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BOOK REVIEW: SEEING GHOSTS: GERARD MALANGA'S ARCHIVING WARHOL. AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY



Archiving Warhol 'is a collection of Gerard Malanga's many writings on, and interviews with, Andy Warhol over the years. It is heavily illustrated by revealing pictures from Malanga's extensive photographic archive of Warhol and the factory, including many shots published here for the first time.'

By Richard Marshall

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Malanga is a lyrical poet, his book, a tender and touching sequence of snap shots of a time and people that have disappeared now -- his mixture of text and black and white stills produces a hand-held outline of an invented era, where the act of seeing is just that -- an act. He understands better than most the rhetorical power of photography -- the way it plays off the sense that each photo is identical with the actuality it records against the realisation that a photo is always of a time and of things that are no longer there. There is no actuality against which you can test that initial perception outside of the picture itself. It's as if the photograph erased them. Which is of course an element of Warhol's art -- a secret profession that he can't think of, because thinking it destroys it. Everything is elegiac.

The pictures Malanga collects here vividly remind us that archiving is about absence, about absenting actuality by confirming its disappearance. That's what time does. Nothing will remain. So you record the void.

In the flash of the camera there is something you have to look at -- and you need to be aware of that act and that it is an act -- and in each of the smiles there's the coy sympathy of obituary written into the light. These are death pictures. This is, in a beautiful, sumptuous and calm manner, a book of the dead. If ever Malanga needed to show the myth of earthly things in life, here is the poetry book in which he manages it. There's something almost upsetting in these frozen moments where nothing exists anymore and all that is left is the collection of bodies. Malanga is that terrible alchemist who reaches beyond thinking to the inner turmoils of what one feels and what one can do.

Here, what you're left to do is watch. And you feel because Malanga has eliminated throughout the book that usual plane between the pictures and the people in the pictures. The Malanga photographs are saying 'I am not a photograph, I am an actual person' as if by owning up to their artificiality they have erased everything that lies between you and the image. But of course that's not true, and the fascination lies in that impurity born of Malanga's desire to rise '. . . above the superficialities [to] being true to one's nature in life. . . .' The frozen images here are caught in the tight net of his sharp, fragmentary prose and they insist you stay with them, insist that you keep looking, until you go beyond just an aesthetic response to something which in the end is probably erotic and certainly touching.

Malanga mixes the edges of sexual rituals of the Factory -- which can be a kind of high glam dated gossip -- with thoughts about the art itself. He's good a both. They integrate well. The chapter on Edie Sedgwick brings us back to a well-known story, one which we all know ends in tragedy, and there's a 'last minute portrait' of her on page 116 where the energy seems to have run out and you see her as an object, you become involved with looking and you get a perception through looking at the object that takes you back to the person -- the meaning of Edie comes from that act of looking. The text works alongside the picture to make us begin again, to think again about the familiar outlines and to know her hopelessness.

The process is spooky, which is appropriate. The whole book is of ghosts, familiars, bodiless names and this awareness comes about, I think, through the combination of text and image that Malanga has orchestrated. Rarely do you have pictures taken that are part of the story, more than mute witnesses these but rather, agents of the plot. This is a key to the strength of the book. As we read of Sedgwick, Malanga also gives us those images of her as the story progresses, from the actual event time of that story. And so the portraits work beyond the confines of mere portraiture and beyond mere record too. They are able to give us perceptions of that past, the whole chain of events, a single catastrophe which piles up wreckage upon wreckage. Malanga calls her a 'fallen angel' but I think he gets that wrong. It's the wrong angel.

Instead I think Walter Benjamin could have been writing about the Sedgwick picture when he famously writes of Klee's painting Angelus Novus -- 'The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward' (Thesis On The Philosophy Of History).

Sedgewick stands in the picture like that angel and other pictures catch her painfully present, with her death implicit and inevitable in them, as the story moves towards its terrible end: "We saw a lot of each other. Several months later I decided to take a breather from Andy and made plans to visit with friends living in Rome. Edie was thinking about heading out to the West Coast. We parted. I never saw her again. She died three years later from a drug overdose -- barbiturates mixed with alcohol. When the New York Post reported Edie's death, Andy's response was, 'Oh, I thought she died two years ago'"(p 119). It's great writing -- the movement from the friendship to the parting to her death suddenly exploding in Warhol's terrible impassivity -- Malanga writes a prose that is quickening and aware of all the habits of cliché and hubris and gets round them. But as to whether you really can see Edie's fate in the pictures, well, you wonder whether that's true -- were you not to know how it ends would you see the same picture and of course think to yourself that we wouldn't, how could we? -- but the book goes past this first perception to something else, a little deeper. Which is, as Malanga comments: 'The real obstacle is always oneself.' And we can add Artaud to that, that infinity is chance, not God, and chance is also myself.

This whole work is also about a balance between being famous and being not really famous. This is different from the usual opposition between famous for something and famous for merely being famous -- the latter being what Warhol is supposed to have invented with his superstar system and the 15 minutes of so on. Because in the afterglow of forty years, several of the names here have faded out and don't matter beyond the fact that they are here inside a bigger, familiar story that isn't about them and never will be. Again, the annihilation of actuality is still working itself out in this realisation. Only a few -- Edie, Lou, Andy, Gerard, maybe some others but not that many -- only a handful continue to exist beyond the conveyance of this story. This is a poignant and truthful awareness and one which Malanga wants us to appreciate as being part of Warhol and Malanga's achievement.

The fertility Malanga archives is the opposite of fertility; yet Malanga is working against the formulas laid down by the Warhol who said 'The world would be easier to live in if we were all machines. It's nothing in the end anyway. It doesn't matter what anyone does.' Malanga reveres the mistakes in the process of the art making. He keeps repeating this idea as a key feature of Warhol's best work -- and it is this which brings a contrary Warhol to the fore, cancels out the posturing, playing it dumb, screened out and oh so familiarly indifferent Warhol.

Malanga has feelings about Andy's art. But he thinks Warhol's art is strong where he 'embraced his mistakes.' In a suggestive -- and at the end a rather bitter, anti-Andy-industry chapter called 'Dead Warhol', Malanga tells us why he loves Warhol's work, or rather, he tells us which Warhol he loves and the reason for it. It's where you can find 'Suffering.' Malanga is sure this is required for real art: 'One lone person hanging limp from a spike on a telephone pole. The silhouette of a body leaping into the dark, grainy void, or completely covered over with a white sheet just moments after the leap. In fact, the two pictures might even be linked within one story. In fact, I know they are. It is a world in which death and disasters seem not to make a whole lot of sense' (p 157). The silkscreen Suicide of 1962 is reproduced in grainy monochrome next to this impressionistic meditation on Warhol's work. It's an essay about Warhol's relationship not just to his own work but also to himself and his own death.

It is here that Warhol becomes less the avatar of an 'art as fashion' world that Malanga despises, where 'power and money create the aura of acceptance and hype' where 'If you're someone who has pretences to making art and also have wealth -- well, you're taken seriously. . . .' Instead, here, Warhol is more concerned with truth. Malanga quotes Roland Barthes: 'an artist has no power but he has some relationship with truth.' Everything else Warhol did Malanga dismisses as star-fucking and 'bringing home the bacon', where Warhol 'betrayed that truth.' But in the sixties, in the Factory, where Malanga was working with him, we are given a Warhol who was working alongside truth.

The combination of strong narratives, critical acumen and beautiful photography makes this book a more complete volume than many books about and around Warhol. Malanga tells of his own love affairs and disappointments -- he is on this reckoning a serial romantic -- perhaps one of the interesting asides is that he is decidedly straight in a world usually depicted as being very gay (and contrasted as such with the supposedly hetero entourage of the anti Warhol Dylan groupies of the time) -- as well as someone who is conscious that he is delivering something stranger than appearances. What he says about the Warhol film Sleep seems applicable to his own book: 'The reality is heightened to an astonishing degree. It has some of the feeling of enlightenment that comes from the meditations or contemplations of a mystic' (p 107). What he seems to have done is emptied the pictures and the stories of signs. They are experiences -- text and pictures -- experiences that remain experiences and resist the usual clichés that turn them into signs and symbols. So we get the mystery of his experience in the book. Because what makes the book invaluable is that he was there. He's one of them. He's one of the ghosts.


ABOUT GERARD MALANGA

Gerard Malanga was chief assistant at Andy Warhol's legendary Factory in New York from 1963 to 1970. He has been described as 'Warhol's most important associate' by the New York Times. As well as helping Warhol produce many works of art, Malanga also featured in several Warhol movies -- including Couch and Chelsea Girls -- and even appeared onstage with the early Velvet Underground. He has since been widely published as a poet and photographer. Don't miss Richard Marshall's interview with Gerard Malanga, a 3A.M. exclusive.





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