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The Warhol exhibit: A serious message delivered by ridiculous cows

Oct 28, 2020
Originally published on November 2, 2020 1:47 pm

It was 1966, and Armand Schaubroeck was ready for his close-up.

“He had us sit on that couch that’s on The Velvet Underground album,” Schaubroeck says. “I don’t know if he was trying to make the couch famous, but that’s where he shot most of his photos and his screen tests.”

He, being Andy Warhol. The couch, being in Warhol’s Manhattan studio of culture and counterculture, The Factory. Three years later, that couch did indeed become famous -- as famous as a piece of furniture can get -- when it appeared on the cover of a Velvet Underground album. With Lou Reed and the band sitting on it, looking very relaxed.

Schaubroeck’s moment on the casting couch had passed.

Thirty-three years after Warhol died at age 58, “Season of Warhol” has arrived as the newest exhibition at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery. Schaubroeck and the production of “Armand Schaubroeck Steals,” never came to pass, and you can read more about what the founder of the House of Guitars and Warhol were up to when the November issue of CITY magazine, and the CITY and WXXI websites, publish that story next week. Rest assured, or rest unsettled if that suits you better, Rochester has had its Warholian moments.

Moments that feel at one with “Season of Warhol.”

This is the first Warhol exhibit to reach Rochester, and Memorial Art Gallery Director Jonathan Binstock is clearly excited about it. But he has been here before; Binstock was a co-author of “Andy Warhol: Social Observer,” the catalog for an exhibition in 2000, while he was assistant curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

“Season of Warhol” is built around a Bank of America collection called “Andy Warhol Portfolios: A Life in Pop.” Nearly 100 Warhol prints, some of which are instantly identifiable with his legacy. A portrait of Marilyn Monroe, the colors exploding with her saucy laugh.

To this, the Memorial Art Gallery has added to the exhibit three more “Season of Warhol” sections. “Warhol TV” has been curated by the museum itself. It gathers the artist’s rough-looking video experiments, his MTV celebrity interview program “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes,” and other material.

Cow Wallpaper” starts with exactly what it says it is. Wallpaper depicting cows, the only Warhol art project that remains ongoing; by contractual obligation, every piece must be destroyed when the exhibit comes down on March 28. “Cow Wallpaper” covers the north wall of the MAG’s Vanden Brul Pavilion. “It’s completely banal, it’s like, ‘What is this?’ ” Binstock says. “It’s fluorescent yellow and pink, it’s ridiculous.”

Silver Clouds” reflects the silver painted and aluminum-foil decor in the interiors of Warhol’s famous studios over the years, The Factory. There were actually three Factories over the years, from 1962 through 1984, with helium-filled silver balloons, adrift. A metaphor for the artist himself.

Schaubroeck knew Warhol, at least from a distance. He estimates he made about 25 visits to The Factory, which had three different New York City locations.

“He was a genius for sure, everything he did,” Schaubroeck says. “I saw a lot of like runaway artists that dropped out of college, and they’re painting and he’s kind of walking along, directing them. He’d put on a couple touches and sign it. He loved mass-produced art, that was more important than just sitting there and doing a straight painting. That’s why he called it The Factory.”

But things changed after 1968, when Warhol was the victim of arguably the most famous artist assassination attempt in history. He was shot and nearly killed by Valerie Solanas, a paranoid schizophrenic hanger-on at The Factory whose writings called for the elimination of men. Warhol was hospitalized for months.

“All of a sudden, security became important to him, because Valerie shot him from point blank, and kept shooting him,” Schaubroeck says. Now visitors had to pass through a series of metal doors before being granted admission to The Factory.

What was it about Schaubroeck that drew him to Warhol, to the point that he allowed Schaubroeck entry into his realm of counterculture curios?

Was the attraction ignited by Warhol’s wildly diverse sense of art: That contrasts define the message?

As a young neighborhood burglar, Schaubroeck had done time in juvenile detention at Elmira Correctional Facility. Warhol liked the songs of “Armand Schaubroeck Steals,” his prison-concept album; no one was really doing concept albums in 1966.

Similarly, something about Schaubroeck’s monochromatic vocals and black-leather jacket punk ethos led Warhol to Lou Reed as well.

But “Armand Schaubroeck Steals,” looking at prison through a different prism, was a creature of a different color.

“Because, we had a scene where a Black and a white man are fighting over a comic book,” Schaubroeck says, “because the comic’s got all these cool colors in it, and jail’s all gray and your clothes are denim, and bars are black and everything. So this color thing sticks out to you. There’s no feminine anything or colors or anything in prison.”

But going from acting sequences to music presented staging issues, as Schaubroeck discovered. “If I’m having a knife fight or something with somebody, the guitar will just be hanging there, and then I walk up to the mic and say, ‘Uh, we’re just arguing over the comic book…’”

…. And Schaubroeck slips into the disturbed dialect of his character from almost six decades ago. “…I just want to look at the colalalalalalala, I wish to see colahhh.”

Let’s go back to “Cow Wallpaper.” And those garishly colored cows, juxtaposed against pieces from Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series. Prints largely inspired from photos that Warhol pulled from newspapers. Including the electric chair that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, died in.

“He’s weighing into a moment that’s very hot, an issue that’s very hot and very topical in the early ’60s,” Binstock says. “And that’s this debate over capital punishment.”

The contrast is deliberate. These extremes came from the same mind?

“Now you’re really getting at the tension in Warhol’s art,” Binstock says. “Between subject matter that has significance, that harbors some kind of critical take on American culture.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.

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