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Oh, the spectacle of it all

Andy Warhol's Interview Best of the First Decade 1969-1979 Edited by Sandra J. Brant and Ingrid Sischy Edition 7L/Steidl: seven volumes, $475

April 24, 2005|Gary Indiana | Gary Indiana's latest book "Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt" will be released in June.

Andy WARHOL'S particular genius turned American culture inside out, but the artist was no more able to manipulate the fluctuations of his market than any other artist. He understood better than others, though, how to spread his influence and cachet into every crevice of the art market and beyond it, and anticipated the posthumous salability of any speck of his residue. He had his junk mail, receipts and all the other ephemera that appeared each day boxed and dated and stored away as "time capsules," which are already being marketed; he made recordings of all his telephone calls (when he put the phone down to "go pee," you could hear him turning the micro-cassette over in his answering machine); and he collected everything from precious jewels to ceramic cookie jars.

The man who wanted "Figment" inscribed on his tombstone cannily saw to it that the merest fragment of this figment would be worth money to somebody, and it was. It is. An Andy Warhol electric bill has, if anything, the opposite of aesthetic quality. His German counterpart, Joseph Beuys, and his French precursor, Marcel Duchamp, could make anything valuable by signing it -- a cigar, a bottle of wine. Warhol merely took the formality of the signature out of the equation, as well as the procedure of reifying singular objects among the litter that passed through his ken to become "art." He saw that he could simply put what most people toss in the garbage into a storage box and time would turn it into something better than art, i.e., a lucrative commodity.

Yet one of Warhol's most whimsically brilliant products, Interview magazine, was designed not only to illustrate the transient focus of celebrity but also was deliberately printed on paper stock chosen for its rapid disintegration. Warhol liked the idea that his magazine would be as ephemeral as celebrity itself. Like Warhol's art, Interview operated as a filter through which the entire contents of American culture could be squeezed and transformed into something prized for its banality rather than its specialness. Initially, Interview seemed to function the opposite way, making instant celebrities out of nobodies, but the reverse procedure was an integral corollary to Warhol's subversion of the status quo.

Inevitably, this experiment in cultural leveling has been preserved, like the manifestos and working papers of some prodigious revolutionary undertaking, its first decade packaged as a boxed set commemorating the magazine's 35th anniversary.

Interview's early issues were filled with sloppily transcribed, often idiotic yet fascinating interviews, usually conducted during restaurant lunches, with Warhol's coterie and the "real" celebrities who popped up at the Factory or ventured into Warhol's lair in the back room of Max's Kansas City. The transcriptions were verbatim, as if produced by a slightly dyslexic court stenographer, and had a winning throwaway charm: the bizarro version of Photoplay. No subject off limits, no naughty language snipped out, Interview extended the technique of Warhol's novel "A," a transcribed tape recording of one peripatetic day Warhol spent with his superstar Ondine, who was high as a weather balloon on amphetamine and never stopped talking.

Interview, for at least six of the 10 years covered in this boxed set, managed to be tawdry chic, urbane and genuinely revealing in ways no gossip rag had ever been. It lacked any pretension, and its interview subjects reveled in mocking themselves and prattling on about the most pedestrian aspects of their lives. The interviewers often made that easy by pouring treacly endearments and flattery over them, steering attention to some object in the room or the look of a passing waiter.

Some interviewees were unbudgingly articulate, intelligent, resistant to the blandishments of small talk -- George Cukor, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Anna Karina and many others. And some of the interviewers -- Victor Bockris, Glenn O'Brien, Joan Juliet Buck, R. Couri Hay, Bob Colacello -- had the skill and subtlety to draw from them flashes of devilish wit and astute observation, as well as delicious gossip. Even interviewers inclined to drollery and innuendo in their taped encounters sometimes demonstrated a high aptitude for sly, aphoristic shrewdness, among them Candy Darling, Tinkerbelle, Susan Blond. The magazine's jumble of eccentricity, cultural sophistication, hedonistic candor and extremely diverse personalities -- and the sloppiness, too -- made Interview fun to read, back when quite a few magazines were fun to read (as almost none, including Interview, are today).

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