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Dylan, Warhol, and Elvis, 1965. Photo: Nat Finkelstein.

Another Side of Andy Warhol

Warhol Live: Music and Dance in Andy Warhol's Work

at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts

By Robert Stalker

In August, 1966, at the RLA studios on West 65th St., NYC, The Velvet Underground, the now-legendary art rock band produced by Andy Warhol from 1966-67, made their first recording, a track entitled “Noise.”  Also present that day, making his debut as a recording artist with a piece entitled “Silence,” was none other than Warhol himself.  Wait.  Warhol?  a musician?  Well, of a sort.   Neither of these tracks--both comprised of “found” sounds such as recorded bits of conversations and other clatter--amounts to what listeners unfamiliar with, say, early Steve Reich, would recognize as music.  Nevertheless, while long recognized as a kind of rock star in the art world, Warhol's direct involvement in actually making music of his own will perhaps come as something of a revelation to visitors of the current eye--and ear--opening exhibit Warhol Live at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, a traveling, multi-media exhibit devoted to exploring the Pop artist's abiding interest in, and interaction with, music and dance.   

Originating from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and comprised of paintings, silkscreens, sculpture, photographs, album covers, films, and documents from Warhol's personal archive,Warhol Live encourages new ways of approaching Warhol's immense artistic output.  As the pair of recordings cited above suggests, one such approach is through the concepts of noise and silence, two interrelated preoccupations that Warhol shared with many other mid-century avant-garde artists.  “John Cage uses graffiti noise in his pieces and Merce Cunningham uses everyday noise in his dance,” Warhol once told Factory “superstar” Ultra Violet.  Despite his notorious evasiveness and reserve, Warhol himself seemed to revel in, and draw tremendous inspiration from, noise.  When Ivan Karp, then manager of the Castelli gallery, first visited Warhol's studio in 1961, he remembers all conversation having been drowned out by Warhol's incessant repetition, at ear-splitting levels, of a single pop recording on the turntable.  We might simply chalk this incident up to Warhol's defense against his shyness (which, in part, it certainly was) were it not for the fact that similar episodes corroborate Warhol's fascination with noise.  In his memoir Popism (1980) (written with Pat Hackett), Warhol recounts that while at work in his studio Billy Linich and Ondine (“the most interesting person I met during the sixties”) would play opera recordings while Warhol himself simultaneously played top forty radio, the arias and pop hooks colliding and overlapping.  Similarly, Walter Hopps, who would give Warhol his first one-person show at his Ferus Gallery in L.A. in 1962, remembered that when he first visited the artist's home, the living room floor “was just awash with endless fanzines and magazines, pulp stuff, fashion magazines, movie stuff,” a kind of visual noise that littered the already boisterous décor of Warhol's house, with its barbershop pole, gumball machine, and carousel horses.

Andy Warhol, Triple Elvis, 1963. The Fisher Collection, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

As everyone well knows, Warhol derived the subject matter of his work--soup cans, pin-ups, tabloid sheets--from just the kind of visual noise Hopps observed at Warhol's apartment.  But, as this exhibit's focus on Warhol's dialogue with important movements in music and dance helps us to see, the interplay of noise and silence became a constitutive part of his most compelling art. For example, Warhol's silkscreen portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and Liza Minnelli, examples of which punctuate a gallery devoted to “Hollywood,” play silence and noise off one another by ironically fixing these singing, dancing movie stars in silence and stasis while the very silkscreen process used to do so unavoidably generates its own kind of noise.  Warhol's Triple Elvis (1963), for example, a large silver and black painting in silkscreen, silver paint, and spray paint, incorporates a publicity shot of Elvis from the Western Flaming Star, sent to Warhol as a postcard by his friend Charles Henri Ford. (The original postcard is also on display for comparison.)  Originally done for Warhol's second show at L.A.'s Ferus Gallery (September, 1963), Warhol's Triple Elvis presents an image of the entertainer, costumed in cowboy attire, pistol drawn as he strikes a rather stagy macho pose.  The frozenness of the actor, combined with the absolute lack of any background imagery, creates an eerie silence and uncanniness while the silk-screening technique, aside from mimicking the assembly-line technique of the Hollywood machine, allowed Warhol to introduce repetition and chance techniques similar to that of John Cage and La Monte Young.  Working in series, with this particular image done in triplicate, Warhol's silkscreen process necessarily introduced subtle variations and “imperfections” in the images, the clogged paint in the screen leaving behind its own kind of noise in the form of splotches and unexpected pools of paint, a consequence of the process that Warhol claimed to favor.  As Warhol Live suggests, this subtle play on repetition and the interrogation of the very definition of noise places Warhol in the company of minimalist composers such as Young, Tony Conrad, and John Cale, figures with whom Warhol would collaborate.  

Warhol Live adds another layer to the Warhol mystique by suggesting just how enmeshed Warhol was in the New York avant-garde of the 1960s, not only actively contributing to the worlds of music and dance, but also bringing back from the most advanced aspects of these worlds ideas that he incorporated into his own work.  For example, the exhibit offers a room containing a half-dozen of Warhol's floating Mylar Silver Clouds, which Merce Cunningham used for the set in his production of Rainforest (1968), with excerpts from the film of the production by D.A. Pennebaker screened on a small TV. Exiting the room of Silver Clouds we come across Warhol's wonderful silkscreen portrait of Cunningham (1963) performing the 1958 dance piece Antic Meet.  Warhol's somewhat surprising interest in dance and classical music are explored in a gallery devoted to “Classical Taste” where the artist's early illustrations for Opera News and Dance Magazine already betray a penchant for repetition and serial imagery.  The adjoining gallery devoted to “Andy's Jukebox” illustrates how Warhol brought some of these ideas into the mainstream with his album covers.  The now-iconic “Peel-and-see” cover of The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) and The Stones' zipper cover for Sticky Fingers (1971) are among the first “interactive” album covers, while the grid of polaroids framed to resemble 35 millimeter slides Warhol did for John Cale's The Academy in Peril (1972) (music from which served as the soundtrack for the Warhol-produced 1972 Paul Morrissey film Heat) not only bears a family resemblance to the cover of Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations (1955), a cover Warhol undoubtedly would have known, but also mimics the serial structures of the album's compositions, an approach to music that Cale first began to develop in the mid-sixties with Young, Tony Conrad, and Angus Maclise. 

Andy Warhol, You're In, 1967. Courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.

It was precisely Warhol's interest in serial imagery that provoked Cale's misgivings when he first visited the Factory.  “When I first saw Andy' Coke bottles, Brillo pads and repetitive imagery,” he told Ultra Violet, “for a long time I was very suspicious because I had it confused in my mind with sustained tones, which is exactly what we'd done in La Monte's music.”  Cale refers here to the extraordinarily groundbreaking work he did in collaboration with La Monte Young, Tony Conrad (violin), Angus Maclise (percussion), and Marian Zazeela (voice) in the ensemble calledTheater of Eternal Music (alternatively known as The Dream Syndicate).  Devoted to exploring what we'd now call minimalist serial compositions, such as the virtuosic Day of Niagara (1965), the artists would experiment with holding a single note for as long as two hours, Cale having strung his electric viola with guitar strings to achieve a drone he remembers as having “sounded like a jet-engine.” As these galleries help to show, the serial drone compositions of these artists find, just as Cale suspected, their visual analogue in Warhol's series of disaster paintings such asWhite Burning Car III, a photo of a horrific auto accident repeated five times with the lower right-hand corner of the canvas left blank, and sculptures such as You're in (1967), a case of Coke bottles painted silver, giving Jonas Mekas's description of Warhol as “an orchestra conductor of extreme possibilities” new resonance.  But the exhibit and informative accompanying catalogue suggest the likelihood that Warhol derived his serial imagery not, as Cale suspected, from La Monte Young but from an inspiration both coincidentally shared--the early twentieth-century composer and granddaddy of minimalism Erik Satie, whose Vexations, 840 repetitions on piano lasting some eighteen hours, was presented by John Cage on September 8th and 9th at the Pocket Theater in New York--with Warhol in attendance for the entire performance.  

Satie's Vexations and, even more immediately, Yvonne Rainer's dance piece Sleep, which Warhol attended at the Judson Memorial Church in April, 1963, had a direct impact on Warhol's films, the first of which, Sleep, a six-hour black-and-white film of John Giorno sleeping, Warhol undertook only a month after having attended Rainer's performance.   In this context, it's tempting even to see a connection between Warhol's films and avant-garde music and dance in the title Warhol gave to the installments of his film Kiss that he screened at the Film-Makers Cinematheque--“Andy Warhol's Serial.”  More likely, Warhol was referring to old movie serials that were shown one episode at a time when he introduced Kiss under this series title, the film a clever mockery of Hayes Office restrictions on the duration on-screen kissing.  Nevertheless, examples of what Pamela Lee has called “durational exercises,” Sleep and the notorious eight hour Empire (1964), both on view in the exhibit as excerpts, share obvious affinities with the minimalist compositions of Young and Cale whose single note drones were designed in part to test the audience's patience and attentiveness, while also, once again, playing noise and silence off one another.  (As Warhol would later emphasize, Empire, containing nothing but a shot of the Empire State Building from sundown to sunup, was, ironically, his first sound film.) Also on view in the exhibit is a partial recreation of Warhol's NY Film Festival Installation 1964, which included such films as EatKiss, and Hair Cut, and for which he commissioned La Monte Young to compose a musical accompaniment.  Young contributed “Composition 1960 no. 9,” but withdrew it when asked by an official to lower the volume, silence finally replacing what some bureaucrat clearly thought of as noise.   

Andy Warhol, Jacket for The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967.

Warhol Live treats us to Warhol's more direct involvement with music by featuring a recording, never before available to the public, of songs by The Druds, the short-lived “pop” band Warhol formed with Lucas Samaras, Larry Poons, Walter de Maria, Patty Oldenburg, and La Monte Young (with lyrics by Jasper Johns!).  With Warhol singing about Coca-Cola and movie stars, this avant-pop noise-rock band sounds a bit like the contemporaneous Henry Flynt and the Insurrections or even The Primitives, the band that featured the first collaboration of Lou Reed and John Cale, who would soon form The Velvet Underground. Taking their name from Michael Leigh's exposé of the sexual underground that Cale found lying around the apartment he shared with Tony Conrad, the band, with Warhol as producer, would become one of the most innovative and influential bands in the history of rock.   

Introduced to The Velvet Underground through Barbara Rubin, a friend of Jonas Mekas, Warhol produced the band's first album (adding to the line-up the model-turned-chanteuse Nico) and designed its now-famous cover.  Songs such as “Venus in Furs,” “Heroin,” and “All Tomorrow's Parties,” aside from featuring new and challenging lyrical subject matter, introduced Cale's droning electric viola, bringing an avant-garde cachet to the band.  Warhol created around the band the multi-media happening known as “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” which premiered on 8 April, 1966 at the Dom on St. Marks place, featuring films, Gerard Malanga's infamous “whip dance,” and light projections.  The galleries of Warhol Live feature Warhol's screen tests of the Velvets, Lou Reed's written  music for “I'm Waiting for my Man,” pages from Andy Warhol's Index and even a single room, separated off from the exhibit by drapery, containing a sizeable and quite comfortable bed swaddled with pillows, devoted to replicating, with recordings of The Velvets accompanied by trippy slide and film projections, what in 1966 a L.A. Times critic described as the “Disco-Flicka-Theque” of the EPI experience.   

Shortly after their sophomore  release, White Light/White Heat (1968), Cale left the Velvets and the band went on to release a couple more exceptionally good, but no longer strictly speaking avant-garde, rock albums.  And Warhol, judging from the later work presented in Warhol Live, remained quite interested in music and dance, but fell into, to borrow a phrase from Geoff Dyer, a kind of “self-karaoke,” producing silkscreen portraits of celebrities such as Mick Jagger, Truman Capote, and Paul Anka that mysteriously lack the kick of the Marilyns, Elvises, Liz Taylors. Perhaps because the galleries devoted to Warhol's sixties work are so well done, or perhaps because the exhibit's chronological layout moves us from what Wayne Koestenbaum has characterized as the “real” Andy to the “posthumous” Andy (the work following his recovery--if he ever did recover--from Valerie Solanas's attempt to assassinate him), the two remaining galleries, devoted to fame, glitterati, and the Studio 54 scene, feel drastically less compelling.  But the galleries devoted to the early work are more than worth the price of admission, giving us ample evidence of Warhol's important and sustained dialogue with the music and dance of the twentieth of century.


Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer. 

Warhol Live, a traveling exhibition, was organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada, where it showed from 25 September, 2008 - January 18, 2009. It then traveled to the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It was on exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville from 24 June - 11 September 2011.