me, and I said that I could learn it, very defiantly because there seemed to be some question as to whether I could learn it or not, and he just smiled at me and said, 'Fight, fight' as though he was encouraging me to go on and be as rude to him as possible. 'Cause that would do me some good. He (challenges) in such a self-effacing way that one needs to be very aware of oneself to be aware of what is going on".
When she first interviewed him, Gretchen continued, she was prepared for a very sophisticated, perhaps snobbish artist, "and I got a very simple one. He's very much like a child, he has the same viewpoint, very full of wonderment. He's still surprised by things that all of us have taken for granted. He keeps insisting on it, which is why everyone gets annoyed. It's the idea of 'the Emperor's new clothes' when the Emperor doesn't have any clothes".
At the height of the filmmaking, the atmosphere at the Factory had become somewhat circus-like, virtually out of control. Andy's unwillingness to reign anybody in, his dislike of confrontation, and his need to be surrounded by the motley crowd which provided the fodder for the movies as well as the endless people doing business of one sort of another, sometimes resulted in a kind of layered chaos. One afternoon I stood among the regulars just inside the door, unable to get past the various friends and media types (Italian and French magazine writers) who were milling around watching German television videotape, a group of photographers doing a layout for Vogue of models posing against the backdrop of Paul and Andy manning the movie camera focused on whatever drama was being enacted against the rear wall.
Paul and the debonair Fred Hughes, who regarded himself as Andy's social secretary, and who came to be the Factory's dominant figure, were often in dispute over this sort of thing. "He wanted a place where no one would hang out" Fred recalled. "The kids wouldn't be here, they'd come just for business, just to find out about a job, and then they'd leave (but) I think it's better to enjoy what you're doing and the way it's taken place is more like an accident. Since the people who come here have such a good time. We use unusual people and they need a place to (posture) even when they're not in the films".
What did Fred think it was, I asked, that made Andy so sympathetic to and interested in all the freaks that were usually around the place?
"Well, first of all, he has that terrific look of appearing very old and very young at the same time. This look is really important to what he does. And he has the kind of innocence that comes from someone who really doesn't have any specific motives except to promote entertainment".
Bourdon, a perceptive former Life magazine art critic and longtime Warhol friend, also talked of this entertainment aspect. "He insists that he's in show business", David told me in 1970, "and that he is through with art (which) is very dull and that show business is much more glamorous and exciting".
Drama of any kind was obviously meat and drink to him as anybody could see if they spent time around Max's Kansas City, the Union Square tavern which became the ipso facto Factory local during the late Sixties. There were innumerable occasions when a simple evening's food and drink ended with some superstar acting up--jumping atop a table, squirting beer across the room or simply yelling at some imagined enemy. One night Brigid Polk found a cockroach in her potato and started screaming. Andy was muttering, 'Oh Brigit' to calm her down, but he obviously loved it.
"Yes" said Viva, describing the incident later. "Everybody loves to see big scenes, especially in a restaurant. Some people are embarrassed to be in them but Andy apparently has it both ways because he pretends that he doesn't really want it but he actually encourages it."
It's horrifying to reflect that one of the unstable people Andy may have unconsciously encouraged was the self-termed feminist Valerie Solanis, who had pretty much forced her ms. on him and, in frustration at his lack of response, came over one day and shot him. I was en route to the factory that day but by the time I arrived, Andy had been carted off to hospital, along with the art critic Mario Amaya whom I later asked to describe the terrifying scene when this avenging harpy came banging in.
"I wished she had come banging in, that was the whole point. When she walked in she was just creepy and crying and moody and peculiar. Well, you know the whole place is full of creeps all the time and I don't know how in hell can such--I have great respect for Andy because of his mind--but how can somebody intelligent like this surround himself with dreary, creepy people? And this is exactly what I'm thinking of when I sort of turned around to get a cigarette out of my jacket.
"It was a hot day in June and suddenly I heard these loud noises and I thought it was an explosion in the street and the next thing I hear is, 'Oh Valerie, no, no' and then I dropped to the floor thinking someone is shooting and I twist around to look and she's practically standing over me about three or four feet away, just taking a pot shot at me. In fact she took two. If ever I was tempted to return to religion, that was the moment, because it went right through my back and came out about a quarter inch from my spine".
"Did that knock you out?"
"It stunned me for a bit and then she started walking away towards Fred Hughes who was kind of frozen in shock, and she went up to him. She was going to shoot him and I saw her moving away from me and I took a flying leap to the double doors in the back, crashed through them. Paul Morrissey was back there; he didn't know what was going on. We both held the door shut. She took a couple more shots at the door. She tried to kill Fred and by some miracle the elevator came right up to the sixth floor at that moment and Fred had the presence of mind to say, 'There's the elevator, Valerie. Take it'. And she dd.
"Well, what was really weird about it was all pandemonium broke loose afterwards. We tried ringing the ambulance, the police were half an hour getting there and the whole thing was chaos. And with all this going on suddenly the elevator comes up again. It was like something by Beckett, you know, and five people walk out of the elevator into the room..."
"People lying around with blood streaming..."
"Screams going on. Oh, the noise was terrible. Everybody was shouting including me. They all got right back in the elevator and went right back down again".
"Whereabouts did the bullets hit Andy?"
"Well, as I understand it, a bullet went right through from his left side to his right. This was what I was told. There were an awful lot of shots but it was one bullet that hit his ribcage and ricocheted around and did all the damage".
We agreed that Andy's tolerance level for freaks seemed to be unusually--and now obviously, dangerously--high and I asked Mario if he felt that this tolerance level was relevant to the art he produced.
"I'm actually certain that it is, and I think without it he couldn't produce what he produces. And I'm sure he's very aware of this. By leaving himself this thin membrane, a thin piece of tissue, which everything can flow through, he knows somehow or other that the wrong things are going to get left behind and he has to leave himself exposed like this. I mean it's fantastic the way he can catch something, even in the bad things that he does there's something there that is great somehow".
A young publisher from Philadelphia turned up at Max's Kansas City one day and asked Andy if he'd write a column for his fledgling paper, Downtown, and to everybody's amazement Andy agreed on the spot. We might have known. What Paul and Andy did was to pirate one of the more scandalous National Inquirer columns each week and submit it to Downtown unchanged except that all the boldface names in the original had been replaced by those of the Warhol clique.
There were a lot of parties and social events, none of which Andy would attend without a vast entourage. We went to a midnight screening at a 57th Street theatre in the early days when Warhol was already a legend ("famous for being famous" the columnists sniffed) but few had actually met him. As we emerged from the limousine with Gerard in advance of the main party, the manager mistook him for Warhol, greeted him warmly and labored under this delusion for the entire affair. Nobody enlightened him, least of all Andy who loved 'accidents' like this. Maybe that's what gave him the idea to send a double, Alan Midgette, around the college lecture circuit--a double who pretended to be Andy until he eventually got rumbled.
Jane Fonda sent a message to the Factory one day to say she and husband Roger Vadim were about to leave for Europe and why didn't we all go over to the Normandie to see them off? Jammed together in the tiny cabin, I had just given Jane the current issue of Other Scenes when she received a photo call to go up on deck and attend to the paparazzi. She posed beautifully--all the time holding Other Scenes in full view. A nice gesture I thought.
Many working partnerships, both in the art scene and outside it, don’t apportion the credit in what might be termed an equal manner. Is it just coincidence that the woman, however much she might contribute in support and inspiration, is the one who is most often short-changed? This is definitely not the case with that inventive team, Christo and Jeanne-Claude who, for the three decades I have known them, have shared twin credit for every one of the superb art works they have produced.
The best proof of what I am talking about can be seen in the movie by the Maysles brothers of the project in which the artists wrapped the Le Pont Neuf, a bridge across the River Seine in Paris. It may be the best film explaining how artists work that has ever been made.
First, Christo and Jeanne-Claude rented window space in a shop near to the bridge and filled it, for the edification of passers-by, with drawings and text explaining the artwork-to-be. Next came the really hard part: a seemingly endless series of face-to-face negotiations with the various bureaucrats whose job it was to monitor, approve, or deny permission for such schemes. This was mostly Jeanne-Claude’s task. She’s a skilled and tireless negotiator who speaks fluent French.
All this, like almost every one of the pair’s ventures, stretched out over months, often years. When The Gates arrived, the hauntingly beautiful saffron curtains that billowed throughout New York’s Central Park, it had been a work-in-progress for twenty years. Continually turned down by dour and unimaginative parks commissioners, it was released in 2005 when a friendly and admiring Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave his assent. More than 800,000 visitors--six times the usual number--filed through the park, and as many as 90,000 additional tourists came to town in the two weeks the work was up.
Then it was dismantled, the elements recycled and all traces of its presence removed. Like all Christo works—the Umbrellas in California, the 18ft high Running Fence along the coast, the Surrounded Islands of Biscayne Bay, the projects in Japan, in Germany, in Australia, an incomplete list—it had a pre-ordained ending. Workers were paid to erect it, paid to dismantle it, everything recycled, nothing remained in situ.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude exemplify everything about artists that I most admire. They visualize something beautiful that will give pleasure to those who see it. They plan to manifest their dream no matter how long it takes, no matter what it costs. Their patience is inexhaustible, their determination absolute. The very obstacles and setbacks that stand in the way of the dream are an integral part of the art itself. And, as it doesn’t cost anybody a cent to see it, how is it paid for? Millions of dollars are needed.
And again, what the artists do is commendable. Eschewing grants, they sell no portion of the work or any ancillary souvenir products: no engraved trinkets, no mugs, no caps emblazoned with their work or their names. They finance everything themselves, a task that has become easier with every successive venture due to the huge sums dealers, collectors, admirers are willing to pay for preliminary studies, collages, drawings, pictures, videos, films, postcards, all an integral part and parcel of the work. A substantial collection of earlier work is also available.
Born the same day (June 13, 1935) in different countries, they have lived at the same lower Manhattan address since 1964 when they emigrated to the U.S. And because they have undertaken projects in so many countries, they have since become possibly the most widely-known artists in the world.
My respect for them has grown because they are so uncompromising in what they do, and although ambiguity is as intrinsic to art as misdirection is to magic, there is nothing hazy about Christo undertakings. The temporary nature of their projects, they explain, is an aesthetic decision, in order to endow the works of art with the feeling of urgency to be seen, and the tenderness brought by the fact that they will not last. “Those feelings are usually reserved for other temporary things” says Jeanne-Claude, “in our own lives, things that are valued because we know they will not last”
A FEW YEARS BACK when I devoted a cover story to their still-stalled Central Park work, The Gates, we talked about one of the things that irks them about media coverage. To begin with, it’s become a kind of headline shortage to refer to something Christo has ‘wrapped’, such as Key Biscayne.
Jeanne-Claude: “(We) never wrapped any islands (we) surrounded the islands. Most journalists do not understand the difference between ‘wrapping’ and ‘surrounding’ even though they should know that England is surrounded by water, it is not wrapped in water…. The nylon fabric of the Running Fence could not be used for parachutes—God forbid that anyone would jump with that kind of fabric.
Volunteers? NEVER—on any project Everyone (except J-C’s mother) who works is paid: normal wages for specialized professional workers, and just above minimum wage for non-skilled workers.”
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National Weed (1974, issue #3)
Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my book, and thank you. —JW
- Complete column archives: 2006 - present
— Dear Readers...
— John Wilcock ... Marijuana, the symbolic center of the underground society
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: Cuba Diary—Havana, April 2011
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Nineteen (continued)--Travels
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: When you vote, don’t forget the Republican Paradox
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eighteen--The Quest for Magic: Around Europe by VW bus;
Regarding armchair travelers;
Pisa's Leaning Tower;
The magical Alhambra
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen (continued)--London's Magical library;
In the Cannes
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen--The Sorcerer's Apprentice
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary (continued)
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen (Part Two--Manhattan phone book, JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen--Party Circuit
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part two, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part one, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Twelve (continued)--Traveling with Nomad; SoHo Confidential
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine (continued)--Rip Torn on stardom… Robert Mitchum's gift; London: Julian Beck’s critique; Emmett Grogan and the Diggers; Greece: The Junta, Charlotte Rampling, and art hero Daniel Spoerri
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine--Bob Dylan in the Village, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Richard Neville and OZ, What Does London Need Most?, The International Times
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight (continued)--Japan: a working honeymoon;
The Shinjuku Sutra
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight--Art Kunkin's LA Free Press; In LA with Hunter Thompson, Lenny Bruce; Visit by Warhol; Hakim Jamal plays god; The San Francisco 'Be-In'; Underground papers meet
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six (continued)--Tom Forcade: smuggler supreme; That pathetic drug czar
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six—The weed that changed the world--Confessions of a pot smoker
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Four—Into the '60s--London's underground press; Jean-Jacques Lebel burns US flag; Everybody's friend: Jim Haynes; Lenny Bruce and the kitchen tapes
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Three--The Village Voice (continued) --Lasting insignificance: the 3-dot column, ECHO and Larry Adler, Woody Allen plays classic nerd, A sample Village Square column
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Two--Steve Allen derides TV columnist; Marlene Dietrich--glamorous grandmother
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter One--Chatting with Marilyn Monroe
— Manhattan Memories: Introduction.
- column archives: 2006 - present
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February 12, 2015
It was the first handwritten letter I'd received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I'd never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com.
"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."
-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner