Koestenbaum's Warhol is, among so many other things, the Queer Warhol. Despite the artist's famous ambivalence where his public sexual identity was concerned, Koestenbaum demonstrates that Warhol's art (and his life) was as queer as a two-dollar bill. If, as the author suggests, his activist brothers and sisters had little use for Warhol, or he for them, his sexual agon was nonetheless everywhere in the work, though incarnate as art it remained as fraught and problematicóin short, as true to the society he so exactingly mirroredóas everything he did. As in each aspect of Warhol's life, Koestenbaum charts his subject's torments and redemptions with empathy and nuance. He lets the ambivalence breathe.
Still, despite the generosity of his account, Koestenbaum, in hitching his poetry to Warhol's star, reveals a certain artistic animus. I may be overreading hereóthough one could say the book invites itóbut, in the author's face-off with the artist, the reader feels, if not the ties that "bind the not-famous to the famous" (our predicament, in Koestenbaum's phrasing), or even the almost famous to the famous, then the ties that bind poet to poetóor better, poet to Pop artist. Warhol must seem a stern, even obliterating, master to a writer who operates at the juncture of pop and art, but Koestenbaum rises to the challenge, catches the artist out in his agony. Language is the battlefield, and much is made of Warhol's probable (if undiagnosed) dyslexia, of his general discomfort with words. One can't help but crack a tiny smile at the faintly overdetermined repeat appearances of Truman Capoteóat the Warholian struggle to achieve "Trumanship." However factual, the thought of the artist anguishing before the image of the ultimate literary troll (if admittedly in his youthful guise as dust-jacket odalisque) suggests a certain vocational partisanship. Koestenbaum's "literary" hauteur is not restricted to his subject. My favorite snub goes to, yes, a rock staróor better, four of them. Early Warhol protégés and perennial cult deities, the Velvet Underground are written off with a kids-these-days shrug of incomprehension. I could tally further snipes, but it would look nitpicky when I mean to pay a compliment. In working his bonds to the artist (his and ours), Koestenbaum convinces us of what we increasingly know: Warhol is so bottomless that one can read the whole of contemporary existence into his legacy. It is the intimacy of Koestenbaum's transference that makes the author's Warhol a living Warhol.
When it comes to the art, the payoffs of Koestenbaum's revivification of the Warhol story are legion, but they are richest where the demonized late work is concerned. Here, the author's readings liberate the art from two disabling parochialisms: the first concerns the overvaluation of the vintage objects (the "paintings") of the '60s, a commonplace within the institutionalized art world; the second involves the tendency to elevate the films above the broader oeuvre, an impulse that is largely a gambit of progressive academics eager to claim the artist for the manageable and masterable notions of the "alternative" or the "critical." Koestenbaum proselytizes passionately on behalf of the films but does not fall prey to the sanitizing cordoning off of the late work that is the limiting upshot of both habits of mind.
In reply to bipartisan dismissals of the post-'60s productions as empty cons, Koestenbaum writes, "The aesthetic and ethical value of Warhol's late work is its commitment to an arctically rigorous process of self-examination." Take, for purity of argument's sake, a universally reviled effort: "Reigning Queens," 1985. Calling the series "self-portraiture by veil and proxy," Koestenbaum renders these images of living female potentates as parodic musings on Warhol's sovereignty and its precariousness. As someone who has long taken Warhol's "business art" seriously, I'm grateful to discover a writer who treats the con-as-art concept as something beyond an ideational fancy. Early on, in his discussions of the films as "Factory mementos," Koestenbaum argues that Andy's "core love was not the two-dimensional . . . but the three-or-more dimensional medium of performance." If, again, we take this as more than a rhetorical feint, we see with the author that the "ephemeral social atmospheres"ócertainly the in-house publicity machine, Interview, but even the parties and generalized schmoozingówere as much a part of Warhol's art as the soup cans.
One cannot leave the films here without noting just how nuanced Koestenbaum's readings are. Turn to any expositionóMy Hustler, or Blow Job, or Outer and Inner Space, or "The Screen Tests"óand one is forever disabused of lingering suspicions that they are mere juvenile one-liners. My larger point, however, concerns the way in which Koestenbaum places the early films and the late work on the same continuum. Take the figure, central to his reading, of the double or juxtaposition: In the films, think double bodiesóone "beauty" next to another (My Hustler); or double screensóone Edie next to another (Outer and Inner Space). In the later work, think of the preferred format of the Factory organ Interviewóone "celebrity" next to another (Lee Radziwill talks to Mick Jagger). Even the "sacrilegious" (for an artist) trips uptown to mingle with the patron class are seen as "art acts," as "exercises in juxtaposition."
Koestenbaum's pairing with Warhol is itself an artful juxtaposition. As the book draws to a close, the author makes a disarming, and poignant, announcement: "Andy, in this true story, is now going to die. . . . We are sad to be leaving Andy, but it is time for him to go." We are sad to see Koestenbaum go too. He has been good company on the Warhol road, and along the way we have come to know him wellósome will say too well, a predictable rebuff provoked by his take-no-prisoners style. Koestenbaum keeps it up until the closing line, in which he attempts summary: Warhol worked "to teach us, in a deathless didactic act, that incarnation is hard labor, with no time left over for love." Poor Andy, immortal though he is, failed at the art of coupling (the boyfriends, we know by now, seldom consummated and never stayed). It's hard to trump Warhol: When Greta Garbo (the anecdote is a fresh one, at least to this reader) tossed to the ground a drawing of a butterfly offered in tribute by the artist, he uncrumpled it and had it inscribed with the words CRUMPLED BUTTERFLY BY GRETA GARBO. But the author has kept his opening promise: His words have brought his elusive quarry to heel. In his dance of shade and sympathy, Koestenbaum has proved himself a worthy partner.
Jack Bankowsky is editor of Artforum.