My Day with Andy Warhol

David Searcy Recalls a Surreal Encounter, 50 Years Past

By  David Searcy

I don’t know why I don’t remember it very well. I was a junior studying art at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Most of my friends were pretty arty. We all knew who Andy Warhol was, of course—we’d even sat through a screening of Chelsea Girls the year before at the seedy old Rex Cinema in Oak Cliff. I mean it was Dallas, sure, but we were pretty cool. On balance, I would have to say. Behind the curve a bit, perhaps, but catching up.

For example it was about this time, or not long after, that I loaned, to an impulsive former seminarian friend, a fully functional .55 caliber anti-tank rifle to be trained upon participants, as a point of concentration, in a discussion, held in a classroom at Dallas Hall at SMU, on the morality of the draft. We’d thrown a “happening” as a term project that almost got the new instructor fired. We drank and drove. Wore goofy clothes. Embraced the ironies. The situational ethics. And the principle—enunciated first by an impatient art history professor and taken up by us as a sacred incantation—that “It all relates up anyhow.”

We should have been astonished or at least have paid attention, taken photographs—see, look, that blurry whiteness in the back of the car, that’s him. And Morrissey next to him. And Viva in her scarfed and spangled splendor turned away from the irradiating flash. But something in us just relaxed, I guess. Submitted. Simply went along. Received into a higher state of cool. A cool that passeth understanding. Or conviction. Or concern.

So there we were one morning in early May of 1968, just hanging out at the student center, juke box blaring, five or six, I think, at the table, though the only ones I’m certain of, besides myself, are Dave Barnett (the former seminarian; later microwave communications technician—fearless climber of 900-foot towers; later still, a roadie for a variety of groups from Osmond Brothers to Led Zeppelin; finally Seaman—“Ordinary” and then “Able”, rising through the ranks of “Mates” to “Unlimited Master”, than which I can imagine no more exalted title, either religious or mundane, a mighty captain certified to command the greatest ships afloat in any ocean), and Jim Lynch (the cleverest, saddest of us all, about whom I would try to write until he drifted too far off into the drugs and those behaviors and depressions from which nothing more worth telling would emerge.)  There was a fourth who’d come along with us that day, but I can’t quite bring him to mind—nor can Barnett. And Lynch is gone. But he was there, I’m pretty sure. Just can’t quite see him for some reason.

“Andy, though, was very nice. The whole time nice as nice can be, I think, in fact. Not as he tends to be portrayed—as taking on a sort of pose. But simply nice.”

Anyway, we’re all just hanging out when up walks this well-groomed young man in a suit. He goes right over to Barnett, with whom he seems to be acquainted. Here again it’s kind of vague. A former fraternity brother maybe, is Barnett’s best recollection—somehow fallen into Andy Warhol’s circle as factotum, it would seem, in the realm of practical matters (rather like those mortals vampires hold in thrall to do their terrible bidding in the daylight). This young man is on a mission to recruit some college kids who know the city, to provide a sort of undercover tour for Andy Warhol and companions. We should keep it to ourselves, of course. As that would be the point. To keep it quiet. We should understand, of course. Of course. You bet. We’re cool with that.

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Barnett recalls a somewhat run-down motel on Central Expressway. I recall a shadowy suite of rooms with curtains drawn against the morning—10 or 11 o’clock, I’d guess. Barnett and Lynch and me and our ghostly friend just standing in a clump as, very gradually, these exotic personalities unfurl as from their chrysalises. Reluctantly. With difficulty. Donning curious footwear. Sort of shaking themselves out. I don’t remember introductions. Andy might have said hello. The others, we were somehow given to understand, were Viva, one of Andy’s “superstars”, and Paul Morrissey, co-director of Chelsea Girls. I think I’d heard of her and, certainly, of him. They seemed resigned to all that followed. As if used to it, resigned to resignation in his service—a remarkably steady, almost calibrated stream of grumpiness maintaining pretty much throughout the day. Low-level bickering, but only between themselves.

I don’t remember any one of us addressing them directly. Andy, though, was very nice. The whole time nice as nice can be, I think, in fact. Not as he tends to be portrayed—as taking on a sort of pose. But simply nice—an uninflected sort of niceness from within his pallid envelope as if he had reduced to this at last. In less than a month he would be shot and nearly killed. The famous shirtless portrait by Alice Neel shows Warhol in recovery but deflated, scarred and corseted, eyes closed in what appears a deeper kind of resignation. Like the Buddha with the air let out. The niceness probably still in there somewhere.

So first we’re off to visit NorthPark. Really. NorthPark shopping center. That’s where Andy wants to go. The neat young man in the suit has vanished. It’s the four of us and the three of them In Jim’s VW van. NorthPark had opened three years earlier as “the largest climate-controlled retail establishment in the world.” It had a lot of fancy shops and modern art displayed throughout. But still. It seemed so odd—and seems so odd to remember almost nothing. Just this drifting here and there with Andy going into stores—not really shopping for stuff, just taking it all in, submitting all to some imponderable calculation, I suppose. Except at one point (I remember now) he comes upon these brightly colored leotards somewhere and buys a pair in every color that they have.

I don’t recall—the whole day—ever really attracting any attention. Never once a double-take. An exclamation. Our accustomed anonymity, entrained by his, seems marvelous. Now we are subtle beings. We who drift about the world with Andy Warhol. We assume what we assume must be his point of view. His pale, obscure detachment. Pretty cool. There’s nothing to it. Which, I guess, is the idea.

We drift downtown. But here I’m hazy on the order of events. I think it might be here that Lynch decides to take off. So we pile into our ghostly friend’s sedan—a ghostly Oldsmobile or something pretty big—then head downtown to the venerable Nieman Marcus flagship store where Andy is to meet (for reasons I cannot remember or surmise) with Stanley Marcus. Either that or the pawn shops and the voodoo shops and second-hand shops on Elm Street first. But probably the meeting—and the waiting outside the big glass doors for an hour or so on an upper floor of this sparkly and complacent and exalted place for Andy and his companions to emerge—before descending into Elm Street’s nether regions, only a few blocks east, where one can shop the mystery and the clutter of the world and we can serve as proper guides.

“Now we are subtle beings. We who drift about the world with Andy Warhol. We assume what we assume must be his point of view.”

We spend a lot of time just wandering around “Deep Ellum,” as it’s known. In about a year an elevated freeway will cut through, wipe out a block and pretty much kill the area—drain that sort of tidal pool into such a vast and strange selection of life’s residue had gathered. But for now it’s rich with all that stuff that’s washed in over the last five thousand years—that’s what it feels like. As if somewhere under all those saws and pruning shears and rusty monkey wrenches pawned and hung beneath the centuries of multiplying, overlapping signage at the entrance (like the entrance to a cave) at Honest Joe’s, one might find implements of antler, stone or copper.

We would not have taken Andy there, however. I don’t think. We would have kept a little closer to the surface. Oscar Utay’s pawn shop, maybe—very funky but not scary. Harper’s Books—amazing density, disordered, all the dusty worn-out knowledge you could want piled on the floors and in the windows. Mr. Bay’s weird Herb and Incense shop where I’d bought a paperback reprint of an 18th century magical fabrication called The Seventh Book of Moses, scorched the edges with a candle to impart a little drama.

Such an idiot. My god. I am not worthy. I do not possess the clarity, the pale, obscure detachment. I am credulous and obvious. And happy when, at last, we find a shop with all these ancient pairs of shoes—old unsold stock, brand new as it were in original boxes, from the 30s and 40s, and Andy and his friends go sort of crazy. Look, oh look. They’re opening all these fragile boxes. Checking sizes. Even Morrissey and Viva, lost, enraptured. I remember simply watching. Contemplating all the holes in Andy’s jeans as he bent over, and the purple tights beneath. Somehow I found it truly marvelous—that purple showing through like that. A glimpse into so intimate a layer of this exoticism. I could not imagine how it felt. To have achieved so deep and colorful a level of detachment—even from the simple, private fundamentals.

Mine had been a happy childhood. Certain things one just accepted. Whighty-tighties for example. Underneath whatever costume one affected. It was evident to me we were not really subtle beings. There was something beyond us here. And maybe even theological. What Andy came away with was a pair of flashy 1940s “spectator” brown-and-whites. His thing for shoes is quite well-known. And yet how strange to sot of float about detached, above the world as it would seem, and have a thing for shoes. Collecting things, all sorts of things obsessively, of course. But shoes especially. Like ballast. Look again at that Buddha-like portrait by Alice Neel—he is, as well, The Man of Sorrows. Stripped to the waist, his wounds displayed. So pale on top, a wash of heavenly blue behind—just barely there, almost subliming into the canvas. And then going earthy-dark below. The umber of his trousers running down to his shiny red-brown shoes—as heavy, hard and dangly as the shoes of a suspended marionette. He seems unbearably, religiously suspended.

I believe from here we head back to the campus where we lose Barnett and our ghostly friend and transfer to my old VW bug, which I had painted olive-drab with a made-up, vaguely military looking emblem stenciled in yellow on the side. So for the rest of the afternoon it’s me at the wheel with Andy and Viva and Morrissey squeezed into the back. Like it’s a limousine. Or a rickshaw. Crypto-military rickshaw. I remember very little of this final stage of the tour. Beyond the oddness of it. Those three jammed so strangely into the back of my tiny car—a weird and precious concentration. Two things I recall, however: Andy turning to look into that little space behind the back seat where—as if it were designed with this in mind—one’s empties (vodka bottles, beer cans) tended naturally to fall when flung from the front seat back along the gentle curve of the roof. A couple of months at least before you had to shovel it out. But Andy reaching back into all that to retrieve a piece I’d made—all sorts of stuff got tossed back there—a clipboard-size aluminum plate at the center of which was mounted a photographic negative with the image of a professorial figure in an oratorical stance and, just below, a metal knob that wound a music box on the back which played a melancholy operatic fragment.

I would like to think he wound it up and listened for a moment—his companions briefly calmed and uncomplaining in the sweetness and the inexpressible mystery of it. But I’m pretty sure he merely looked at it and asked if it were art and, on receiving confirmation, put it back. The other thing is stopping by the house of my friend and teacher, the painter Roger Winter, up whose driveway I go running, calling him out, come on, come look and see who I’ve got in my car. No trace of cool detachment left. It’s only me. The afternoon beginning to fade and Andy and friends collected now into a single shadowy mass in the back of my car down there at the end of Roger’s driveway. Oh my goodness. Is it them? All three? It is. How could this happen? I don’t know. A sort of miracle. And Roger leaning in to say hello. And Andy perfectly nice as always. Perfectly happy to have stopped to chat with Roger from the shadows. Shadowy pleasantries exchanging until Viva grows impatient and we leave.

“Such an idiot. My god. I am not worthy. I do not possess the clarity, the pale, obscure detachment. I am credulous and obvious.”

It’s dark by the time I drop them off at the motel. “Please come to see us if you’re ever in New York.” And maybe I will. Who knows. But anyway, that’s that.

So Andy gets shot by that crazy woman a few weeks later—lives, but always with the damage. Lynch drifts off into his misery. And Barnett, by meticulous, if uncalculated, eightfold path-like stages seeks his Mastery. Our ghostly friend evaporates. I’d like to leave it here. I really would. But really I can’t because I really saw him later. Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. Fifteen years. I have a wife, two little kids. I’m not a fan of Warhol’s work, which I’ve decided represents a sort of attitude and little else—convenient and contrived, conveying no real information. I’ve decided art, like physics, has to do with information. I am all dressed up and on my way somewhere I think important. I’m on foot. On the Upper East Side. I turn down Lexington and there he is. No question. Right there. Halfway up the steps of a big stone church. Just sitting right there on the steps with an Asian guy. Some kid. Just talking to this kid. And it would be the simplest thing in the world to walk up there and say hey Andy I’m the one who drove you all around that day in Dallas. And I’m sure he would have been as nice as nice can be. “You said come see you,” I would say, “and now I have,” and shake his hand and that of the Asian kid and then be on my way. Complete. Fulfilled after all these years.

But no. I am ashamed. I know no better than to be ashamed for being all dressed up. My stupid three-piece suit. Oh crap. I’m such an idiot again. I am not worthy, once again. And pass on by. I can’t believe it still. Who cares about a stupid three-piece suit? Not Andy, surely.

I have printed out a map to check my memory, drawn a line between hotel and destination. And right there, halfway between—the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer of Lexington. His church, as it turns out. I’d no idea he was religious. I mean actually and practically, Catholically religious. What to make of that? I think it tends to make those gaudy, superficial images more truly, rigorously gaudy, superficial, thin and sad.

There is a Richard Avedon photograph of Warhol as The Man of Sorrows—arms extended, palms up, wounds displayed, eyes open as in certain Renaissance depictions. But it’s silly, if horrific. Jokey. Hip. He apes the gesture. Alice Neel goes for a deeper possibility—that something is really there. Yet inaccessible. I wonder if she knew that Man of Sorrows by Bellini—that particular one, in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum, where Christ rises unsupported from the sepulcher, his hands unmarked (so curiously) but the wound in his side still bleeding. He emerges from the heavy earthy colors of the sepulcher and the rocky world that frames, almost contains him, into the space of heavenly blue above. His eyes are closed, arms lightly, limply folded as when placed across his body in the tomb. Yet here he is straight up. As marvelous an unsupported fact as Nosferatu hingeing up out of his coffin like the handle of a stepped-upon rake or a jack-in-the-box. So wonderful and terrible a springing of the life straight out of death.

The photograph, official photograph, untaken and untakeable, would show us all arranged about the olive-drab VW, Lynch at front with foot on bumper in that Bonnie Parker pose; Barnett at attention on the passenger’s side; me, hands in pockets, standing on the other with our ghostly friend who’s turned to look away; and through reflections on the windshield (clouds or trees) that complicated umbral presence in the back seat. What, oh what to make of that? Can that be them? Can that be they? How is it possible? A miracle, I guess.

The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.

David Searcy
David Searcy
David Searcy is the author of the novels Ordinary Horror and Last Things (Viking, 2001 and 2002). His first book of non-fiction, Shame and Wonder, was published by Random House in January 2016 and was selected for the Spring B&N Discover Great New Writers Program. Chapters from Shame and Wonder were excerpted in The Paris Review and subsequently in Best American Essays 2013 (editor, Cheryl Strayed) and Granta (2013). David Searcy was included, at the age of 71, in the “Future of New Writing” issue of Freeman’s magazine. He is at work on another essay collection, from which several chapters have been published in magazines & newspapers ranging from The New York Times Magazine to the Oxford American.





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