‘He created his own universe and became its star’
Director David Cronenberg explains the debt he owes to Andy Warhol’s bizarre and chillingly prophetic work
Monday September 11, 2006
EMPIRE IS THE CLASSIC. It was outrageous—yet somehow it worked. An eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building, it was high concept, not in the Hollywood sense, but the art sense. It’s got potency, resonance. Andy even said the Empire State Building was a star. It’s so New York, which was the centre of the artistic universe at the time, the 1960s. That’s why I decided to begin the Andy Warhol show I am curating with Empire.
I can’t recall when I first saw a Warhol. I feel as though he was always in my consciousness. I started making films at the same time he did, and the New York underground scene is what influenced me—and that was Andy. He didn’t think you needed access to anything to do what he was doing—just grab a camera, do your own thing, and it’ll work.
Preparing this exhibition, I was initially planning to ignore the films. It seemed too obvious to bring a film-maker in and for him to choose the films. But I didn’t have to dig deep to realise it would be a major oversight. Andy started the silk screens, the film-making and the Death and Disaster series at the same time. Everything influenced everything.
By taking photos from Life magazine and newspapers, he was democratising art. He saw everything as having artistic potential. When he picked up a camera, he just shot what was there in front of him: the people he knew, the people who stumbled into his studio. So there was that link between his art and his film-making.
Andy saw a great connection between celebrity and death. Although he worshipped celebrities, he was aware that there were different kinds of celebrity, and that celebrity was somehow involved with death. Someone asked him what he was working on when he was doing his celebrity stuff, and he replied: “Death.” He only started to work on the Marilyn silk screens after she’d committed suicide.
Because of the newspapers, he saw that anyone could be plucked out of obscurity and become famous, but only for that day, for that 15 minutes. Death—some bizarre, strange, spectacular death—would do it. Hence his Tuna Fish Disaster: two women in a suburb of Detroit became front-page news because they had eaten tainted tuna fish sandwiches and died.
I’ve also included Elvis’s hit song Flaming Star in my show, to accompany Andy’s painting. I was going to sing it myself but we managed to get the rights, so we have Elvis’s version. If Andy were around, I would have asked him to sing it. Elvis was a flaming star. It’s naive to think Andy wasn’t aware of that, and of how dark the movie that featured the song was. It was a western, and westerns could be all kinds of things; every second movie was a western in those days. But Flaming Star is about racism, and everyone dies in it, including Elvis.
Andy was a celebraholic. He would go to all the movies and read all the tabloids. He wasn’t anti-Hollywood; he loved it. But he had created his own universe in New York and become its star. Being gay, Slovakian and an artist from Pittsburgh, he never felt he could storm Hollywood. So he created his own stars, called them superstars, made his own movies and had his own studio. That’s how he dealt with that desire he had to belong, to be immortalised. And there was nothing superficial about his work. It would be easy to dismiss the flowers or soup cans as flippant or ironic, but Andy was never ironic. He said he ate Campbell’s tomato soup every day as a child and an adult. It had huge significance for him.
Andy was very shy. He didn’t like to be touched. He liked to say he was completely asexual, although I don’t think that was true. He liked to be among people, but found it difficult. He said the reason he made his first film—Sleep, about a person who was asleep—was so that he didn’t have to talk or interact with him. It was his way of working with an inanimate object, because the actor was genuinely sleeping.
Andy was doubtless shocked by JFK’s death, but there’s no way he could have identified with Jack, who was too butch and macho. He would have been with Jackie. She becomes the centre of the anguish of the Kennedy assassination. Those works [the Jackie Kennedy silkscreens] are very emotional. Andy became Jackie in the end. He had a tremendous identification with the people he put in his art. He became Elvis, too, and the electric chair.
It’s fitting that this show will be running on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. I think Andy would have thought the attacks an obvious thing to do. The assault on symbols, the way they combined death and disaster—what could have been more Warholian? In his era, it would have been the Empire State Building. He would have understood the symbolism; he would have seen that much more than buildings were being attacked. The images of people jumping out of the buildings—he had already done paintings like that. It was a bizarre prophecy. He was very prophetic and accurate in his understanding of America, of commercialism, of capitalism, of its flaws and strengths.
Interview by Matthew Hays.
• Andy Warhol Supernova: Stars, Deaths and Disasters, 1962-64, curated by David Cronenberg, is at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada, until October 22. Details: 001 416 979 6648 or Ago.net