Features
archive

Two new programmes: Warhol is remembered by his ageing stars, and original art is taught

Twenty Factory regulars look back on the creative freedom that fuelled the New York enterprise, while three art schools are brought under the microscope

Share

Three documentary films by Catherine O’Sullivan Shorr, Andy Warhol’s Factory People: Inside the ‘60s Silver Factory, add spice to a well-trawled story. Here mavericks from the Factory give their take on Warhol and his drug- and sex-fuelled studio. Each 50-minute episode is built loosely around a chronological theme: the making of the Factory, its life and work, its decline. Each is edited from over 40 hours of newly recorded interviews with 20 of Warhol’s now ageing celebrities and supporters, their testimony to camera set, somewhat unkindly, beside glamorous archive photographs. Brilliant editing and inter-cutting result in a fast-moving collage, mixing clips from films by and about Warhol, and a vibrant sound track. Four years in the making, these films are more labour-intensive, meticulously crafted, and certainly less tedious than any produced in Warhol’s Factory.

For Victor Bockris, Warhol’s biographer, “we were the most intelligent art commune in the world.” For Billy Name, a photographer and the Factory’s manager: “We were all people, who had this divine will inside of us, driving us saying art, art. You just had to create, create, create. It doesn’t matter what you do.”

Leee Black Childers, photographer and former manager of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, recalls a Factory showing of Warhol’s freeform movie “The Couch”, which included Superstars Ondine, aka Robert Olivio, and Warhol’s assistant Gerard Malanga: “Ondine was giving Gerard a blow job on screen and this whole audience of film students was taking notes. And I said to Gerard, aren’t you a little embarrassed? And he said: ‘It’s art… What were they writing down?'”

Gerard Malanga, as Victor Bockris tells us, was “devoted to Andy”. He was “totally heterosexual” and “actively bisexual”. He was “the Factory stud… Andy purposely created an entourage of highly sexual people who were very active sexually but also who bounced off them, who were beautiful. It was also very challenging, particularly the gay thing.”

Warhol’s own sexuality is discussed without consensus, but there is no doubt about the way he exploited his charisma. “Andy’s Factory always worked with a triangular group at the head,” Victor Bockris recalls. “The idea is to keep each person in competition for your attention. Who loves me most. Me, no me. These people were very young and very easy to manipulate. And they very much wanted his attention. And when Andy gave you his attention it...was like a drug.” A party wasn’t a party until Warhol was there. “Everyone felt the electricity and fusion,” Billy Name tells us.

In an epilogue Vincent Fremont, Founding Director of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, puts it this way: “Warhol was a huge magnet of ideas and the exchange of ideas. And that’s what life is about. Andy understood this.”

Inside the Art Schools explored a very different context for making art. This was a rambling presenter-led radio feature by the writer Michael Bracewell. The idea was an interesting one: to seek out the educational roots of art world glamour. To do so, Mr Bracewell visits three art schools, two in London, Central St Martins and Goldsmiths College, which nurtured Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists of Sensation fame, and one outside, Coventry School of Art & Design. His intention is “to discover why people go to art schools, and what they expect from them”.

The art in question is biased towards conceptual, multi-media work, characterised in the programme as “challenging convention”, and “confrontational”. Anything goes as long as it’s “original”, and as long as you can justify what you’re doing. Art education in Scotland, where a tradition of painting still flourishes, or in other parts of the UK is nowhere mentioned. Hirst, a Goldsmiths student in the late 1980s and Michael Craig-Martin, a tutor there from the early 1970s, contribute as star practitioner and progenitor of the new approach. Can this art be taught? Mr Bracewell asks. “Yes,” says Hirst, “I think there’s a visual language that exists...it’s the same language that we use to sell things, to buy advertising.”

Mr Bracewell’s visits give us a picture of shared studios as “part toolshed, part playpen, part laboratory”, and rich cultural teaching in the lecture theatre. The real issues, which should have filled the heart of this programme, are studio practice and how to teach—complex questions, which have no obvious answer. Mr Bracewell barely brushes the surface when he talks to Mick Finch, a tutor at St Martins, who quashes the myth of absolute originality. Instead he talks to his students about the “development of an idea”, the “sense they can work things through”.

We don’t observe this teaching process, but at Goldsmiths we encounter a third year student, who has come through it. Nina is a “mature student with a background in sociology”. She’s working on a piece combining film, sound and performance: “A film of hands handling a sticky substance that might be honey or…syrup”, a sound track of bees, intercut with the work of a Spanish student intoning a list of plastic objects: “Una taza de plástico. Una ventana de plástico...” [A plastic cup. A plastic window.] “One of the ideas we’re trying to work with is thinking about what the limits of the natural and the social are,” Nina tells us.

The only critical voice is that of Sue Hubbard, an art critic with teaching experience at the Royal College of Art, who expresses the disquiet felt in some quarters about a lack of basic skills, notably in drawing, taught at Foundation level. Gail Pickering, a tutor at Goldsmiths, questions whether students find it “relevant”, arguing that “making a video or engaging with a subject through film is as difficult as to render a body in pencil”. Later, Ms Hubbard touches on a more important issue, the absorption in the 1990s of art schools into the university system. Again, her brief inclusion did little more than raise the distinction between art, an “experimental”, “creative process” based on studio practice, and academic disciplines.

These concerns needed more time for debate by a range of voices, and in the context Mr Bracewell’s positive conclusion that all is well with art school education seems bland.

Andy Warhol’s Factory People, Planet Entertainment for Sky Arts: 1. “Welcome to the Silver Factory”, 7 January; 2. “Speeding into the future”, 14 January; 3. “Your 15 Minutes Are Up!”, 21 January. Executive producer Patrick Nagle. Director Catherine O’Sullivan Shorr.

Sunday Feature: Inside the Art Schools, BBC Radio 3, 11 January. Presenter Michael Bracewell. Producer Paula McGinley.

Share