On Wednesday, January 14, I joined what appeared to be half of the population of Montreal for the last ‘cheap night’ at the Museum of Fine Arts before Warhol Live closed. Given that the temperature was approximating that of the dark side of Pluto, I thought I was doing pretty good just getting out the door rather than opting for a snug night with a bad movie. But I even managed to carry out a complimentary and somewhat more complicated operation – finding a quiet alleyway near the Musée where I could spark up a half-a-joint in order to maximize whatever eyeball-kicks the Warhol show might yield.
I didn’t know what to expect. I never know what to expect. I move forward from the foggy past into the hazy future in a sometimes bright, sometimes dark bubble called ‘the present’ and as I glide along things present themselves to me. ‘Things’ meaning everything from ‘things’ – objects – to people, to thoughts, to feelings … first things first, I had to deal with buying a ticket – that wasn’t very difficult, given the fact that my buzz was just at that moment kicking into high gear – and then wait in line to check my coats – that took a lot longer, but went relatively smoothly. Then it was just a matter of drifting toward the entrance, finding the correct floor for the show (slowly, proceed slowly, no hurry, read the signs, smile politely), and taking the elevator up to the third floor.
It was stupidly packed. I immediately decided not to bother reading the curatorial narrative, which was helpfully painted in large print on the walls of each gallery, and which inevitably drew a crowd of humble museum-goers, who gathered like hungry sparrows to a bird feeder. The entrance to the show was guarded by various sneering Elvises, pointing six-shooters at me. “Killed by Warhol right away,” was my thought.
My first distinct memory of the show is of a room where four TV screens continuously showed four Warhol films: Sleep, Eat, Kiss and Haircut 2. There was a fantastically beautiful ambient soundtrack playing, but I couldn’t figure out if it was a La Monte Young piece, or something else. I can’t even remember what else was in the room – oh, there were giant projections of DVD-version Warhol films on the walls, including Sleep and Empire. I thought the projections were a mistake – or rather, not the projections per se, but the fact that they were projecting the digitized version of the films. So they looked like shit when they were all blown up … they should’ve digitally transferred the originals onto film and run the films for the projections, they would’ve looked a lot better.
But the small TV screen versions of the films, those I found mesmerizing. I spent a long time staring at Sleep and Kiss. It was perfect for the state I was in, which was like, totally stoned. I think getting stoned outside where it was forty below, and then coming into a warm, overcrowded museum really enhanced my buzz in a generous and entirely Warholesque way. Inevitably I encountered someone I knew, and I was forced to speak in coherent sentences and grin glazedly … she said something about the crowd being “almost part of the show” and I said standing in a trance in front of the TV screens for a long time, one became very aware of the flow of the crowd. It was true, people couldn’t seem to focus on the films for longer than 10 seconds before they went wandering off again, it was like standing still in the middle of the sped-up subway scenes in Koyaanisqatsi. I also pointed out the helpful curatorial narratives on the wall of the gallery, the mere concept of which I found quite funny although my acquaintance seemed a bit nonplussed by my comments. “It gives people something they can follow.”
The more frantically the crowds flowed, the more enormous and centered and planetoid-like I became. My acquaintance drifted off with the tide as I moved oh, so slowly forward. Frankly, I found whatever was on the walls profoundly forgettable. And at the same time profoundly ‘readable’, like the Marilyn diptypch (from 1962) – now you see her, now she’s gone. Or the coke bottles, which seemed to entirely hinge on the particular ‘green bottle glass’ colour of the paint Warhol used for the bottle stencils. These were observations made under the influence of cannabis, ‘eyeball kicks’ as Allen Ginsberg coined it. Inevitably I encountered Mr. Ginsberg in the exhibit, under glass on a page from a newspaper – I think it was the New York Post magazine from the mid-sixties – along with an article about Warhol was an interview with Ginsberg where he blathered portentiously about the Second Coming or some such thing …
There were authentic posters from Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable touring show, flyers, clippings, and all kinds of other ephemera. It reminded me of the legendary warehouse somewhere in Pittsburgh that houses all of Warhol’s junk – he was an obsessive collector, not unlike Ginsberg in that sense, Ginsberg kept files of the most random stuff imaginable … as an obsessive collector myself (I have lately been finding my filing cabinets are full to bursting, as is my record collection, as is my cassette tape collection, as is the memory on this computer I’m presently composing this piece upon) I could appreciate the sweet abjection of these many and various bits and pieces, carefully catalogued and arranged by whoever, curators and those behind the Andy Warhol Trust … Andy has left the building …
I found more films in a darkened gallery beyond a long chamber housing 20 Brillo boxes, and made myself comfortable (as comfortable as I could, anyway – why is it whenever I watch Andy Warhol films I must be uncomfortable? Like sitting for three hours in an alleyway one summer evening to watch a full screening of Chelsea Girls – my aching ass!). The screening in this case was of excerpts – very loosely related (as was the whole exhibition) to the theme of music and dance – the best of which featured Gerard Malanga furiously frugging away to a Motown hit of the era. The soundtrack of this and the other film clips was quite murky. Part of the problem was simply the original recording conditions, part of the problem was that the gallery was open to all the noise pouring in from adjacent galleries – I’m not sure why, I guess it was this ‘narrative’ concept, that the films bled into the screen prints bled into the ephemera bled into the … not only that, but the light from the adjacent gallery bathed the bottom of the film screen in pale yellow light – at any rate, I thought if the Malanga frug images were wedded to a full-on re-mastered state-of-the-art recording of the Motown hit, it could be big on one of the music channels.
Home movies of little lost Edie Sedgwick, the addled Mario Montez, Mary Woronov, and so on … lots of gay camp erotica and flouncing floundering drag queens. Restless museum-goers come and go, come and go, come and go … the camera operator had a tendency to suddenly indulge in a vertiginous zooming in-and-out, like an obsessive fucking gesture, regardless of what was going on, from the deleriously dancing Montez to Edie Sedgwick, clearly suffering from the shakes, trying to act elegant at an elegant table setting in an elegant room full of elegant things.
I carefully got up once the films had run through their loop, and staggered onward. There was an absurd crush in the room featuring all the Warhol-designed album covers. I looked carefully at the cover of White Light, White Heat from an oblique angle, and was rewarded with the black-on-black image of a tattooed arm. A woman eyed me quizzically, but I’d been waiting to see this image forever, it seemed – you just don’t come across the original printing of that album every day, nor of the original peelable sticker version of the Banana album. There was one with the sticker half-torn off and revealing the pink banana beneath. I was intrigued by the corny drawings Warhol did for various fifties icons, including Arthur Fiedler, as well as jazz giants like Thelonius Monk.
There was a Velvet Underground room – one wall featured a bunch of Stephen Shore’s Factory-era pictures, but I’ve got the book so it wasn’t worth dealing with the crowd to look at them. At one end of the room, five largish TV screens featured the ‘screen tests’ of the five members of The Velvet Underground. Nico behaved alternately coquettish and cool, Maureen smiled goofily, Lou Reed tried to stare down the camera lense (naturally) … there was also a ‘happening’ room, with a couple of guitars ghoulishly embalmed behind plexiglass, the Banana album on the sound system, and random film footage of various Velvets projected vertiginously as coloured gels revolved and spangled lights sparkled and strobe lights strobed. After that it was all downhill – Warhol’s dreadful pastel Seventies stuff.
I mused on why I felt so decidedly unengaged by Warhol Live, and realized it was because, other than the films, I’d already experienced everything the Warhol show had to offer, and more importantly, I had experienced Warhol’s works as they were meant to be experienced – out in the ‘real world’ of the commodity. I own several works by Warhol, in fact. Last year I picked up a vinyl reissue of the Banana album for the absurd price of $10 at Phonopolis, and more recently I purchased the Sticky Fingers album from a friend for $2 (sans zipper, sadly – must find a replacement for it some time).
I’ve seen endless reproductions of most of Warhol’s visual art, so the ‘originals’ (joke – there are no original Warhols) had little impact. Not even the Elvises! No, it was only the films that still exerted their glamour, and that may be why the Andy Warhol Trust clings to them so desperately, refusing to release them commercially – because they’re what drew me into the museum, despite the cold. To experience the strange charm of looking through Warhol’s eyes at – whatever.
Not everybody was as satisfied with the Warhol experience as I was. I heard more than one complaint that amounted to, “meh!” Or, as one outspoken fellow put it to his girlfriend, “Enough with the televisions!” They searched restlessly from gallery to gallery for the legend they had come to find, but Warhol had already escaped the museum long ago. He continues to expand like a bubble through the mediascape, McLuhanesque, the original ‘brand’ (everything’s Andy). Every time someone starts a little scene, shoots a little movie, makes a little space for things to happen, Andy lives on.