If I’d gone ahead and died ten years ago, I’d probably be a cult figure today. By 1960, when Pop Art first came out in New York, the art scene here had so much going for it that even all the stiff European types had to finally admit we were a part of world culture. Abstract Expressionism had already become an institution, and then, in the last part of the fifties, Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg and others had begun to bring art back from abstraction and introspective stuff. Then Pop Art took the inside and put it outside, took the outside and put it inside.
The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second—comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles—all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.
One of the phenomenal things about the Pop painters is that they were already painting alike when they met. My friend Henry Geldzahler, curator of twentieth-century art at the Metropolitan Museum before he was appointed official culture czar of New York, once described the beginnings of Pop this way: “It was like a science fiction movie—you Pop artists in different parts of the city, unknown to each other, rising up out of the muck and staggering forward with your paintings in front of you.”
The person I got my art training from was Emile de Antonio—when I first met De, I was a commercial artist. In the sixties De became known for his films on Nixon and McCarthy, but back in the fifties he was an artists’ agent. He connected artists with everything from neighborhood movie houses to department stores and huge corporations. But he only worked with friends; if De didn’t like you, he couldn’t be bothered.
De was the first person I know of to see commercial art as real art and real art as commercial art, and he made the whole New York art world see it that way, too.
In the fifties John Cage lived near De in the country, up in Pomona, and they’d gotten to be good friends. De produced a concert of John’s there, and that’s how he first met Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg. “They were both of them on their hands and knees driving nails, building the set,” De told me once. “They were penniless then, living down on Pearl Street, and they’d take baths when they came out to the country because they had no shower at their place—just a little sink to take a whore’s bath in.”
De got Jasper and Bob work doing windows at Tiffany’s for Gene Moore, and for those jobs, rather than use their real names, they both used the same pseudonym—“Matson Jones.”
“Bob would have all these commercial ideas for the window displays, and some of them,” De once said, “could be very bad. But a really interesting one he had was to put stuff down on blueprint paper so you’d get a transfer of image. That was around ’55 when you couldn’t give away one of his paintings.” De laughed his hefty laugh, evidently recalling the wide range of Bob’s ideas. “His displays that were crude were beautiful, but the ones that were sort of ‘arty’ were terrible.” I remember De telling me all this so well, because right at that point he said, “I don’t know why you don’t become a painter, Andy—you’ve got more ideas than anybody around.”
Even a few other people had told me that. I was never sure, though, what my place could be in the whole painting scene. De’s support and his open attitude gave me confidence.
After I’d done my first canvases, De was the person I wanted to show them to. He could always see the value of something right off. He wouldn’t hedge with
“Where does it come from?” or “Who did it?” He would just look at something and tell you exactly what he thought. He’d often stop by my place for drinks late in the afternoon—he lived right in the neighborhood—and we’d usually just gab while I showed him whatever commercial drawings or illustrations I was working on. I loved to listen to De talk. He spoke beautifully, in a deep, easy voice with every comma and period falling into place. (He’d once taught philosophy at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and literature at the City College of New York.) He made you feel somehow that if you listened to him long enough, you’d probably pick up everything you’d ever need to know in life. We’d both have a lot of whiskey out of some Limoges cups I had, my serving system at the time. De was a heavy drinker, but I had my fair share, too.
I worked at home in those days. My house was on four floors, including a living area in the basement where the kitchen was and where my mother lived with a lot of cats, all named Sam. (My mother had shown up one night at the apartment where I was living with a few suitcases and shopping bags, and she announced that she’d left Pennsylvania for good “to come live with my Andy.” I told her okay, she could stay, but just until I got a burglar alarm. I loved Mom, but frankly I thought she’d get tired of the city pretty quick and miss Pennsylvania and my brothers and their families. But as it turned out, she didn’t, and that’s when I decided to get this house uptown.) She had the downstairs part and I lived on the upper floors and worked on the parlor floor that was sort of schizo—half like a studio, full of drawings and art supplies, and half like a regular living room. I always kept the blinds drawn—the windows faced west and not much light came in anyway—and the walls were wood-paneled. There was a somber feeling about that room. I had some Victorian furniture mixed in with an old wooden carousel horse, a carnival punching machine, Tiffany lamps, a cigar store Indian, stuffed peacocks, and penny arcade machines.
My drawings were stacked neatly, I was very organized about that. I’ve always been a person who’s semiorganized, constantly fighting the tendency to clutter, and there were all these little piles of things in bunches here and there that I hadn’t had a chance to sort through.
At five o’clock one particular afternoon the doorbell rang and De came in and sat down. I poured Scotch for us, and then I went over to where two paintings I’d done, each about six feet high and three feet wide, were propped, facing the wall. I turned them around and placed them side by side against the wall and then I backed away to take a look at them myself. One of them was a Coke bottle with Abstract Expressionist hash marks halfway up the side. The second one was just a stark, outlined Coke bottle in black and white. I didn’t say a thing to De. I didn’t have to—he knew what I wanted to know. “Well, look, Andy,” he said after staring at them for a couple of minutes. “One of these is a piece of shit, simply a little bit of everything. The other is remarkable—it’s our society, it’s who we are, it’s absolutely beautiful and naked, and you ought to destroy the first one and show the other.”
That afternoon was an important one for me.
I can’t even count the number of people after that day who when they saw my paintings burst out laughing. But De never thought Pop was a joke.
As he was leaving he looked down at my feet and said, “When the hell are you going to ...