The title of John Wilcock’s book The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol (self-published in 1971 and just reissued by Trela Media is somewhat of a misnomer—though in many ways, as Wilcock has attested, that’s the point. The book is not an autobiography (at least not in the traditional sense) nor is it the treatise on Warhol’s famously secretive sex life. It is a document, rather. One that explores the later Silver Factory years (think: films, amphetamine, and the aftermath of a gun-wielding Valerie Solanas) by collecting anecdotes from nearly all of the individuals that comprised the artist’s social and professional orbit at the time. And one that sets the stage for a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, exploring Warhol’s paintings during those later years.
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Wilcock, co-founder of the Village Voice and Warhol’s Interview magazine, gained entrée into the Factory when he started tagging along with his buddy (named Buddy, actually) on then-novel Warhol film shoots. The journalist was intrigued by the emerging milieu. He was more than content to take a fly-on-the-wall post, making himself useful when necessary (holding microphones, getting Edie Sedgwick high), and, as he puts it, keeping his eyes open and his mouth shut.
To a certain degree, it worked. In hanging around, Wilcock soon developed a mild (albeit distant) rapport with the artist. Warhol was never really one for questions—his passive responses would generally just throw it right back atcha—but he also didn’t seem to mind having inquisitive types around so long as they knew when and what to keep to themselves. Eventually, Wilcock realized that what he couldn’t get out of Warhol himself he could, perhaps, get out of some of these characters on the periphery.
Watch a clip of one of Warhol’s sexually experimental films
Wilcock made a wish-list. He compiled the names of superstars, collaborators, art dealers, and friends that might help fill some of the biographical gaps that Warhol seemed to relish in (his precise date of birth, for example, or why film? Why now?). People like the poet and longtime Factory worker Gerard Malanga, art dealer Leo Castelli, friend/confidante Brigid Polk, superstar Viva, and the Velvet Underground’s Nico and Lou Reed were critical to piecing together a fuller narrative; screenwriter Ronnie Tavel, Factory manager Fred Hughes, and director Paul Morrissey could lend insight into the films themselves; and the sculptor Marisol, Eleanor Ward of the Stable Gallery, and onetime Met curator Henry Geldzahler might help round things out with a slightly more removed perspective. The interviews are presented alphabetically and, it seems, in their entirety.
There are, of course, some notable exclusions. The poet John Giorno (who’s never been shy about the fact that he did, actually, sleep with Andy Warhol… Goggle it, drag queens Jackie Curits and Candy Darling, and superstars Billy Name, Ondine, and Baby Jane Holzer. But Wilcock does try to squeeze the most out of his subjects, grilling them, particularly, on Warhol’s new film obsession and whether or not they think he’s making any serious contributions to the field. (The current show at the Brooklyn Museum, titled Andy Warhol: The Last Decade and on view through September 12, more or less picks up where Wilcock leaves off. By the late-1970s Warhol starts painting again—quite well, actually—and continues to do so until his death in 1987.)
While it may not be the focus of the book (as advertised) sex does, indeed, crop up from time to time. And we do see where Wilcock was going with the title. The fact is that historically, art and sex have long been intertwined, particularly when dealing with the avant-garde. From Schiele to Kirchner to Picasso to Tracey Emin, it’s never been terribly shocking to see an artist’s own sex life make its way into his or her work. But with Warhol, it’s different. The artist was notoriously secretive about his sex life, something many tend to attribute to repressed homosexuality and a religious Catholic upbringing. It seems more complicated than that, though. As Wilcock writes, “Even after all these years, I could not say to you with certainty Andy Warhol is homosexual because I no longer even know what the definition of that word is.”
People knew that Warhol took lovers—young, pretty boys for the most part. He was turned on by "anything that is delinquent, perverse."
People knew that Warhol took lovers—young, pretty boys for the most part, and, as the writer Charles Henry Ford says, he was turned on by “anything that is delinquent, perverse.” But the artist seems to have struggled with intimacy. It’s Ford who dishes the most on Warhol’s sexual escapades and it’s Ford who claims that Warhol approached sex in the same automaton-like way that he approached art. “He doesn’t like to take his pants off or for anybody to touch him,” Ford says. “He likes to be kind of machine-like, emotionless.”
The films are sexually explicit in a way that the Marilyns, the Liz Taylors (one of which is expected to fetch $11 million at auction next week, the Brillo boxes, and the disaster scenes never were and never aspired to be—and they could be the closest we’ll ever come to seeing Warhol’s intimate side in action. With Warhol behind the lens, superstars hop in bed together; they kiss, sleep, smoke, and flit around their apartments wearing little more than their skivvies; they simulate blowjobs, gang rapes, sex. The films are about voyeurism, fear, vulnerability, control, and, perhaps even, a more personal sort of expression as we the viewer see this all unfold from the exact same vantage point as the artist himself. The mass production we see in the early work is notably absent—nothing is repeated, nothing is “Pop.” Even the nonsexual films start to take on acutely sexual undertones. Empire, for example, is an unobstructed shot of the New York City landmark. But eight hours and 16 reels of 16mm film later, this phallic behemoth starts to feel like a stand-in for the artist himself. As Ford told Wilcock, “What a lot of people can do in sex, only Andy does in art.”
Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer and editor who has covered art for New York, ARTnews, and Manhattan.