Raising the Andy
Factory worker Gerard Malanga remembers his Warhol days
Check out some old footage of the Velvet Underground performing at one of the elaborate multimedia shows the late Andy Warhol put on in the mid-1960s. You'll probably notice a guy dancing wildly, brandishing a whip. That would be Gerard Malanga. The Bronx native, who was then in his early twenties, also acted in or helped shoot many of the idiosyncratic underground films the Pop Art guru was cranking out. And in between otherwise long days of painting, Warhol and Malanga frequently partied.
Now a noted poet and photographer, Malanga is slated to appear in Burlington on February 9 for a program that coincides with the Fleming Museum's current exhibit, "Andy Warhol Work and Play." Still youthful and handsome at 59, he will read some of his verses and screen a few of those legendary films.
Four decades ago in New York City, Warhol recruited the unknown Velvets as a house band for what he called Exploding Plastic Inevitable Extravaganzas. Malanga had discovered the rock group playing in a Greenwich Village club. He linked his on-stage "choreography" to various props or mimed gestures -- twirling a whip for the song "Venus in Furs" and pretending to shoot up for "Heroin" -- to illustrate the subversive lyrics. "I didn't want to just be a go-go dancer," he explains during a telephone interview from his Brooklyn home.
But hoofing was not Malanga's steady gig. As a college student in 1963, he had heard from a mutual friend that Warhol needed an assistant to produce large silkscreened portraits of Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor for an upcoming exhibition in Los Angeles. The younger man, who had acquired that skill a few years earlier at a textile company, thought it would only be a summer job.
"Then he invited me to go with him," Malanga recalls. "I figured, 'People take semesters off.'"
That semester off evolved into a close seven-year association. After the project in California, he resumed his studies while also working for Warhol at The Factory, an enormous studio loft on East 47th Street. "It was too much to do both," Malanga remembers, adding that the dynamic demimonde ultimately won out. "I was smart, spontaneous and intuitive enough to know this was a good thing. I was fully aware that what we were doing had great significance."
Warhol, one of the 20th century's most influential artists, fetishized the ordinary and the iconic: soup cans, cows and Coke bottles could be as dazzling as Marilyn Monroe. He also hosted an informal salon that attracted the cultural avant-garde and the beautiful people. In addition to serving as a space for his painting, silkscreening and filmmaking activities, The Factory was celebration central.
In 1964 Warhol was experimenting with Screen Tests, for which people were asked to sit still as a 16mm camera on a tripod rolled. He and Malanga would walk away, leaving the subject to decide whether to remain immobile or be inventive during the three-minute reel.
In the 1990 documentary Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, which the Fleming will show on April 13, director Chuck Workman interviews a few Screen Test veterans. In one, Dennis Hopper's face contorts in anguish, demonstrating how he tapped into his training as a Method actor while posing for Warhol.
"They were movie portraits," Malanga says of the almost 500 shorts, some of which will unspool during his Fleming Museum stint. "Moving still photographs."
Warhol was nothing if not prolific. He made some 300 films, often with collaborator Paul Morrissey. Several of them featured Malanga, who notes, "They were basically plotless, even though we had scripts."
In a 1996 fictionalized cinematic account of The Factory milieu, I Shot Andy Warhol, the dialogue offers a typical Warholian exchange:
Reporter: "Why are you spending so much of your time making these underground films?"
Warhol: "Oh, uh, they're easier than making paintings."
Reporter: "Do you think painting is dead?"
Warhol: "Uh, no."
Reporter: "Well, do you think the cinema has more relevance?"
Warhol: "Uh, no."
Reporter: "Do you think Pop Art has become repetitive?"
Warhol: "Uh, yes."
In the Chuck Workman documentary, when a real-life journalist asks Warhol if there is "anything special you're trying to say in these films," he answers with the same ironic detachment: "Uh, no."
Vermonters can decide for themselves whether there's anything special when the museum presents Outer and Inner, a 66-minute movie with "superstar" Edie Sedgwick, on March 9. Andy Warhol: Portraits of the Artist as a Young Man, a series of "Screen Tests" Malanga began making of his mentor in 1964, will be shown during his February visit.
While Warhol was shooting Kiss, a mid-'60s compilation of smooching sequences, another actress was annoyed by the moustache of her French co-star. "I was asked to take Pierre's place," Malanga says. "That launched my acting career. I guess I never took it too seriously. I was terrible at memorizing lines."
His favorite roles, however, was in Camp -- seemingly a precursor to "American Idol." The 1965 production "was structured like a TV talent-scout show," Malanga says. "I was an MC in a tuxedo. It was very funny and charming, not at all boring."
Apparently the same cannot be said for other Warhol flicks. "Andy was notorious for being boring," Malanga suggests. But was that just the playful pose of a genius? "Well," he points out, "you can't fake boredom."
In June 1968 terror replaced ennui at The Factory, which by then had relocated to Union Square West. Malanga happened to walk into the building three minutes after Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas, a deranged arch-feminist who had been trying to insinuate herself into the hip downtown scene. "There was pandemonium," he says. "My gut reaction was to get his mother and take her to the hospital."
In Superstar, a TV crew seeks Malanga's assessment of the would-be assassin. "She's a very eccentric girl," he surmises, while standing beside a visibly shaken Warhol superstar named Viva.
The constellation at The Factory included gorgeous women like Ultraviolet, Edie Sedgwick and Nico, a German fashion model who had been installed as the Velvet Underground's lead singer. Warhol was also a magnet for woman wannabes: transvestites Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, later immortalized in song by former Undergrounder Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side."
Celebrities like Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Liza Minnelli also made the pilgrimage to Andyland. Even more than talent, however, glamour was paramount in Warhol's universe. The goal was notoriety.
"We wanted attention," Ultraviolet says in Super-star. "Fame was the cosmic glue of The Factory."
Warhol fostered a voyeuristic atmosphere of sexual liberation and gender blurring fueled by rampant drug use. His high society tumbled out of The Factory and into local hot spots like Max's Kansas City, where paparazzi were waiting to snap their photos for the vicarious pleasure of an awed public.
Although emblematic of the '60s, Warhol's coterie toyed with more decadence than the average hippie at a Human Be-In. Yet, he continued to work tirelessly, and successfully, to become a seminal force in the art world.
The atmosphere at The Factory changed after the 1968 shooting. "Everything became too businesslike," Malanga says. "There was a lot of internal politics."
A year later he and Warhol started Interview magazine, initially a film journal that Malanga co-edited. But after a journey to Europe, he began to distance himself from the old gang. It was time to reconnect with his own path.
Malanga then built a dual career as a published poet and professional shutterbug, with a detour in the mid-1980s as the photo archivist for New York City's Department of Parks and Recreation. He had already demonstrated an aptitude for such organizational detail in 1961, when he tracked down manuscripts for a university collection of Beat Genera-tion writers.
Now often "on the road" himself, Malanga is a globe-trotting artist -- without a whip.
Gerard Malanga's creativity surfaced years before his fateful meeting with Andy Warhol. The only child of a stay-at-home mom and a father who sold dry goods, Malanga says he "discovered his imagination" at age 11. That's when he watched Citizen Kane, the Orson Welles masterpiece, for seven nights in a row on television. "It hit a nerve," he recalls. "I learned that I had sensitivity, I had a soul. It really anticipated my becoming a poet."
Soon after, Malanga began playing with images. Inspired by a book of historic New York City photos, he took pictures with his little Brownie Hawk-eye camera while riding on the now-defunct Third Avenue El train. His parents encouraged him to take after-school art classes.
While still a teenager, he and his girlfriend were among the "regulars" dancing each weekday afternoon on "The Big Beat," DJ Alan Freed's "American Bandstand"-like television show on ABC in 1959. That broadcast experience may have given him a taste for the spotlight, presaging the Warhol crowd's obsession with "15 minutes of fame."
Malanga flunked out after a year at Ohio's University of Cincinnati, where he majored in graphic design. But back in New York, he won a full scholarship from Staten Island's Wagner College by repeating his freshman year and earning straight A's. Academia quickly gave way to artistic exploration, however, when his temporary job with Warhol turned into the odyssey of a lifetime.
Malanga is one of the lucky survivors of that proverbial long, strange trip. Many of his colleagues died too early of substance abuse and other unnatural causes. "I tended to live a life of moderation... of sorts," Malanga explains in Superstar. "Perhaps that's why I'm talking here now."
He looks back at the Warhol era with admiration. "Today, it's all very conformist and homogenized," Malanga observes on the phone. "But in the 1960s we had an age of innocence that was totally revolutionary and mind-expanding and tumultuous."