Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine Finally Shuts Up
Author’s NEW Note, September 11, 2018: Interview resumes publication this very week!
Author’s Note, June 1, 2018: So Interview has just ceased publication, not quite a half-century after it began. With years of financial struggles and a recent string of lawsuits, as well as a creative director standing accused of sexual misconduct, it finally filed for bankruptcy. I certainly won’t miss the magazine. Truth is, I was surprised to hear it was still around. Especially in these days, when the dangers of glorifying celebrities as celebrities are as blatantly obvious as our most recent Presidential election. I mean, after the passing of the 1970s Me Decade and the 1980s Trump-ian Greed is Good Decade, it had already outlived its uselessness.
Back in 2005 I’d reviewed a seven-volume set of books, titled, Andy Warhol’s Interview: The Crystal Ball of Pop Culture. I used the headline “Yesterday’s Papers,” with a nod to the Rolling Stones. And in retrospect, the piece now reads like an obit, albeit one for a not-so-dearly departed. Indeed, as it was packaged inside a custom wooden box, it was even ready for burial. So it seems only appropriate to rerun the review, now that the magazine’s demise is finally official. Enjoy.
Simply in terms of bulk, Andy Warhol’s Interview is not light reading. This anthology of Warhol’s seminal lifestyle magazine is shipped and sold in two large cardboard boxes, evocative of the artist’s ’70s-era time capsules.
Inside one box is a set of seven hardcover books containing reprints from the first ten years of the magazine, which launched in 1969. Interview’s signature brushstroke logo is fragmented across each cover in sections: When the books are placed side by side, the magazine’s title billboards across a seven-foot span. Of course, this design is most convenient for eye-catching bookstore displays, which is appropriate for Raggedy Andy, whose pre-Pop commercial jobs included dressing Bonwit Teller windows. This collection is packaged inside a 10 by 12 by 17-inch plywood crate, complete with plastic wheels and a luggage-style retractable handle, suitable for strolling.
The set’s first volume, “The Covers,” reproduces precisely that. For the first 20 issues of its newsstand façade, the magazine, then called Inter/View, used European film promo stills and publicity pix of icons like Rita Hayworth, James Dean, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe. The May 1972 cover displayed a second-tier Factory superstar rendered as an ersatz Marilyn, signifying the magazine’s evolution into Andy Warhol’s Interview. The new logo looked like a lipstick sprawl on a mirror, appropriate to the publication’s role as a chronicler, and embodiment of “the Me Decade.”
In his brief introduction to this volume, post-Pop Art huckster Jeff Koons writes admiringly that the covers reveal “the faults of the subject” and convey “a sense of humanity.” The truth, however, is just the opposite: Fashion photographers like Francesco Scavullo would shoot the beautiful people in all their fabulousness; then designer Richard Bernstein would enhance their auras by eliminating pimples and pits and softening complexions to flawless perfection. These oversize, poster-like portraits branded the publication for decades.
Introductions to the other books, by such esthetes as Elton John, Joel Schumacher, and Karl Lagerfeld––the creative director and publisher of this anthology––are equally sketchy. The forewords, by the set’s editors, Interview‘s current publisher Sandra J. Brant, and Ingrid Sischy, its editor-in-chief and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, are more intelligent but similarly lacking in substantive retrospection or analysis.
“The Covers,” as well as two volumes titled “The Pictures” and “The Fashions,” come across as fan magazines for the effete, low on words but loaded with images of stars, swells, and buff boys with come-hither looks. “The Interviews,” “The Andy Warhol Interviews,” and “The Directors,” three volumes that total almost 800 pages, attempt to provide content with a hodge-podge of nearly 250 personality profiles; the featured guests range from Bette Midler, Bette Davis, and Dolly Parton to Bernardo Bertolucci, the Dalai Lama, and Salvador Dalí. Also included in the collection are Interview‘s trademark pairings of celebrities talking with other celebrities, a trope that mostly serves to double the stultifying narcissism. Combinations that should be provocative simply aren’t: Lou Reed talks with Clive Davis, Larry Rivers with Al Capp, and Truman Capote with imprisoned Manson gang murderer Bobby Beausoleil. Relatively few of these discussions manage to transcend the trivial and inane.
If the ’50s-era Warhol learned anything about magazine layout from Alexey Brodovitch during his days as an illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar, he never applied this knowledge to his own publication. The early issues resemble a knock-off of the original Rolling Stone, and for a quarter-century afterward, Interview conformed to a mundane four-column grid punctuated with huge pictures that was strictly at the service of the casual flip-through. In the early ’90s, the magazine’s design was greatly enriched, all too briefly, by the bold elegance of Fabien Baron and the daring wit of Tibor Kalman, both unrepresented in this collection.
The anthology also contains two magazines separated out from the rest of the reprints. One is a 28-page facsimile of the first issue, a gritty little quarter-fold rag on newsprint paper. Even with its misspellings, dropped columns, and shoddy format, it exudes a raw vitality and a tangy taste of downtown decadence. It’s also well-written, and includes a profile of Dennis Hopper, an Agnes Varda interview, and a smart piece titled “Film: Language and Literacy.” And in the intro to a lengthy, engaging conversation with film director George Cukor he tells the interviewer, “You want to ask some questions, but please don’t ask any stupid ones.” Unfortunately, that request has been ignored throughout most of the magazine’s later lifespan.
The other magazine is a copy of Interview‘s October 2004 35th anniversary issue. The cover image, an uninspired portrait of the World’s Most Interesting People by David LaChapelle, is barely distinguishable from Vanity Fair‘s standard group lineup. The contents, intended as a capsule overview of the magazine’s full history, do yield at least one refreshing moment from an archival exchange: Mick Jagger takes a swipe at an obliviously condescending comment made by the ’80s Warhol about the pleasures of hanging out at a Walgreens lunch counter with “the real people.” These people, we can safely assume, manage to live their lives without any guidance from Interview.
The only pure, unequivocal delight of the set comes with “The Back of the Book,” the last, and the slimmest, hardcover volume. This collection is composed entirely of Fran Lebowitz’s “I Cover the Waterfront” columns, essays in which the self-described curmudgeon cleverly skewers the dilettantes and social climbers glorified throughout the rest of the magazine. Subverting from within, her text feels outrageous, and even dangerous.
In spirit, Lebowitz serves as a symbolic reminder of an earlier Warhol, the most significant––and daring––avant-garde artist of the ’60s. This Warhol, rather than merely having recorded the natterings of the well-to-do, created a radical work of experimental literature, a: a novel, by transcribing the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of his Factory hangers-on and ne’er-do-wells. This Warhol’s continuous-take underground films were acts of savage cruelty as well as conceptual elegance. Perhaps most importantly, his Marilyn silk-screens, coarse and squalid, were a baleful indictment of the cult of celebrityhood. But by the 70s, the artist’s primary source of income was as a portraitist to the financially well-endowed, and Interview became his primary networking vehicle.
Once a master of the enigmatic sound bite, Warhol claimed that in order to understand him, we need only look at the surface. That advice is more appropriately applied to this box set, which possesses a shallowness of enormous depth. It’s less a coffee-table item than an actual, functioning end table. And ultimately, it’s a $475, 21st-century storehouse for a bygone era’s reference guide to ephemeral trends and conversations.
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