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Visiting the boho underbelly of Andy Warhol’s New York City


Andy Warhol is the source of one of my favourite quotes of all time—the late Pop Art pioneer once said: “Sometimes people let the same problem make them miserable for years when they could just say, So what. That’s one of my favourite things to say. So what.” (At the risk of sounding like a cliched travel advert forcing you to spend money you don’t have to find yourself when endless bills have no problem doing that for you…) when you’re in need of some “So what” liberation, why not head to New York City! After all, no place on Earth embodies the laissez-faire lifestyle quite like the concrete jungle they, for some reason, call The Big Apple.

As another of the many adopted citizen of New York, the punk pioneer Richard Hell once asserted: “Things always change, and New York teaches you that.” Indeed, it changed around young Warhol in a hurry, yet his stamp on the city is still there for all to see if you head to the right darkened corners. He left his native Pittsburgh in 1949 and ventured East to the Big Apple where a far more bohemian world embraced him, and he soon found himself the zeitgeist king.

His early days in advertising soon gave way to exhibitions where his whimsical shoes created a new notion of consumerism. With his quirky footwear depictions, he wasn’t selling a product, but a chic lifestyle of which the shoe was part. Alongside this was another lifestyle that people weren’t so keen to buy into—he openly illustrated the nude male form in daring drawings. Despite the single line abstraction that brought the imagination into play more so than any gaudy detail, the world wasn’t ready for Warhol in that sense yet, and in a way, that was forever his prerogative.

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With his daring attitude set in stone, he soon resided over a bohemian revolution like some sort of near-silent spiritual numen. Behind black rims, he had his peepers on every corner of the city and the art that it had to toss-up. New York became his giant exhibition, and he was the grand curator. As David Bowie once said: “I met him on any number of occasions. I mean, in New York in the 1970s and early ’80s it was impossible, virtually, to go anywhere without not seeing Warhol because he would go everywhere.”

In this sense, you might think of him as an ever-present wallflower whose influence has since faded, and his footsteps are impossible to follow in, but that is far from the case. He might have gone everywhere, but he also had a few favourite hide-outs that still bring back Warhol’s bohemian wonderland quicker than it took for him to complete one of his five-second sketches. Below we’ve curated the must-see places on your whistle-stop tour exploring Warhol’s wonderous ‘So what’ odyssey. Naturally, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum go without saying, so below, we’ve focussed on his lesser-known haunts.

Exploring Andy Warhol’s New York:

The Factory

If you’ve heard of Warhol, then you’ve heard of The Factory. In fact, it is a mark of Warhol’s artistry that he is more synonymous with a studio than any other artist in history. It was in these bohemian hives that wild parties used to ensue.

The perfect depiction of this wild scene comes from the film Midnight Cowboy, after production assistant Michael Childers had a sudden redesign on the original novel that the film is based on. “I said, ‘Look! In the book, it just says, ‘A party in Sue’s in Greenwich Village.’ ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Let’s turn it into something completely Warhol.’ I had all the superstars in it – Ultra Violet, International Velvet, Paul Jabara, Hollywood Blonde, Paul Morrissey, Joe D’Alessandro, Taylor Mead, Patti D’Arbanville and Andy really wanted to be in it.”

He continued: “Problem was that he was shot the week before by Valerie Solanas and we had to start shooting.” While Warhol recovered in hospital, bitterly disappointed to be missing out on being part of the movie, his cohort of ‘Factory’ friends responded to the violence in the most late-sixties New York way there is – they got high.

The writhing nudes, the swirling camera shots, weird dancing spaced-out people stroking the walls was not the result of some ‘light, camera, action’ choreography, these ‘actors’ were answering to a higher calling. The flamboyant cast of Warhol’s pals had thought that the best way to pay tribute to their chief would be to make it just like one of Andy’s Loft Party’s, thus prior to the scene they all got wasted.

Warhol had three of these bohemian hot stops during his time in New York. The original Factory was at 231 East 47th Street in Midtown, before he upscaled to the Decker Building at 33 Union Square. Finally, 860 Broadway at the north end of Union Square.

(Credit: Michael Discenza)

Studio 54

“The key of the success of Studio 54 is that it’s a dictatorship at the door,” Warhol once said, “and a democracy on the dance floor.” Crammed with famous faces and those flamboyant or tasteful enough to pass the door test, this icon of New York nightlife where city folk let their hair down to their toes.

As Myra Scheer furthered: “Women were thriving in terms of their sexuality, and it was also a great time to be gay. There was no stigma inside Studio 54.” This open space for outsiders became a place where ideas were galvanized in a frenzy and then forgotten about come sun-up. Sadly, the hip joint closed its swinging doors in 1986. However, it now resides in the capable hands of the Roundabout Theatre Company, where bustling shows live on in the non-profit Midtown Manhattan establishment.

Serendipity 3

“New York restaurants are about selling atmospheres,” Warhol once proudly declared. And no atmosphere did he devour more fervently than the city’s first proud “coffee house boutique,” Serendipity 3. Its timeless appeal has been woven into the ambience since it first opened way back in 1954 and it still remains one of the Big Apple’s most beloved bohemian eateries.

Sadly, unlike Warhol, you are unlikely to get away with paying with a quick napkin sketch. However, you may well find your creativity similarly enthused. As their website boasts: “The home of amazing food and decadent desserts, such as the world-famous Frrrozen Hot Chocolate, Serendipity3 restaurant has been captivating millions of patrons since its inception. It’s an enchanting place where artists and actors of both the past and the present come for inspiration.”

Max’s Kansas City

“Max’s Kansas City was the exact spot where Pop Art and Pop life came together in the sixties,” Warhol once declared. The old haunt of poets then Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and the place Debbie Harry served shit steaks is sadly now a deli… as if New York hasn’t got enough of them!

While it remains depressing that such a key establishment could fade from cultural history without so much as a plaque, perhaps what happened next for New York’s art scene is that it mutated into the next thing and currently resides in Brooklyn. Therein shows such as Hamilton Leithauser’s Café Carlyle residency, or the laid-back folk acts who jaunt into St. Mavie’s, or the eclectic buzzy bohemian vibes of the Music Hall of Williamsburg and The Bandshell, and Barbès for such nights as the Slavic Soul Party still set the night alight.

The scene mightn’t be as ardent, but under the Marquee Moon of Manhattan’s skyline, the buzz of the bohemian zeitgeist still effervesces, and it’s certainly worth a visit. If you’re on the trail of the CBGB, then Brooklyn must be the place. Long may it stay deli free.

Credit: Velvet Underground

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