Bob Colacello, SoA ’71, knew and worked closely with Andy Warhol, and in 1990 published the book “Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up,” exploring the late artist’s life and work. “Holy Terror” was recently rereleased with a new introduction by Colacello, and Spectator spoke with the Columbia alumnus about what it was like capturing the famous artist in words.
EMILIA ALVAREZ: “Holy Terror” was originally published in 1990 and now, over 20 years later, it has been rereleased. What makes it relevant enough to our times that people who weren’t around 23 years ago to read it should find it pertinent right now?
BOB COLACELLO: Well I think the reason is because one, the Warhol phenomenon is just bigger than ever and I think the generations that are coming after mine—the baby boomer generation—are curious and even fascinated about the whole Andy Warhol world and the whole era of the ’70s, the disco, Studio 54. I mean, it’s a long book—in paperback it’s like 700 pages—and it’s also an e-book now. Quite frankly, when it came out in 1990, and I read it myself in hardcover form, I remember thinking, “Oh, why did I make this so detailed?” or “Why did I make this so emotional? It seems petty and vengeful.” But now, so many friends have told me the same thing—it’s all like history, you know, and Andy turned out to be widely seen as such a major figure, not just of art but of culture in general, for the latter half of the 20th century. So now I think somehow that it’s more relevant. I like it a lot better now, actually.
EA: One of the reasons why “Holy Terror” is one of the most respected Andy Warhol portraits is because of the revealing account of his contradictory but still enigmatic personality. What was one thing that you learned from him as a result of knowing him so intimately?
BC: The lesson I took away from working with Andy closely and spending so much time with him and having him share his feelings—which he would always try to hide from most people—was that fame is no guarantee of happiness, money is no guarantee of happiness. And that sounds like such a cliché, but I felt sorry for Andy. The more I got to know him, the sorrier I felt for him, because he was so driven, he wanted so much to be beautiful. And he had such a hard time connecting to people, and I realized that I was lucky that I found it easy to make friends and to get close to people, and I think that’s one of the things Andy liked about me. But Andy really opened up to me, I think more than he did to a lot of people—well, most people.
I just learned a lot about life. And it took me a while to learn those lessons. We were the first postwar, widely college-educated, generally affluent generation in America, and everything was new—the sexual revolution was new, being gay was new, taking drugs was new, disco was new, the art was new, the music. Another lesson I learned from Andy is that you can’t be nostalgic. So I guess that’s a lesson I learned from Andy—look ahead, not behind. His motto was, “fast, easy, cheap and modern.” And I think that’s true, too—if something requires too much effort or too much money or too much time then maybe it’s the wrong thing to be doing. On the other hand, I’m on my 14th year of working on a two-volume biography of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, so I haven’t followed that approach on that project.
EA: In Columbia’s Core Curriculum, one of the required courses, Masterpieces of Western Art, celebrates and teaches us about artists in the Western canon. Andy Warhol is the last artist that we learn about. In your opinion, what is it about Warhol’s work—as an artist, photographer, filmmaker—that grants him that spot in the syllabus and in the canon in general?
BC: Well, I think that probably more than any artist of his generation, he represented his time. I think because he operated in so many different media and because he was a very public artist—he was out there engaging people and asking people about their lives, and tape recording and taking photographs—I think he really had his finger on the pulse of the times, as they say. But I also think what makes Andy’s art kind of universal is that he grew up in the Byzantine or Eastern Orthodox Church and he spent a lot of time going to church with his mother, who was extremely religious.
Andy grew up staring at these flat portraits of saints with flat gold backgrounds. And to me, when I went to that church, I thought, “Wow, this is where Andy’s portraits come from.” And I think that Andy was, in a way, a religious artist for a secular time. I think he created—in Marilyn and Elvis and Liz and Jackie and Mao and Lenin and even in the dollar signs and soup cans—icons. In the real religious sense, these were objects, these were people, saints, if you will, that people worshipped. I just think that Andy created icons, religious works for our time. And people need a religion, people need to worship something, and Andy somehow figured out who they wanted to worship or who they were worshipping—Jackie, Elvis, Marilyn. Every religion, every culture has saints, has icons, something to look up to and to worship. It’s a form of escape, irrationality, or mystery. But human beings—we’re not just rational, we’re not just scientific, we’re kind of mixed up. And we just think we’re not.