Pop Art Goes Bang!

valerie_solonas_scumFame as an afterthought to madness. Valerie Solanas 1936-1988.

Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, things took slower turns and more leisurely dives. Fame was usually a gradually developing state of grace or disgrace. Celebrity consisting largely of being noticed and the need for that desire to be fulfilled. It was about doing something worthy of note. It now consists of of shameless bravado. The right dress, the wrong drug or sex tape. Feeble-minded efforts at being seen or commented upon. Blame Madonna or the Spice Girls, Michael Jackson or Britney Spears. Or simply blame fame.

Andy Warhol knew a thing or three about celebrity. He admired it, and aspired to be one of its kind. The unsteady spawn of poor immigrant stock from Pittsburgh, turned strangely wigged wonder with a love of things Hollywood, even promised fifteen minutes of fame to everyone. A surreal jester in the court of any despot or tyrant who would pay for a Polaroid-based portrait, his vacuous flippancy proved unintentionally prophetic.

A touchstone for every kook, transvestite, speed freak, and misfit in 1960s Manhattan, he paid a Faustian price for messing with minds that were already profoundly scrambled. Permitting them to indulge their delusional grandeur, their aspirational dreams, he made them "Superstars" in his cheap films. He gave them the time of day, and little else, but these were hours of attention denied them in the wider world. Andy's Factory took them in and churned them out again, even more delusional than they were upon arrival. Some in turn had ideas of their own.

"The male is a biological accident; the y (male) gene is an incomplete x (female) gene, that is, has an incomplete set of chromosomes. In other words, the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples."

An excerpt from her booklet S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto was a feminist treaty by Valerie Solanas, another minor Warholite and wannabe who Warhol referred to as "a hot water bottle with tits." A writer and actress and easy to dismiss, an attitude that profoundly undermined the shockingly lucid quality of her venom, something Warhol made the the near-fatal mistake of doing. Sexually abused by her father and homeless by the age of fifteen, Solanas who entered the world in New Jersey on April 9, 1936, resorted to panhandling and prostitution. Her tenacity is evidenced by her obtaining a degree in Psychology from the University of Maryland, and a year's graduate work at the University of Minnesota, before a decade of drifting returned her to New York circa 1965.

Solanas, a minority group of one, accosted Warhol outside the Factory; her mission was to present him with a copy of her play Up Your Ass, a work he thought obscene. Given the nature of much of his own output, that says something concerning its nature. Certain that she was from the authorities and enacting a sting to ensnare him for filth and depravity, he proceeded with his usual patter of blandishments. She was just being pushy, wanting him to produce the work, and saw his world as a means towards widening her own. Promising the world but delivering crumbs, he put her in his 1968 movie I, A Man in which she portrayed an angry lesbian. This didn't require much in the way of acting skill. Warhol promptly forgot about her script; the work of others only interested him if they were more famous than himself. This disinterest festered in her mind till she was convinced that he was intent on stealing her brilliant ideas. His indifference was perceived as cunning, and the more he fobbed off her request for the return of her manuscript, the more delusional, paranoid, and resentful Solanas became. In truth he'd lost it and didn't want to say. This was to cost him, and dearly.

Solanas got her hands on a .32 automatic and on June 3, 1968, she entered the Factory with murder in mind. Warhol hadn't been her first choice to introduce to death; that dubious accolade belonged to Maurice Girodias, her editor at the Olympia Press who'd promised to publish novels by her. He luckily was in Paris on business. Valerie was also certain that he was exploiting her, but her initial mission denied, she remained intent on the avenging of her perceived slights. Through that absence, Warhol, who still hadn't returned her manuscript, moved to the top of the list in her settling of scores.

At first no one paid much attention as she prowled the office with a firearm. It wasn't an everyday thing, but in 1964, the self-styled feminist and witch Dorothy Podber (1932-2008), dressed in black leather, white gloves and escorted by a Great Dane called Carmen Miranda, asked Warhol if she could shoot some pictures. Assuming she meant photographs, he agreed. Podber proceeded to extricate a small German pistol from her handbag and put a bullet through a stack of Warhol's Monroe paintings.

According to Factory regular Billy Name: "She shot Marilyn right between the eyes." For this highly inspired act of absurdity she was barred. Warhol, though, never one to miss an opportunity in turning disaster into art, renamed the wounded works The Shot Marilyns and sold them as such.

Solanas was ignored. It was just Valerie with a gun. Another prop in the crazy play that Warhol inhabited in his silver lair. She shot the curator Mario Amaya, but not seriously. Thought better of dispatching Fred Hughes, Warhol's associate and fixer. He'd been at the end of her gun, but his pleas seemed to snap her out of her initial firing spree. Warhol was talking to Viva, another of his Superstars, who guessed from the noise that "Someone was cracking a whip left over from the Velvet Underground days." Warhol suffered extreme injuries to his abdomen, and Solnas left. The ambulance and police arrived. For Warhol the next twelve hours were life-or-death crucial.

As Bob Colacello details in his tremendously readable and insightful Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up: "He was pronounced clinically dead at 4.51 p.m. His chest was cut open and his heart massaged, and then doctors operated for five hours on his lungs, liver, gallbladder, spleen, esophagus, intestines and pulmonary artery." Warhol survived, but only just. Friends claimed the man who returned was a distant facsimile of someone who had always seemed several stages removed from others.

He was deprived of a truly massive press response to his misfortune, which would have somewhat mitigated his terrible circumstances, because Bobby Kennedy was assassinated on the same day. And although Warhol's tragedy briefly catapulted him into living rooms in which his existence was previously unknown, American royalty naturally took precedence over the attempted murder of a faggy pop artist whose mercurial fame had its origins in disreputable ways. Solanas turned herself in to a startled cop with the words, "He had too much control over my life." She later explained, "Talking to him was like talking to a chair." Detained in a mental institution, she was eventually sentenced to a maximum of three years for "reckless assault with an intent to harm."

Her actions seemed to merit a more harsh response, but in the mood of the time, she was crazy, and had attempted something her recipient was rather deserving of. In her wake the Factory closed its open door policy. Warhol became understandably more paranoid, and Solanas, after her release in September 1971, had the audacity to call him. He dropped the receiver in horror. She remained a minority of one with a barbed manifesto. Warhol for the rest of his life lived with a road map of scars on his torso--thanks to surgery and Solanas--and was forced to wear a girdle to give support to his much maligned internal organs.

If one is challenging something as inflexible as the construct of American masculinity, an extreme view and approach is necessary in order to get attention, and is in some way a means towards perspective and fueling debate. Had Solanas shot a cigar-chomping executive, a five-star general, or even the President, there would have been a method to her recklessness, a cohesive intellectual reasoning. To shoot, as an afterthought, a diminutive fop with a taste for glamor and transvestites doesn't represent a reasoned attack on men's stranglehold over the lives of women, but then her actions weren't those of a balanced mind or rational thinker. Solanas was angry and mad as hell, and in that state she created the ultimate Pop Art collision.

A fame of sorts was the frothy reward of her actions, whereas John Lennon's assassin, Mark Chapman, had that in his sights as well as his victim. Solanas would now be a talk show doyenne, the giver of lectures to earnest students, writing on feminist theory, a grand dame of the counterculture. Just as terrorists evolve into respected statesmen and politicians, the crazy when young become the voices of their strange times. With Warhol departed, his potential nemesis could have claimed the limelight and the center of the stage. She has, but only in absence.

Valerie Solanas outlived Warhol by a year, dying of emphysema and pneumonia in a welfare hotel called The Bristol in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. She had a drug problem and was still turning tricks in a silver lame dress. And her lost play Up Your Ass was finally staged in 2000. It had been discovered amongst Warhol's staggering array of clutter after his death. He didn't want it, need it, or steal it. He never even asked for it, but to Valerie in her paranoia, these amounted to the same thing. Solanas was wonderfully realized by Lili Taylor on the big screen. I Shot Andy Warhol brought the circus that was the Factory vividly alive again. The S.C.U.M Manifesto she later tried to distance herself from has become a major tract in the canon of feminist rhetoric.

If greed and fame had motivated Valerie Solanas, she could have milked both, but she died destitute. In Songs for Drella Lou Reed's memorial collaboration with Factory survivor and fellow Velvet John Cale, about Warhol's life, he gives her a brief, but chilling acknowledgment: "I believe I would've pulled the switch myself." He never needed to. Valerie Solanas had a knack for havoc and destruction, once at the expense of Andy Warhol, largely at her own. - Robert Cochrane

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Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear via SAF in 2008.

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