Tina Olsen Talks About Warhol at Williams
By: Charles Giuliano - Jun 01, 2015
Warhol by the Book at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) is on view through August 16, 2015. Creating books was a vital part of Warhol’s career.
Nearly 500 objects covering more than 80 book titles including unique and unpublished materials come together from WCMA and The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The exhibition includes paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and artist’s books. It also includes projections of sixteen Screen Test portrait-films of writers. Works span from drawings created to fulfill college assignments, to the Party Book, which was in development at the time of his death. Warhol by the Book traces the artist’s ideas, influences, collaborations, and innovations throughout his career.
“Printed books were essential in Warhol’s daily life and with almost every known example of his work for books represented, this exhibition demonstrates his prolific and diverse contribution to the field of publishing,” says Matt Wrbican, Chief Archivist, The Andy Warhol Museum and Curator of Warhol by the Book.
Warhol by the Book highlights WCMA’s important holdings of nearly 300 Warhols, many of which were given by Richard F. Holmes Class of ’46. Before Warhol became famous for his Pop art, he produced extensive commercial art as well as self-published works often made in collaboration with friends in the 1950s. The Holmes gift includes a near complete collection of these books produced in limited numbers: A is an Alphabet, Love is a Pink Cake, 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy, Holy Cats by Andy Warhol’s Mother, In The Bottom of My Garden, A Gold Book, and Wild Raspberries.
Many of Warhol’s projects focused on the book as an object. He blended the borders of art, design, and text. Andy Warhol’s Index (Book) (1967), was the first of several books to defy the definition of a book. This seminal publication has been called a “children’s book for hipsters,” complete with sound recordings, balloons, fold-outs, holograms, and even a do-it-yourself nose job. Three preliminary mock-ups for this project are featured from WCMA’s collection, showing how the book changed from inception to its final state. Further playing with form and content Warhol produced a novel from transcriptions of audiotapes, which is exhibited with the very cassette recorder used to make the recordings, and Stephen Shore’s photos that document the sessions.
“Books were objects of fascination for Warhol, both as an artist and a collector. In a pre-digital age, books represented legacy, luxury and lasting fame,” says Eric Shiner, Director of The Andy Warhol Museum. “Warhol by the Book focuses on a little-known, but fascinating aspect of Warhol’s work.”
We spoke with Tina Olsen the director of WCMA about Warhol's work with books.
Charles Giuliano Looking at the early illustrations in the Warhol show one senses the influence of Ben Shahn in his graphic style. There are reminders of an important vintage jazz illustrator David Stone Martin who did a lot of album covers. In particular there is the broken line technique that is a signature of Shahn's technique.
Andy always seemed drawn to then current trends for art and design. There is a documentary film in which Ivan Karp, his early dealer, recalls Andy asking him during a studio visit whether he should drip paint. It was a signifier of high art in the work of the abstract expressionists. Andy expressed concern that he wouldn't be taken seriously if he didn't drip. That revealed an interest in having the right up to the minute look in his work.
That social realist approach inspired by Shahn was most evident in the early Huey Long drawing in the exhibition. I was surprised to see such a literal connection. It is something you would never expect to see by Warhol.
Andy was always fashion conscious and chameleon like. He always wanted to pick up on what was hip and current. Not just in art and design but also socially like the taped conversations with Brigid Polk and his constant Polaroid snapshots. All of the ephemera that went into the Time Capsules.
The other strong presence and insight of this show was the depth of his collaborations with his mother Julia. Her unique handwriting was an important aspect of his illustration and graphic design.
Tina Olsen She was his collaborator and was herself also an artist. She had a real talent and gift visually. She was a calligrapher/ artist. It makes you think how that expressed itself during his childhood. To what extent it influenced him. She moved to New York and spent her last decades with her son. She returned to Pittsburgh only to die.
She spent years with Andy.
CG He would party on Saturday night.
TO Then go home to Mom.
CG They attended church on Sunday morning.
TO I think you have picked up on interesting things. The show is a very deep examination of how Andy became Andy. We see the artistic, visual ways in which he was trying to figure that out. Understanding the art world in the late '40s and '50s in New York. Having this practice as an illustrator and then very deliberately trying to make a shift but then trying to get his arms around your very astute and prescient comment about his understanding of trends. Artistic trends, visual trends.
CG He was always asking people if they had any ideas. Of course the flip side of that was when Valerie Solanas shot him because she thought he had ripped her off.
TO Right. He was using all of his resources. The talent and resources around him. He was highly efficient in how he did that.
CG You talk about his transition from illustrator and graphic designer to fine artist. From what I understand he was not welcomed and well received in the club.
TO No. They were furious. Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg and all those guys did not find it amusing.
CG And yet in many ways he has eclipsed them.
TO Absolutely. I think Warhol was deeply deeply smart as a reader of the cultural scene. In terms of anticipating what would be happening in the '60s. What the impact of media would be. Fame. I think that he was profoundly smart. The contributions of the other Pop artists are different. Rauschenberg had a genius that was very different.
I am really interested in what the influence of "International Pop" will be. I believe that it starts at the Walker.
(Organized by the Walker Art Center, “International Pop” chronicles the global emergence of Pop in the 1960s and early 1970s. While previous exhibitions and prevailing scholarship have primarily focused on the dominance of Pop activity in New York and London during this time, this exhibition examines work from artists across the globe who were confronting many of the same radical developments, laying the foundation of the emergence of an art form that embraced figuration, media strategies, and mechanical processes with a new spirit of urgency and/or exuberance.
This groundbreaking exhibition follows the trajectories of Pop and its critical points of contact with global developments in art such as Nouveau Réalisme (France), Concretism (Brazil), Informalism (Argentina), Capitalist Realism (Germany), Happenings, and Neo-Dada.
Following its presentation at the Walker through September 6, "International Pop" will tour to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art through 2016. Curators: Darsie Alexander with Bartholomew Ryan.)
CG There's Polke and Richter in Germany. Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Peter Blake, Allen Jones in Great Britain.
TO They've been looking at Brazil and very broadly. So what we think of pop is changing right now.
CG The flip side of that is that the emergence of pop sucked up all the oxygen in the room. It smothered attention for other approaches like figurative expressionism which was developing simultaneously. Until pop there was a lot of discussion of a return to the figure after the dominance of abstract expressionism.
Look at scholarship and publishing. There are so many books and exhibitions focused on Warhol and pop. Do we really need yet another Warhol show?
TO It depends on the show. This show presents a story that has not been well told. Or told at all in the U.S. I think this show helps you to understand how Warhol invented himself. It shows how Warhol became Warhol. How did Andy become Andy? Where did the idea of the silver factory come from? How do you reconcile the commercial work with the fine art work? How do you reconcile it visually and how do you understand how he made that leap?
CG What's your take on it? What are your answers to those questions?
TO Those aren't simple answers to give. To a great extent it was his immersion in the commercial art world that gave him aesthetically and conceptually, artistically and practically the source for the refiguring of himself as a fine artist.
I grew up in New York and my father was an artist. All of the artists were involved in the commercial art world. They were package designers and graphic artists. Those were their day jobs. They were illustrators and framers. That's what you did. But they made a very sharp divide between what they were doing to make a living and what they were doing to show in galleries.
CG Rauschenberg and Johns designed windows for Tiffany's.
TO Right. Everyone was. That was the domain in the early '50s. Andy's trick was to turn that on its head. He took the Brillo box, which was a product design produced by an artist. It was invented by an artist but it wasn't an artistic work. It was his paid work. Then Andy (appropriated) and put it in a gallery. He turned the whole thing upside down.
CG And of course he got in trouble for that.
TO Absolutely. As they all did. And he got in trouble with his peers. They were furious. He was stealing from his peers. As you pointed out, Johns and Rauschenberg and all those guys were deeply offended.
Conceptually it was problematic to them. What he was putting forth was also the work of other artists.
Warhol's early work was made for commerce and it was made for friends. He made books as gifts that were never intended for publication.
TO The commercial works were made by artists but not with their artist hats on.
CG Like the Brillo boxes or the Kodak flower advertisements. The originators sued Andy and got some money. He offered works but the flower photographer demanded cash. The silk screens proved to worth far more than they were settled for.
TO Right. In the domain of artists working in the commercial field his appropriations represented a kind of personal affront.
CG There is often the sense when looking at a Warhol that it is obvious and easy. You hear "all he did was." There isn't a labor intensive sense of effort and technique. That established the notion that the work was frivolous and not to be taken seriously.
Like sticking someone in a photo booth (Ethel Scull) and making lots of snaps then sending them off to be separated into silk screens. These were ideas that he was able to mass produce with assistance in his "factory." His workers would sing for their suppers at Max's Kansas City.
In a way the work seemed facile and frivolous. Then fast forward and we are in your office at Williams engaged in a serious discussion of a major exhibition. We're having an academic conversation about his ephemera which is now viewed as of great value.
TO Right and both things are true. You said it yourself. He was a great believer in efficiency. It wasn't called the Factory for nothing. He put people to work creating vast quantities of work. He even did this early on with the books. He had coloring parties. He employed kids in the neighborhood to color the images. It's well know. That became the germ of the idea for the Factory.
Let me find ways to use collaborators and make the greatest possible quantity of art. He was absolutely working against our deepest held ideas about making art and the fineness of objects. He believed in accidents. Accidents in the printing process. He just embraced accidents. There is something so contrary about him. He was working against a lot of tropes. He was trying to figure out how to make new media. New cultural constructs. Production of media. Production of personality. He was always asking how do I turn that to my advantage. You can only imagine what he would be doing now with the internet and social media. It's scary to think about it.
CG Some years ago when I was guest editor for an issue of Art New England my friend Gerard Malanga, the poet and early Warhol assistant, and I collaborated on a weekend long interview in New York. He transcribed hours of tape and from that we created a cover story for the magazine. One of the most lasting insights of that experience was Gerard describing in depth how "Andy embraced the mistakes." The misregistration of a silkscreen became just another serendipitous iteration. The accidental or mishap was a part of the dialogue about the growth of the work. Everything was additive and positive. There was only one direction in the work and that was forward.
Which is fine for the creator but it leaves a lot of editing for critics and curators. How do you mitigate aesthetic value in that permissive construct?
TO There was no mistake, right. There was all just opportunity. In my understanding of his biography and everything I've read the only thing that jarred him out of that was the shooting. You see a shift. He's off his game.
(Valerie Jean Solanas, April 9, 1936 – April 25, 1988, was a radical feminist and hanger on at Warhol's Factory. She asked Warhol to produce her play, Up Your Ass. She gave him her script, which she later accused him of losing and/or stealing. She demanded payment. He hired her to perform in I, A Man, for $25.
In 1967, Solanas began self-publishing the SCUM Manifesto. Olympia Press owner Maurice Girodian offered to publish her future writings. She was convinced that Girodias and Warhol were conspiring to steal her work. On June 3, 1968, she sought out Girodias, who was gone for the weekend. She then went to The Factory and shot Warhol. She also shot art critic Mario Amaya, and attempted to shoot Warhol's manager, Fred Hughes but the gun jammed. She served a three-year prison sentence, including treatment in a mental hospital. She died in 1988 of pneumonia, in San Francisco.)
CG It not only threatened his life but also his creativity.
TO Yes. Everything changed dramatically.
CG Later he reinvented himself through collaborations with younger artists like Keith Haring, Francesco Clemente and Jean Michel Basquiat.
CG Toward the end of his career those collaborations jump started him.
TO I don't know a lot about those collaborations but it seems very clear from his work, from all accounts, that it was a real watershed in his life. (The attempted assassination.) Many things shifted after that. The way the Factory was run. His creative practice. He became frightened.
CG His night life shifted from Max's Kansas City to Studio 54.
CG He began to do the portraits at $50,000 a pop. He took Polaroids and assistants processed them as silkscreens. Mostly they are very boring. At that point it seems he was cashing in on fame and the work hit rock bottom. The collaborations pulled him out of that.
TO It's not a part of our show so I don't want to comment. Our conversation should focus on the show.
CG How did the show come about?
TO There was a lot of collaboration between Matt Wrbican, Chief Archivist of The Andy Warhol Museum and Curator of Warhol by the Book, and Katy Price who is the curator of collections here. The show features a great deal of material from WCMA. We have extensive magazine and book holdings which were a gift from an alumnus Richard Holmes. For many years he collected primarily from the book market. He didn't have a lot of money and was collecting ephemera. He wasn't collecting silkscreens. He was collecting book stuff.
I'm the director of the museum and didn't organize the show. But I love the material and am deeply involved in it. I grew up in New York and went to Studio 54 as a kid.
CG Oh yeah. (both laughing)
TO I did. I was too young for Max's and The Factory but old enough for Studio 54.
CG What was that like?
TO Being a teenager and seeing the high glamor of New York and that world. It was the 1970s.
CG Did you ever see Andy?
TO I'm not sure I did. I've thought about it. I'm sure he was there.
Our show was a perfect collaboration. Neither of us could have done it without the other. The show mostly consists of our material and theirs. That's how shows get done. It's a fantastic college art museum show. It's a brainy, deep dive into the work. It's also super populist. It's both. It's the kind of show that took years and years and years of research. It required cataloging a ton of stuff. It's the kind of show a lot of places won't do because it's expensive.
Yes, Warhol is a name. But it's the book work. It's not the portraits. It's not the stuff that people know. So it's a different kind of take.
CG Over the years I have seen a lot Warhol shows from the Castelli Gallery to Pittsburgh. Driving by the museum the initial response was yet another Warhol show.
Frankly I was blown away. Since the museum was officially closed today there was someone who was kind enough to sit while I visited. Having seen work in a rather large gallery I was about to leave. She said, "No, there are other galleries." The show just went on and on including a room showing the Screen Tests.
TO (laughing) It's not a simple take. We are showing a lot of work. It's not facile and the Screen Tests are there. It's an in depth examination of a really important vein of his work that has been deeply unexplored.
At least on the surface it doesn't mesh with your visual expectations of Warhol's work. It's about books. Even Andy said "I don't read books." So why books?
Also I think of Joseph Cornell. He was another obsessive. We see in this show Andy as a deeply shy, private guy who had an obsession with publicity. There's a private/public back and forth. There's a tension in his life and work. He needs to be the center of attention but has nothing to say. There is that same intensive back and forth in Cornell, an intense introvert with a great desire to be an extrovert and center of attention.
There's nothing explicit in the work but there's something there. Absolutely. Duchamp and Warhol absolutely. Warhol was modeling himself on Duchamp. I'm not a scholar of either but it's so clear.