Friday, August 26, 2011

Andy Warhol and Cemetery Photography

I’m taking a break from the deep philosophical and historically riveting cemetery-related blogs I’ve been writing. This one’s just a throwaway. I’m only thinking of you, dear reader. The intensity of all that revelation is far too much for the human mind to bear on a constant basis. No doubt you’ve already achieve Satori (Buddhist enlightenment) from reading The Cemetery Traveler. Were I to continue at this pace, you would most certainly reach Nirvana, and then there would be no reason for you to go on living. And we just can’t have that. I can’t handle the responsibility.

That said, I wouldn't have had the following experience if I didn't do cemetery photography. So here I am, gallery-sitting, staring at an empty gallery with about fifty pieces of artwork on the wall. Well, empty except for me and the artwork. And the cat. Potential customers are not about to leave their air-conditioned homes and come out in this Saturday afternoon heat for sparkling water and cheese doodles. 

For this month-long show entitled “Then and Now,” at Philadelphia’s DaVinci Art Alliance, each member is expected to sit the gallery for a few hours. Two of the fifty pieces in the show are my photographs, the ones you see below. Though only five of the fifty pieces are photos, no one's complaining – photographs are acceptable art here at DaVinci. The management has a fabulous all-inclusive philosophy, which allows up-and-coming artists (working in all media) to get public exposure. Granted, this is easier for private galleries to do than it is for commercial ones, as the continued existence of the former is driven by grants while that of the latter is driven by sales.

My rationale for submitting these two pieces under the theme “Then and Now” initially brought to mind an Andy Warhol quote: “Art is what you can get away with.” But a little pondering made them fit rather nicely:

Then” is 1956, when the city of Philadelphia tore up Monument Cemetery so that Temple University could build a parking lot – thousands of headstones were dumped into the Delaware River to be used as riprap. (Link)

Now” is Philadelphia’s Mt. Moriah Cemetery, abandoned and currently in danger of a similar fate. (Link)

Nico, the gallery cat, wanders in after the first hour and strangely starts to jump up the wall at the skull. Most of the other work in the exhibit is less morbid than mine. As the only three people to appear during my shift wander around at hour deux, I think of this great line a friend once came up with. You say it as you peer thoughtfully at any piece of art work, when you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about. You say, “It’s strangely sexual, yet somehow it reminds me of death…” Applies to anything and everything.

Deb Miller, Ray, and Ed
And speaking of everything, I had a very serendipitous encounter at the opening reception for this show a few weeks ago. I noticed this guy wearing a tee shirt with a Warhol-type design of Edie Sedgwick (one of Warhol’s actresses in his films). I asked him what that was all about, as I didn’t remember Warhol having made such a silk-screen design. He told me that when he and his wife were going through the Warhol archives doing research for a book with Billy Name (Andy’s photographer during the “Factory” period), they happened on the design and so they made a tee-shirt graphic with it. Huh, THAT’S pretty awesome. And why does it say “BILLY NAME” in black hand-written Sharpie letters under the design? “Because he signed it,” was his response.

Okay, now I’m totally confused yet wildly impressed. I was about to ask why he had such access to the Warhol archives but I thought I’d be prying, so I said, “I bought a copy of the Billy Name book some years ago when he was at a local book store signing copies.” He said, “Rizzoli BookStore on Walnut.” That’s odd, why would he remember that? Was he some sort of Superfan? I mean, that was 1994, for god’s sake – sixteen years ago! Then he added, “My wife wrote that book with Billy.” I said, kind of stupidly, “Who’s your wife?”Deb Miller,” he replied,” the president of DaVinci Art Alliance. She’s over there. Let me introduce you.”

Turns out Dr. Miller is an art historian, professor, and author. I feel like a total doofus, as Ray, her husband, tells her I have her book. Which I have never even opened, as I had purchased it as a gift for my brother. Other than the fact that I was familiar with Name’s work as the “Factory Fotographer” (meaning he documented all the goings-on of the Warhol “Superstars”), I really didn’t know much about him. I did tell her I would borrow the book and read it, which I did soon after. People associate Andy Warhol with photography mainly from his Polaroid photos of celebrities, but he actually spent much more time behind a Super-8 movie camera as director and cinematographer of dozens of his own movies. He assigned the task of documenting the stars and sets to Billy Name, having given him a Pentax 35mm camera (which is the camera I started with, coincidentally, back in 1976). 

Our conversation ended with a discussion of Pittsburgh’s fabulous Warhol Museum and finally The Factory, and the interesting description of it by Patti Smith in her book, Just Kids (about her life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe). To my surprise, neither Ray nor Debra had gotten to read it so I promised to loan it to them (and I later delivered). I was kind of surprised to have so much in common with a pair of total strangers. Small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.

When I finally got my hands on my brother's copy of the book, Billy Name – Stills from the Warhol Films, I was pleasantly surprised to find that both Billy Name and Deb Miller had signed it. Why was I surprised? I mean, I was there, wasn’t I? Well, no. This is one of the things I was uncomfortable talking with Ray and Deb about – I told them I bought the book at the signing, but I didn’t tell them I wasn’t actually there!

The reason the book (which is intensely researched and fabulously written, by the way) stands out in my mind is because when I found out when the signing was to take place, I knew I would be out of town. I wanted to get a signed copy for my brother as a Christmas present. So I went to Rizzoli’s (which is no longer there), bought a copy, and asked the manager if he could please get it signed for me. He graciously agreed. I really was bummed not to be there, but such is life. My burning question to him a week later when I picked up the book was, “What was the crowd like?” His reply? “A lot of chains and black leather.”

The DaVinci Art Alliance is hosting an upcoming juried exhibit, “Warholized,” which I plan to enter. Awards judges will be Madalen and James Warhola, Andy’s niece and nephew. Always something to look forward to. I may enter something like the collage you see at the beginning of this article, which I made about five years ago from my photograph of a cemetery statue.

Further Readings: