At the center of his influence stood The Factory. Between 1962 and 1984 The Factory would inhabit three locations, residing first in Manhattan’s Midtown neighborhood at East 47th street, until it moved downtown to the Union Square West neighborhood where it remained until 1973. Then it moved again just slightly north of Union Square Park. The symbolic transition in its move downtown hints at a larger meaning behind the Factory as a creative hub during New York’s most buzzing period. Warhol’s studio was the cultural scene made tangible. For many, the Factory was the great equalizer, a space that galvanized the beginning stages of a cultural shift that would obfuscate the differences between fame and the ordinary. It was there that Warhol’s identity shifted from lover of celebrity to a celebrity in his own right, hosting legendary parties wherein the underground denizens of the downtown scene would rub shoulders with some of the culture’s most esteemed elite. Here, anybody was allowed. And out of this multifarious crowd of scenesters he created his own unique brand of Warhol superstars.
“New York City during the Factory era changed from an old-world interpretation of art to the modern-world interpretation of art,” says famed photographer William John Kennedy, the Factory’s unofficial party photographer. Kennedy captured some of the most important and legendary moments in 20th century popular culture. He was introduced to Warhol via friend and fellow artist Robert Indiana (the man behind the famous “LOVE” sculpture) at MoMA’s Americans 1963 exhibition. Both Indiana and Warhol had work in the exhibition, and Warhol spoke excitedly of his forthcoming studio space. Yet it wasn’t until Kennedy actually stepped foot in what would soon become the Factory, that he understood its full breadth.
“Total amazement,” he says, referring to his initial reaction upon entering. “Amazement of the piles and piles and piles of Andy’s artwork in various stages of completion.” Beyond its cultural capital as the hippest place to rub shoulders, Kennedy is quick to remind what the key goal of the space itself represented. “The Factory was an art factory. It was set up to churn out Andy’s creative visions, and that is what occurred… it was the epicenter of creative inspiration, a revolving door of creativity and mayhem–controlled chaos. Probably the most creative souls on earth passed through those doors.”
A precious few of those famous souls got to wander the Factory’s foil covered halls without being captured by Kennedy’s lens but, according to Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum, it’s the portraits of Warhol himself that are by far the most evocative. “The Kennedy photos are perhaps the most intimate portraits of Andy that I have ever seen,” Shiner says. “They capture him at the point of his arrival as a true art star and yet he remains his humble, fun-loving, playful self in each frame. They humanize him in a way that few photos do, and if anything, they add to the mythology of Warhol as the benevolent, happy person that he truly was, and yet is rarely celebrated as.”
In fact, it’s that very intimacy that Shiner is most interested in exploring through the exhibiting and archiving of Kennedy’s photographs. While people look at the Factory era as the apex of creative hobnobbing, Shiner remembers the art world of the era as something more insular than its mythology would have one believe. “It is important to note that the ‘art world’ in NYC in the 1950s and 1960s was a relatively small group of people and galleries,” Shiner explains. “The early pioneers of the art scene were filled with passion, energy and excitement, all helping to make sure that art was a part of the vibrancy of a newly powerful America.” Still, even Shiner is quick to acknowledge that for its relatively inclusive size, the art scene was in no small way fostered and filtered through Warhol’s radical new gaze. “That Warhol defined this moment is by no means an understatement; in so many ways, the Factory and its ever-rotating cast of characters perfectly represented the energy of the city at that very moment in time.”
Much of that was embodied by the Factory’s open door ethos, which mirrored New York’s own sense of perpetual embracement of outsiders. Insofar as the city itself had become home to an ever-increasing number of radical and creative youth, the Factory largely followed suit. “The Factory always had an open door to anyone,” Kennedy remembers. “You could just walk in right off the street. There were celebrities, magazine editors, museum people, and a wild assortment of hangers-on who sat around smoking pot and waiting for Andy to order lunch… it didn’t matter if you were black, white, gay or straight – you just had to be interesting to survive.”
Still, the most impressive element of the Factory mythos was that Warhol’s work always seemed to come first despite an endless parade of stimuli that the studio offered. Indeed, the Factory, named after both the monochromatic color scheme of its foil-covered interior and the conveyor belt of assistants helping with silk screening, lived up to its productive title. “Throughout the whirlwind, Andy stayed relentlessly on-task, creating his art without interference from this mob scene,” Kennedy recalls.
It was paramount to Warhol that his creative space was teeming with as much creative energy as possible. It was largely this idea that made the Factory a place of both productivity and nihilism at once. For Shiner, an understanding of Andy and his work requires an understanding of The Factory as a creative space. “It reflected his personality as an eclectic and eccentric place to express oneself,” he says. According to Shiner, the difference between the energy of the work and the energy of the people is negligible. “It served as a retreat when Andy was there working late into the night all by himself. It grounded him, fueled him and inspired him in countless ways.”
To understand Warhol, Shiner explains, one needs to understand the degree to which he represented the medium’s collaborative potential. Warhol’s Factory was a legendary space precisely because it managed to capture the way in which he was inspired by his Factory members just as much as he inspired them. That very symbiotic energy helped foster an environment that produced some of his most immediately recognizable works, such as the iconic Marilyn Monroe prints, the creation of which Kennedy happened to be there first-hand to document. “Andy was standing in the doorway of the fire escape at The Factory and next to him was a stack of rolled up acetates he used to make his silkscreen painting,” Kennedy recalls. “I asked him to hold one up just as this magnificent light was pouring through the door. He reached over and pulled one off the roll and it happened to be Marilyn. I fired off six shots and some of my most iconic images happened in that split second. Sometimes it is just fate.”
In a sense, Kennedy’s photography is the closest the public will ever get to re-living the era itself. To him, the most fascinating element is largely the culture’s continued obsession with the era of the Factory’s reign. Even after all these years, the Factory and its denizens are a source of constant inspiration and tribute in the annals of fashion, music, and art. “People tend to romanticize the era that my photographs capture because it was such an amazing time teeming with life and change,” Kennedy remarks. “Everyone was inspired, and everyone was part of it.”
Nowhere was this persistent fascination with Warhol and his superstars more apparent than in 2013’s Academy Award nominated Dallas Buyers Club. In the film, Jared Leto (who took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), plays Rayon, a transgender AIDS victim at the height of the disease’s scare in the 1980s. Rayon’s tight-fitting scarf caps, bleached eyebrows, and a uniquely colorful make-up pallet are more than a little reminiscent of one of The Factory’s most infamous figures: Warhol muse and superstar, Jane Forth. “It’s funny, you know, I’ve had a partner for 18 years now and he has a twin brother and when we went to see [Dallas Buyers Club] I didn’t tell the twin brother that the character was designed off of my look,” says Forth, whose own awareness of the film’s inspiration came from a New York Times article that referenced the similarities. “At the end of the movie he came up to me and said, ‘Wasn’t that bizarre how much [Leto] looked like you in that film?’ And I said, ‘That’s because the look was created from some photographs of me!’” she laughs. Forth has been the inspiration for many of the era’s most historic trends—from Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap-around dresses, to the proliferation of colored eye shadow—but she still considers her time as a fixture of the Factory to be her contribution to popular culture. “At a lot of the runway shows I’ve seen them do the whole look – the faces I created,” she said, “And that makes me feel nice. I say if I leave this world and I’ve been an inspiration for something then I feel successful – that’s success to me.”
Forth represents a decidedly different era in the Factory’s history, having come into the fold in the late 1960s, when the institution was in a transitional state, shifting from artist’s lounge to legitimate studio. It was during this era that Warhol began to seek commissioned portraits of wealthy political and cultural figureheads such as John Lennon, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, and, most famously, China’s communist leader General Mao Zedong. In 1968 Warhol launched Interview, the magazine produced by the Factory and noted for featuring conversations among some of the culture’s most celebrated figures. The publication began circulating through the Factory itself, handed out to the crowd that would frequent the studio, as well as on street corners, where Warhol would often be seen handing out copies to passersby. This same era saw the emergence of the disco boom, which prompted a newly developed downtown scene that Warhol and his posse frequented. While the Factory still remained a well-established gathering ground for some of New York’s most hip figures, suddenly Max’s Kansas City and Studio 54 became new hot spots, where Warhol was often spotted with some of the epoch’s most famous faces, from Brooke Shields to Blondie.
There was no larger catalyst for radical changes in the Factory’s spirit than Warhol’s attempted murder in 1968 by radical feminist Valerie Solanas. Solanas had been a fringe fixture in The Factory’s scene and had written the 1967 S.C.U.M. Manifesto, claiming that the next wave in progressive feminist politics would require the elimination of men entirely. On June 3, 1968 — the same year that saw the rise of the Black Power movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the growing presence of anti-war activism, and the rise of the Manson Cult — Solanas arrived at the Factory hell-bent on violently settling a perceived grudge exacerbated by her then-undiagnosed Schizophrenia. She shot at Warhol three times, the final bullet entering his lungs, spleen, stomach, liver, and esophagus. She also wounded two others. Everyone survived, but many say Warhol was never the same afterward, and neither was the Factory’s carefree atmosphere.
“The Factory always had an open door to anyone. You could just walk in right off the street,” Kennedy recalls. Though he wasn’t around the Factory for the period after it, he could still feel the larger ripple effect the shooting caused. “Things changed unfortunately and it was much more guarded after that horrible day.” The general vibe that the Factory took in the months following the shooting made for a truly altered space, focusing heavily on Warhol’s recovery. The studio’s open door policy shifted into a closer-knit circle of Andy’s confidants. The party atmosphere changed to better accommodate Warhol’s increased focus on his work and the drugs were suddenly nowhere to be found. “Those were earlier days. I was in the non-drug days,” Forth says. “He didn’t do the drugs, he didn’t want the craziness. He was over that. That phase was over. Now it was down to business.”
Many still consider the Factory only on the basis of its hard-partying days but Forth’s fondness extends far beyond the chaos that colors this nostalgia. For her, people tend to consider the era on its most exaggerated level, while it was the quieter, more intimate moments that proved most memorable. “People want to look at the wildness. Maybe they look at the quiet days as boring, but I really looked at it as like, ‘Boy, this is magical. This is a very magical time in my life.’” For an icon like Forth, whose own sensibilities are still being cultivated and referenced today, the Factory represented more than just a “scene”. It captured the era in all its energetic confusion, in all its creative impulses. It was a space in which the creative talents of the era found inspiration. That, to her, trumps the clothing and the imagery tenfold. “The pendulum always swings back,” Forth says, referring to the endless enchantment with Warhol’s time and place. “There are special times in life and they don’t come that often. You have the roaring 1920s and you’ve got the 60s which are very special, transitional times.”
Shiner agrees wholeheartedly. “It was a period of great social flux, immense hipness and growing pocketbooks. It is the moment in time when America becomes the dominant culture power in the world, and New York City the epicenter of the art world.” To him, the Factory’s reputation was the best embodiment of the elusive Warhol himself and cemented him and its walls as legendary. “It became as much a part of the Warhol myth as Andy himself,” he says. “I’m sure that urban legends about the Factory are much more interesting than what was really the case… but it became a place of mystery and a place that everyone really wanted to visit.”
Shiner and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh recently celebrated their 20th Anniversary and are fittingly honoring it as only Warhol would have wanted: with a party. “We are celebrating this milestone full-tilt Warhol-style, with a jetset-themed party that harkens back to Andy’s global lifestyle in the late 70s and early 80s. There are going to be lots of fun surprises…I’m especially thrilled to be directing the museum at this point in time as I was one of the hundreds of people standing on queue the night of the original opening in May of 1994.”
So far, there seems to be no shortage of new findings, with the most exciting among them being Warhol’s recently uncovered Time Capsules: 608 boxes, one filing cabinet, and one trunk filled with oddities from Warhol’s everyday life. Shiner and the other curators are just wrapping up the six-year-long cataloguing process, proving once and for all that Warhol’s reputation as an artist with an unending set of surprises seems to be firmly in place.
Kennedy, whose photos are the cornerstone of the museum’s Pittsburgh location, seems to be in agreement. “It is hard to look around today and not see a little bit of Andy everywhere.” For anyone who ever stepped foot in the Factory or dreamed of what a moment in the studio might have felt like. The Factory was, in the end, perhaps his greatest work of art. For Kennedy, it made good on Andy’s most obsessive passion: fame. “Who hasn’t heard of Andy Warhol?”
Article by Rod Bastanmehr for the Legendary Issue 7.
Jane Forth Interview by Indira Cesarine.