Eyewitness to Warhol

Review by Merridawn Duckler


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Mary Woronov famously ditched a Cornell art department field trip to become the star of Warhol’s first commercially successful film, and went on to serve as one of his enduring muses. She was—as this title suggests—indeed an eyewitness to Warhol. Still one wonders with Warhol if there was ever any other kind? The actors, artists and personalities a primary medium. Given critical distance, we see this not so much in the gossipy, celebrity-plagued universe of what Arthur Danto calls the “post-historical period” but in how Warhol invented, or conjured, or re-imagined a new kind of relationship between artist and muse. Unlike the mistresses, love-objects, and patrons of, say, the Impressionists, the figures which fed Warhol’s vision were less subject than object—or object as subject. In some ways his predecessor in this was surely Morandi. At the same time this risible hero of reconstructed definitions himself remained psychologically invisible.

So, despite a fairly extensive parade of witness-driven books on Warhol, one welcomes Woronov’s addition. She was foremost an object of the camera, Warhol’s doppelganger, an honest, intelligent and fearless chronicler, who survived the era with her mind intact. In the introduction she writes that she hoped after publishing her fictionalized account of the Factory years, Swimming Underground, that she had, “put that part of my life to sleep.” But some monsters just keep coming back.

This slight volume consists of three essays: “Screen Tests,” “Chelsea Girls,” and “Self Interview.” The first two constitute a kind of film-memoir, relating Woronov’s experiences in front of Warhol’s cameras while the last is a Q&A in which Q=A.  To dispatch with the least useful first, the self-interview isn’t going to replace the selfie as cultural phenomenon anytime soon. Woronov’s witty, perceptive style collapses into solipsism when confronting overly broad categories like feminism, religion, and technology. She’s not a natural aphorist so observations like, “without beauty for gas, we only leap from propane to profane,” don’t do much justice to either her wit or her honesty. These qualities are hallmarks of the preceding essays.

In the first essay, a three page gem, “Screen Tests,” we get a wry blow-by-blow of Woronov’s encounter with both camera lens (which she calls “one of the coldest things in the world”) and the artistic choices behind it. Woronov may attribute youth, boredom, or narcissism to her continuance at the Factory but her writing suggests a keen empathy. She identifies an artist as one who, “tries to pin down what he finds more alluring and allusive….For Andy, it was intimacy.” Only an immersed participant would make such an observation and only a writer with nothing to lose or gain will express it so beautifully.

We learn that the voyeuristic quality of these works was intrinsic: “Of course the person who loved watching these films the most, and who did so over and over, while the rest of us ran to the other end of the factory, was Warhol.” He made films so he could watch them, a busman’s holiday for a voyeur. And Woronov satisfies our inner voyeur with curt, charming and dynamic details.

What exactly Warhol is watching is detailed with more care in “Chelsea Girls,” the most personal essay of the three, in which Woronov traces her on-set experience, weaving in details of Warhol’s working methods. In an extended metaphor on “Queen Hollywood,” she describes her perceptions of the film’s cultural impact and one of its products—herself. For the uninitiated—which describes most of us, since part of the point of mangling definitions is an extruded alienation—to watch Chelsea Girls without this commentary is to witness a badly lit, indifferently scripted, meander-fest; a cat fight between International Velvet and Woronov with frequent stops to fix mascara. On reading Woronov, aesthetic reasoning, both announced and subversive, is brought to the artwork, deepening it, giving it new gravitas. Behind the jokey, dispassionate and cool exterior, Woronov identified real passions and pathologies and those are the true subject of this book.
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Mary Woronov, Eyewitness to Warhol, (Victoria Dailey Publisher, 2002)

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