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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
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So Much Depends on a Red Soup Can

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Let’s start with three ironies that Andy would have loved:

First, Peter Oresick, Andy’s poetic biographer, discovered the iconographic Pop Artist as a nine-year-old perusing My Weekly Reader, the pulp newspaper for elementary school children.

Second, having shared his new find with his mother, she claimed a distant relation through their shared kinship as Carpatho-Rusyns, the smallest and least known Slavic ethnic group. “It was an inside family hoot for us,” Oresick recalls. “I’ve been following Andy Warhol ever since.”

Third, on the cusp of publishing his own Warhol-o-rama, a quirky and obsessive study of Andy Warhol to be issued by the CMU Press on August 6, Warhol’s 80th birthday, after three years of near-monkish research (the fruits of which fill two shelves of his Highland Park manse), Oresick remains mystified by his subject. “I feel like a sociologist trying to understand the Warholian experience,” he says. “He’s everything and nothing all at once.”

Some things remain. “I’m in sheer wonder over his global fame,” Oresick says, “which is off the charts. “I still find that incredible – especially 21 years after his death. Because rationally he should not be popular. But the whole of Warhol is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Deeply Superficial
Well, who was Andy? As the authoritative Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred tells us:

“The man who defined himself as ‘a deeply superficial person’ was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, 1928. The son of Slovakian immigrants, Warhol lived in Oakland, on Dawson Street, and attended St. John Byzantine Catholic Church. Sickly as well as noticeably talented as a child, Warhol drew in bed – and collected photos of movie stars.

'Graduating Schenley High in 1945, and Carnegie Tech in 1949 with a bachelor of fine arts degree, Warhol moved to New York City. Pursuing a career in commercial art, he quickly became a successful magazine illustrator for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, among others and by 1956, his work had appeared in the Museum of Modern Art.

“Frustrated by the disconnect between his commercial work and artistic aspirations, in the early 1960s Warhol merged the two. Focusing on the superficial in popular culture, Warhol began to make paintings and sculptures of such famous American products as Campbell’s Soup cans, Brillo boxes, and Coca-Cola bottles – and silkscreens of such pop icons as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy and Troy Donahue.”

A Contradiction Here and There
Then there are the incredible contradictions in the man’s life, not the least of which was a deeply religious outlook coupled with drug-besotted homo-eroticism and pornography. A lifelong practicing Byzantine Rite Catholic who often attended daily Mass and regularly volunteered at New York City homeless shelters, Warhol presided over what Joseph Conrad, in another context, termed “unspeakable rites" at his notorious Factory.

So Oresick’s effort – which he calls “a serial portrait of Andy Warhol; a concept album” -- is noble, perhaps Sisyphusian. Trying to solve the cipher that was Warhol, he comes up against a superficial and banal man who produced content-less, mass-produced copy work, all-too-familiar pop images dolled up in day-glo and pastels to look relentlessly...familiar!

Not perpetuating the Warhol myth but instead dissecting the riddle, Oresick denies nothing – this is Warhol, warts and all. Warhol the voyeur, the manipulator, the user par excellence. This is the lives destroyed or abandoned around him, the endless exploitation of other people’s weaknesses for his own profit – and voyeuristic entertainment. “He’s got a lot of sins that are quite public,” Oresick admits. Yet, he adds, people seem perfectly content to ignore them – or love Warhol all the more for being the bad boy who made good.

Oft-published poet, veteran of the Pitt Press and the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation; of teaching posts at Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, Chatham, even CAPA High, Oresick broke on the scene three decades ago with The Story of Glass, a chapbook that examined the toll taken on blue-collar lives. Followed by Other Lives (1985), An American Peace (1985), and Definitions (1990), Oresick proved himself a fine craftsman with a solid sense of character and language. His anthology Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life (1990) netted favorable nods from the New York Times, National Public Radio, and the Village Voice. A companion volume, For a Living: The Poetry of Work (1995) was hailed by the Wall Street Journal.

So Much for Genius
Tackling Andy, Oresick comes to grips with a slew of Warholiana, 80,000 pieces in all, virtually all of it done by others. “It’s the ultimate irony,” Oresick says. “He has a reputation for genius. Yet Marilyn Monroe is from a publicity still – and he had assistants do it.

“He keeps going on and on and on,” Oresick marvels, so much so that Warhol seems to have taken up permanent residence on the Top Ten Dead Earners list. “How can he do that?” Oresick muses.  “How can his currency keep going up?”

Writing some 100 poems, all in different styles and voices, Oresick whittled them down to 52, including such gems as “Andy Warhol for Short Attention Spans,” “Andy Warhol for Carpatho-Rusyns: A Polka” (“Oh, I don’t want him, you can have him,/He’s too swish for me.”), “Andy Warhol for the Psychologically Disabled,” and “Andy Warhol for Willem de Kooning” (“I hate Andy Warhol I hate Andy/Warhol I hate Andy Warhol I”). Throughout, the spiritus loci is Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” in which the great poet famously looks at a blackbird 13 ways. So here there are third-person narratives, Warholian adaptations, parodies, found poetry. “It’s not Poetry with a capital P,” Oresick beams. “It’s Warholian in that way. It’s light.”

Sliced into six sections – Warhollabaloo, Warholevision, Warholanomics, Warholocaust, Warholafatigue, Warholastalgia – the book’s highlight is the dead-on send-ups of various poets, including Stevens, William Carlos Williams (“so much depends/upon/a red soup/can”), Allen Ginsberg (“Andy Warhol I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing”), and many more.

Terrific stuff, Peter. But after years of research and writing, at long last is there a way you make sense of Warhol? “I can’t,” he shrugs. “Andy said, ‘always leave them wanting less.’”
Got comments on this story? Email info@popcitymedia.com

Abby Mendelson’s latest book, End of the Road, a collection of short short stories, is available at amazon and bn.com.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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