"Transformer": Bruce Hainley on the wild side.
Take, for example, "Transformer": Aspekte der Travestie," curated by Jean-Christophe Ammann, which ran from mid-March to mid-April 1974 at the Kunstmuseum Luzern, traveled, to Graz and to Bochum, and then, basically, disappeared into a poof of fairy dust. (I've found nothing other than the catalogue to prove the show existed--no ads, no international reviews, although there must have been some local art notices.) Incorporating and inspired by the work of Urs Luthi, Luciano Castelli, Katharina Sieverding, Jurgen Klauke, Werner Alex Meyer, Luigi Ontani, Walter Pfeiffer, Marco, Pierre Molinier, Andrew Sherwood, the Cockettes, Andy Warhol, Brian Eno, Mick Jagger, the New York Dolls, and David Bowie, the show charted a drag zone between the masculine and feminine, a "between" it complicated and allegorized by mixing glam rock into the context of art. The catalogue's uncredited cover photo shows clothes hung on hooks: on the left, jeans, a plaid flannel shirt, a hat, and a pair of cowboy boots sprawled beneath; on the right, a shimmering silk frock, furs, and translucent sling-backs. It looks sexy. Is that the look of Pop?
While the affect and look of the catalogue owe much to Warhol (his astonishing Moderna Museet book meets early Interview), the title of the show was appropriated, of course, from Lou Reed's second solo album. Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, Transformer was released at the end of 1972. The album's first single. "Walk on the Wild Side," was a Top 20 hit by Valentine's Day, 1973. Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, 'Iil Joe Dallesandro, and the Sugar Plum Fairy sexed up the air waves (the verse about Candy Darling, who "never lost her head / even when she was giving head," was removed for the US release) around the time the Loud family imploded on television. By the end of the year, the American Psychiatric Association depathologized homosexuality. Hit me with a flower.
"Transformer" was a key early show for many of the artists--some of whom are still prominent names (Luthi, around whom the exhibition focused; Ontani; and Sieverding, the only woman--or is that "woman"?--included, who made a key early work entitled Transformer, which would provide the name for a show curated by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin in Paris nearly thirty years later). Others--like Dutch artist Marco, a photographer of cool. Scavullo-ish, disco-ready guys in various stages of undress--flared brightly here, and then, to the best of my knowledge, well, who knows? (Maybe he now does spreads for Butt.) The first big show for Pfeiffer, it was the second major exhibition of Molinier's photos, which retained all their negligee eeriness. Pfeiffer presented pictures of a fetching lad named Carlo: In one shot he smiles, his juicy lips and broad nose hypnotizing; in the remaining shots he has transformed himself, quietly soignee, into a silkily groomed glamour-puss, looking like Monica Vitti's little sister. Most intense is when he appears in full makeup but topless, his skinny smooth boyness exuding its natural girl potential. The images proved memorable enough for Pfeiffer to include Carlo pix in his infamous first book. Walter Pfeiffer (1970-1980).
Even more than it was about drag, transvestism, or disrupting gender's biological imperative. "Transformer" can be seen to observe the range of selves that appear in self-portraiture, questioning the self's modes of appearing and disappearing, often simultaneously--and, thus, looking ahead to "Pictures" artists (Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince) and even to identity-based art. Perhaps Sieverding makes this clearest when she states in the catalogue: "The conquest of another sex takes place first in oneself." The '70s weren't called the Me Decade for nothing. "Transformer" tested the transformative potential of looking beyond and between "popular culture" and "art"; it dressed its investigation in the extravagances of the queen and butch, looking beyond and between the masculine and feminine.
To place his show in a tradition. Ammann name-checks an idiosyncratic array of, well, what to call them, cultural exemplars of a transgender aesthetic? from Greek myth to Balzac, Strindberg, Genet, Gore Vidal. Duchamp, and Kafka. What is curious is that there is no mention of Franz Gertsch, Fassbinder, John Waters, Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, or Mario Montez; even stranger, given his interest in the rupture of the popular, there's no mention of Elvis Presley. Some Like It Hot, Liberace, gay rocker Jobriath, or trailblazing autopornographer Peter Berlin.
"Transformer" acknowledges Warhol explicitly (Candy Darling in the poster for Women in Revolt, along with many pictures of Jackie Curtis and some of Holly Woodlawn, glitters among the catalogue's illustrations). Ammann takes Warhol's lead by attempting to deal with Andy's expansion and interrogation of, as well as his indifference to, "art" and its proper parameters--those of the museum (a task doomed to failure). It's not odd that he should turn to Warhol's film work, since it's there where these issues are questioned most thoroughly.
Last night I rewatched Warhol, David Bailey's 1972 documentary, and Hedy, or The Fourteen Year Old Girl, or The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, or The Shoplifter, a film Warhol and Ronald Tavel concocted after news broke in late January 1966 that Hedy Lamarr had been arrested for shoplifting at Bullock's on Wilshire Boulevard. Tavel and others wax a bit auteurist, making much of Warhol being behind the camera for Hedy; given the paradoxically swish wristed yet iron-willed automatonism of Warhol's aesthetic, I'm not sure Warhol's eye behind the lensing is the point (he "produced" the first Velvet Underground album by doing nothing, which is a way of saying, by insisting that no one interfered with what they wished to sound like). It's neither the first film in which you can sense Warhol's presence nor the last: Similar wallflower camerawork radicalizes More Milk Yvette aka Lana Turner and Screen Test #2 (all three movies share some of the same performers; all three star the dazzling Montez). When the camera gets bored with the Hedy goings-on, it drifts to the ceiling, looks at shoes, zooms in on darkness, or traces smoke rings in the air, italicizing their rhyme with the curls in Montez's "hair." To get a department-store atmosphere, Warhol and crew picked up used furniture from the Albert Einstein Institute's thrift shop two floors above the Factory.
I bring up Hedy to point out that by 1966, Pop, so-called, is at its white light white heat, perhaps beginning to burn out, but what it produced, what it unleashed, had yet to be fully considered. The movie's overwhelming questions, its rapt attention to its own strange proceedings are only made more berserk by the fact that invading and infecting and transforming the shoot was the warped feedback and sonic bleed of a practice session by the Velvet Underground (who are never seen in the film). Just when it is difficult to think that the attention being given to Montez couldn't get any more engrossing, there's an electronic wail of outer space, of audio otherness, to discombobulate any surety of what exactly is going on, being represented, or deranging the various time continua referenced. The disruptive Velvet howl bleeds between and messily connects the retro, has-been-ness of Hedy Lamarr's stardom, Montez's thrifted glamour, and why Warhol should find it fascinating now. Is Hedy Pop? And if it is not Pop, what should it be called? Minimalism won't work, neither will Conceptualism; it isn't so much an issue of nomenclature as one of ontology. Hedy shows price-tagged commodities and people moving around them, suggesting that something about the self or art is up for sale, it's just that the price tag--unlike the one on Minnie Pearl's hat--isn't visible, the body not (yet) bar-coded. Hollywood stars had always performed, flagrantly at times, the worth of their being, and the taxing nature of such work. It's only one thing--but also one of the most insistent--that Warhol's camera observed, with the sublime assistance of Montez and Mary Woronov and Jack Smith (all confusing and transforming notions of performance and engendering): Anyone at times performs this, capitalism's kleptomania, its ability to consume. Warhol by no means stops this action--he may, given amphetamine, even speed up the process--but he also inverts it by demonstrating that it is the business of art to represent such economics and to steal things back. With Smith inhabiting, simultaneously, the role of doctor, juror, and witness at Hedy's trial (he even speaks the film's last words--"She was noble and tragic ..."--about Hedy? Andy? himself?), Warhol presented one of his sternest critics as remedy, judge, and witness to such economic and cultural exchange--and no matter how attenuating and obtuse Smith's presence at any such Factory proceedings, Warhol's gaze observed Smith, whatever his critical trash dissidence, as participant in the play.
What remains of pop after Pop? of Pop after Pop?
I look around and things bleed, between the known and the unknown. Pop bleeds.
Eno: "I am interested that there are things in me for which I have no explanation, and which I observe with complete surprise. I am interested to make a point about the way artists think about their work. In rock music, it is definitely unfashionable to analyze your own work. It is considered detrimental to it to reveal that there is any detached intellectual interest in it. In the fine arts, on the other hand, it seems now to be considered absolutely essential to be able to rationalize your work and to be able to establish it firmly and importantly as an idea in a tradition of ideas, and, concomitant to this, to deny that there was ever any emotional or intuitive motivation in it. I would like to suggest that both these forms of snobbery are irrelevant and, at worst, quite dangerous to development. My personal view, more difficult to follow than to state, is that one uses all one has, and one follows whatever part of oneself happens, at that instant, to be moving, be it the brain or the intuition. It is a typically Western shortcoming to want to separate the organism into different and independent sections--the rational brain, the intuitive mind, the receptive body--and to want to elevate one or other of them as being more significant than the others. Coupled with this view is the idea that the visual element of a performance is merely an addition to the 'important' issue--the music, an addition made for basically 'trivial' reasons, such as commerciality or fashion (as though either of those considerations are trivial)."
One of the other shows that Ammann had curated for the Kunstmuseum, opening on the same night as "Transformer," was "Robert Barry (Works from 1968 to 1973)." Consider the juxtaposition--spidery, glittering excess (seemingly) versus spare immaterial gestures--as an allegory for the situation of Pop after pop. Both at the same time: the inextricability: just because one can understand seeing both at the same time doesn't mean that it isn't still illegible.
Juxtapose Eno's statement (the conclusion of a letter addressed to Ammann published in the catalogue to "Transformer") with statements by Robert Barry:
I use the unknown because it's the occasion for possibilities, and because it's more real than anything else (1969). For any new truth that you discover for yourself, you have to discard some favored old belief (1972).
Were they in search of the same? The unknown? Whatever's moving? Some new being or belief?
Late in his career, Heidegger wrote "Time and Being," an essay in which he performed a seemingly shocking make-over of Being and Time. As intrepid Heidegger scholar and translator Joan Stambaugh puts it, the "'concepts' have undergone a profound change without, however, relinquishing their initial fundamental intention." Heidegger begins his lecture reminding his audience that no one expects pictures to be "immediately intelligible," and neither is "the thinking called philosophy." Near the end of his lecture, he states:
True, as we look through Being itself, through time itself, and look into the destiny of Being and the extending of time-space, we have glimpsed what 'Appropriation' means. But do we by this road arrive at anything else than a mere thought-construct? Behind this suspicion there lurks the view that Appropriation must after all 'be' something. However: Appropriation neither is, nor is Appropriation there. To say the one or the other is equally a distortion of the matter, just as if we wanted to derive the source from the river. What remains to be said? Only this: Appropriation appropriates. Saying this, we say the Same in terms of the Same about the Same. To all appearances, all this says nothing. It does indeed say nothing so long as we hear a mere sentence in what was said, and expose that sentence to the cross- examination of logic. But what if we take what was said and adopt it unceasingly as the guide for our thinking, and consider that this Same is not even anything new, but the oldest of the old in Western thought: that ancient something which conceals itself in a-letheia? That which is said before all else by this first source of all the leitmotifs of thinking gives voice to a bond that binds all thinking, providing that thinking submits to the call of what must be thought.
The question of Pop After Pop may be little different than the question of Pop Before Pop. Heidegger's thinking walks on the wild side in the "Transformer"/Barry juxtaposition: between's glamour and unknown appropriating each other.
Carry this one thought further by thinking "Transformer" into relation with appropriation art, so-called, to photographs becoming pictures--the artist rock 'n' rollers appropriating the otherness of gender, which exists within each self; the otherness of art, which exists already within the popular (and vice versa)--as a way of revealing the eroticism girding Appropriation. Such erotic transference might have played itself out unconsciously a few years later: On February 5, 1977, Robert Mapplethorpe had dual shows in New York--at Holly Solomon for his portraits and such and at the Kitchen for his spicier forays into the explicit. For his announcement, Mapplethorpe doubled his identically posed hand writing the word "Pictures" on a piece of paper with a fountain pen. For the Solomon show, he was attired in a spruce, striped dress shirt and Cartier tank watch; racier, for the Kitchen, he sported a black leather glove and studded wristband. In the fall of that year, at Artists Space, Douglas Crimp would hang his show "Pictures." Both were a question of how pictures could be used and where and in what context they would appear. Implicitly and explicitly, Mapplethorpe's show raised questions of class--even of "classiness"--where art and its other (?) could appear, where and how it would be allowed to transform its own borders to issue the pornographic, the perverse: bilocational, it performed it once over twice. While "Transformer" would seem to privilege a masculine appropriation of the feminine, it is equally fascinated with a masculine appropriation of masculinity--both appropriations as a way of tapping into the unknown, the imaginary, neither is nor there. Dressed up in different masculine gear, Mapplethorpe underwrote such appropriation as erotic and sexual; but like Warhol before him, he shot it all through the lens of faggotry.
A faggotry that dies, perhaps not exactly because of but around the same time as Warhol.
The glittery trash aesthetic of "Transformer" steals--appropriates--from glam rock every bit as much as it does from "art." Where the artists, so-called, silently visualize such transformations, the rockers also strut and sing them.
Something breaks up after Pop and becomes either impossible to read or forces new kinds of relations between, say, text, author, and reader (see Foucault, "What Is an Author?"). Warhol's career parallels the rise of poststructuralism, of which his work provides one of the strongest critiques while transforming--and embodying--many of its theories, erasing them into the popular. He proliferated murmuring appropriations. He transformed the Bea Arthur function into a question for everyone to take on.
In Bailey's film, Warhol emphasizes that what's at stake isn't just drag but that the real question was a questioning of the real, its transformations:
Andy: Drag queens, oh, but er the people we use aren't really drag queens because er the drag queen, because drag queens are people who just sort of dress up er, for um, you know, like eight hours a day or something like that. And the kind of people we really use are people who think they er, are, are really girls, and stuff, so I think that's sort of different. David: But why do you use drag queens when you could use the real thing? Andy: Oh I, I like the real thing better too. David: Do you? Andy: Oh ye, I just er, you know, these drag queens carry on and, and, and uh, and er and um, I complain about er, all their problems and stuff and they don't really know what, what girls go through, I mean, they, they've never had a period ... David: But they take those, those pills whatever they're called. Andy: I know but, they've never had a period, they can't really tell. David: Well they could always have it chopped off. Andy: I know but they still won't have a period.
Of course, he says this while in bed with Bailey, talking about his scars, stitches like a Saint-Laurent dress. Andy knew what it was to have a period; Valerie Solanas had made him bleed. He'd survived the question of reality's punctuation rendezvousing with a body. Not really upholding gender categories, he nonetheless insists on life and representation's actual consequences, appropriating (or shoplifting) from one another: They "think they er, are" and "are"; that's "sort of different" and yet not the "real thing." Andy Warhol always tracked the transgendered transformational differences between, bleeding between everything.
Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 2004|
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