Latvian queerness mirrored: Andris Grīnbergs versus Andy Warhol
Kristberga, Laine. 2016. Latvian queerness mirrored: Andris Grīnbergs versus Andy Warhol. In: Vērdiņš Kārlis., ed. Queer stories of Europe. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK : Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 195-205.
In this essay I would like to address two queer artists each living on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain and producing works of art echoing their personalities and lives.
Everyone knows who Andy Warhol (1928–1987) was—he would usually be our first association with Pop Art and preoccupation with American consumer culture manifested through the silk-screened images of canned tomato soup, superstars, celebrities, and his own self-portraits. Andris Grīnbergs (b. 1946), on the other hand, would only be known to those who have a particular research-related or other interest in Latvia or the post-Soviet region and performance art, as Grīnbergs is mostly quoted as the pioneer of performance art in Latvia with the first Happening dated 1969.1
Perhaps, it is wise to mention at the very beginning that Warhol played a major role in Grīnbergs’s life and creative work as an idol, role model, gay artist, and proof of living art.2 It can be said that Warhol was to Grīnbergs what Shirley Temple was to Warhol. If this equation sounds too obscure, a little episode from Warhol’s childhood might help. When Warhol was only eight years old, he suffered from disorder of the central nervous system—St. Vitus Dance. As a result, the illness left him with large reddish-brown blotches on his face and upper body that periodically plagued him for years.3 The physical appearance and bullying at school laid the grounds for his life-long insecurity and even self-hatred. It was during this illness that Warhol began to collect movie magazines and stills. Hollywood stars such as Shirley Temple, his favourite, provided him an imaginative escape into a better life, and the material for erecting a compensative, idealized self.4 I propose that for Grīnbergs, in his turn, it was Warhol who provided an equally imaginative escape into a better life. Through the mythical persona of Warhol as a commercially successful artist and a gay man, Grīnbergs could also project an idealized self and a dream that he could not materialize in the prevailing conditions in the East—namely, the non-existence of the art market 5 and the strictures of the state-ideological apparatus.
One of the aspects that unite both artists is the eccentric self- dramatization and even construction of identity manifested through style and fashion. Indeed, through their, what some scholars would perhaps deem frivolous preoccupation with looks, they can both be characterized as dandies of their time.6 It must be noted, though, that in Warhol’s case the issue of personal transformation implemented through plastic surgery, bodybuilding, constant wearing of wigs and cosmetics revealed his very low self-esteem, inferiority complex, and continuous attempts to reinvent himself as somebody more handsome and attractive. Grīnbergs, on the other hand, never suffered from such insecurities or lack of self- confidence, however dandyism is one of the common aspects of both of them. In one of the interviews Grīnbergs mentions it and refers to Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol as his idols: “I was interested in Oscar Wilde— not as a gay person or writer, but as a dandy. I was curious about Andy Warhol as a visual image and gay person. I copied them! I didn’t know anything about Wilde at that time, but I was interested in his aristocratic style as opposed to the cult of proletariat that was present here.”7
Already from youth, both have championed individualism and loved standing out from the crowd. Warhol, for example, during his last two years at college, in 1948 and 1949, lacquered his fingernails in a different colour almost every day and once even dyed his hair green. In 1954, when he was working in New York as a graphic artist, he liked to create a stir by doing things like slashing his expensive suits with a razor and spattering them with paint.8 As indicated by Hubertus Butin, with these performative acts, not only did Warhol create a distinctly unusual look, he also specifically and demonstratively drew attention to his homosexuality and lived his public life as though he were a character in a play.9
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Grīnbergs, too, manifested his eccentricity as the flagman of the hippie subculture in Latvia in the 1960s. As a graduate of the Department of Costume Production and Modeling of the Applied Art School in Riga, Grīnbergs enjoyed practicing his fashion designer’s ideas and skills on his hippie friends. Surely, as art historian Mark Allen Svede has noted, “hippies were particularly ill-served by the state-planned economy, [thus] their performance was more improvisational than most.”10 However, restricted means and a tight budget often resulted in a creative outcome. Grīnbergs, for example, often shopped in flea markets and used second-hand materials such as parachute fabric to sew classic trench coats and wide, backless mini-dresses.11 Even in Grīnbergs’s happenings, the motto “life is a fashion show” was followed, and he implemented his ideas on participants as a fashion designer: “I dressed my models and created an environment, where they could express themselves and which could to some degree ‘rip’ them out of their masks, turn them into live human beings, containing more than you see on an everyday basis.”12
Grīnbergs openly admits that he admired and copied Warhol, but by emphasizing this statement I do not want in any manner to diminish or undermine Grīnbergs’s oeuvre, especially in the queer context. The copycat qualities were only manifested as similar gestures that Grīnbergs tried to replicate or embody as an homage to Warhol. One of such gestures, for example, was exhibited as a Duchampian strategy of the “found people.”13 If in Warhol’s films there were no stars and the cast,consisting of his friends or acquaintances, played themselves, in Grīnbergs’s case he addressed random people on the streets asking them to participate in his happenings that often took place in his apartment at Ūnijas Street 5/1 (termed ‘the Saloon’ in KGB records). By inviting these people who had met accidentally to embody a different character or to adopt a different identity, Grīnbergs offered them a chance to feel like a star, thus also appropriating the famous expression “15 minutes of fame” credited to Warhol in 1968.
Furthermore, with the open door policy that was also characteristic of Warhol’s studio “famously dubbed ‘the Factory’, set up as an open playground of subcultural denizens, mass-cultural divas, and ‘superstars’ of his own making somewhere in between,”14 Grīnbergs, too, was trying to imitate the creative and often wild party atmosphere, where artists, poets, writers, and such could mingle. This approach in both cases located Warhol and Grīnbergs in the middle of subculture or even counterculture, as Grīnbergs was the flagman of the Soviet hippies in Latvia and Warhol was surrounded by, as he states, outcasts and “odds-and-ends misfits, somehow misfitting together.”15 As Catherine Russell points out, “in the renewed interest in Warhol’s queer aesthetics, he emerges as an ethnographer of a particular subculture—one that was obsessed with exhibitionism, stardom, and theatricality.”16
Also, by contributing to newspaper columns The Emperor of Fashion (Modes imperators, in 1995), as well as Grinbergs Lives 17 (Grinbergs dzīvo), The Lives of Celebrities (Slavenību dzīve) and Grinbergs’s Diary in the newspaper Vakara Ziņas (around the 2000s), Grīnbergs tried to mimic Warhol’s magazine Interview, which was, in fact, a gossip magazine, running “utterly superficial articles with the emphasis on fashion and lifestyle, luxury, and glamour, embellished with more or less indiscreet snapshots of the rich and famous”18 and also served “as a vehicle for Warhol’s calculated self-promotion,” affirming “his social progress to the heights of major celebrity.”19 Surely, if Warhol constantly worked on his “Andy Warhol’s myth project” employing quite aggressive branding strategies and mass media, Grīnbergs did not achieve—and did not even try to achieve—the same cult figure status in the post-Soviet society. However, Grīnbergs tried to copy Warhol’s outer appearances, sporting the same hairstyle as Warhol and trying to look like the glamorous, mythical cult figure he adored.
Even in terms of women, Grīnbergs and Warhol had similar attitudes. If for Warhol it was Edie Sedgwick as a “female doppelgänger,” whose ambiguity as both femme and boyish toyed with gender,20 for Grīnbergs it was his life-long partner, now ex-wife, Inta Grīnberga, whom Grīnbergs quotes as his muse, playing as significant a role as “Monica Vitti to Michelangelo Antonioni, Giulietta Masina to Federico Fellini, Yoko Ono to John Lennon, and Gala to Salvador Dalí.”21 The American cultural critic and professor at the City University of New York, Wayne Koestenbaum refers to this kind of relationship as “twinship” and a “homoerotics of repetition and cloning.” However, he also accentuates that it might be seen as “a play with all kinds of likenesses that are only similar enough to be subversively other.”22 In Grīnbergs’s case, though, it is questionable whether the legitimate form of kinship ascertained in a heterosexual marriage was not a form of gender performance, in order to adapt to the homophobic Soviet rule.23
Finally, another common aspect between both is the desire to collect. Warhol was known as a keen and even obsessive collector. He constantly scoured auction houses, antique stores, and particularly flea markets for new treasures to add to his many collections. Warhol collected Fiesta ware, World’s Fair memorabilia, Art Deco silver, Native American objects, and folk art. He often acquired large collections as well— Hollywood publicity stills, crime scene photographs and dental moulds.24 In the spring of 1988, Sotheby’s Auction House sold 10,000 items from Warhol’s art collection. However, Warhol’s largest collecting project consisted of 610 cardboard boxes called Time Capsules accumulated over the last thirteen years of his life, which consisted of daily newspapers, plane tickets, gifts, souvenirs, photographs, etc.
All of these activities reflected Warhol’s interest in Pop art and his inspiration: consumer culture. However, they can also be read as a queer archival impulse. By accumulating collections, which consequently serve as a basis for archives, queer artists can produce alternative narratives and counter-archives, producing knowledge in a Foucauldian manner. As Michel Lobel states:
In the collection objects are accumulated, ordered, and narrativized into a coherent whole, an activity that echoes the attempt to construct a stable unity out of the heterogeneous elements. [It is] a sort of playspace of the artist’s mind, a space of privacy and retreat.25
Furthermore, Koestenbaum proposes, through reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, that collecting is, indeed, a queer activity:
Collecting is a code for homosexual activity and identity […]—the collector who, like the libertine, has no family, no social ties, no loyalties, no interior. It’s not clear whether Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray obsessively collects exotic musical instruments, jewels, perfumes, embroideries, and ecclesiastical vestments because he’s gay, or whether Wilde tells us about collection because he can’t mention homosexuality.26
However, collection can be manifested not only through objects, but also through collecting the stories of one’s life and the desire to turn one’s life into a document. This necessity for documentation is characteristic of both Grīnbergs and Warhol, as they produced numerous photographs to document their lives and work. They also made films, and though Warhol was more prolific for economic reasons—he made eighteen films from 1963 to 1964, and twenty-six in 196527—and in Grīnbergs’s account there are only three, their commitment to these forms of documentation show how important it was for them. If we prefer to interpret it from a psychoanalytic point of view, such a necessity can be read as a latent need for a sensation of belonging to a group and a self-protecting mechanism in a homophobic world. For example, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu draws attention to photography’s performativity. He argues that it creates the family unit it depicts, gathering the group together to be preserved forever in the family snapshot, whatever the rifts that precede and succeed it.“Photography itself,” he asserts, “is most frequently nothing but the reproduction of the image that a group produces of its own integration.”28
Queer content in works of art, especially manifested as homosexual desire, was problematic for Warhol, as he had to struggle against the
prejudice and stereotypes of Western homophobic society in general and the art world in particular. This fact can be illustrated by the subjects he chose for his artwork, as they carried not only public meaning, but subcultural connotations as well, which he neither expected nor wished the general public to discern. According to Bradford Collins:
Warhol’s images of Marlon Brando as a motorcyclist and Elvis Presley as a gunslinger, for example, carried two meanings, one of which was unavailable to heterosexuals. Because the “macho” cyclist and the cowboy with gun and holster were standard characters in gay erotica at the time, Warhol knew that readers of such materials would see in his works both an homage to Hollywood and its star system and objects of desire.29
However, given that homosexuality was decriminalized in Latvia only in 1992, queer content in works of art was even more hazardous for Grīnbergs in the East. Although most of Grīnbergs’s performances have been documented in photography by a dozen Latvian photographers, he also produced two films under, I would say, quite Warholian titles: Self- Portrait (1972) and Self-Portrait. Testament (2003) and is currently working on the third. Since Self-Portrait films contain open homosexual scenes, Grīnbergs was subjecting himself to a huge threat at the time when the first Self-Portrait film was made. As indicated by art historian Mark Allen Svede: “The risks that Soviet artists faced if they dared to express affirmative homosexual content were horrific, including incarceration in a psychiatric prison or a staged “suicide” at the hands of KGB agents.”30
When the 1972 Self-Portrait film was restored in 1996 and premiered at Anthology Film Archives in New York, filmmaker and independent film authority Jonas Mekas proclaimed Self-Portrait (1972) to be “one of the five most sexually transgressive films ever made.”31 Svede emphasizes that Mekas’s judgement is all the more impressive in light of his own arrest record for screening landmarks of queer cinema in the mid-1960s. According to Svede, the 1972 Self-Portrait must be placed in the company of films by Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Jean Genet, and Jack Smith.
As regards the differences between both artists, there is one crucial aspect that needs to be taken into account. To Warhol the question of identity, and especially that of gender identity, was one of the central subjects in his oeuvre. With his films The Chelsea Girls (1966) and the Paul Morrissey-directed trilogy of Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Heat (1972), as well as with his management of The Velvet Underground, the content of the band’s songs and its performances, Warhol positioned himself at the forefront of cross-dressing, in which gender identity was “conceived as an impersonation, a role, a put-on.”32 Moreover, in 1981 Warhol appeared as a woman in a photograph Altered Image taken by Christopher Makos. In this image Warhol is seen wearing a wig and make- up, namely drag attributes, and it is an homage to Marcel Duchamp, who also was photographed in drag and under a different (female) identity as Rrose Sélavy by Man Ray in the 1920s.
According to Jennifer Blessing, there can be several explanations for Warhol’s self-presentation as a woman or in the role of a woman. One of them was the manifestation of delight in high camp. The definition of camp was provided by Susan Sontag in her well-known essay Notes on Camp (1964), where she stated that camp is “Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.”33 In her list of camp’s features, Sontag also states that “the most refined form of sexual attractiveness [..] consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”34 Thus, camp through the image of dandysome provocateur 35 posed some challenge to traditional masculinity by laughing at the masculine image and ridiculing strict patriarchal roles. According to Blessing, this “challenge was significantly informed by camp’s relationship with flamboyant male homosexuality.”36 Another reason for the campy female impersonator in Warhol’s case was not so much an artistic expression, as a political act, which must be seen in the context of the contemporaneous gay liberation movement and especially the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Blessing emphasizes that in the 1960s and 1970s “female impersonation was against the law in some American cities, presumably because it was perceived as the domain of homosexuals,”37 thus such gay-identified performances can also be seen as deliberate political acts.
Grīnbergs, on the other hand, never recognized cross-dressing as a strategic decision in art. In his heavily documented performances, he often appears naked before the camera, but never dressed as a woman. There was, however, one regular participant in his Happenings—the artist Eižens Valpēters (b. 1943), who can be credited as the first performer of cross- dressing in Soviet Latvia. There are only two photographs from the performance titled The Old House (1977) taken by photographer Māra Brašmane, where Valpēters can be seen wearing a woman’s dress. In an interview with the author of this essay, Valpēters admits that, perhaps, it was some kind of subconscious act, when he decided to impersonate a female, because in his childhood he was once dressed as a girl in a carnival impersonating a popular girl character in opera at the time. Valpēters states that his cross-dressing performance was not in any way strategic or political and should be seen in light of carnivalistic masquerading.38 However, the visibility of alternate gender presentations in Latvian photographic culture should not be underestimated, especially in the context of Soviet rule and the fact that, similarly to the USA in the 1960s and 1970s, such female impersonation acts would be difficult to explain as “art” to law enforcement agents.
Despite the difference in gender aspect present or missing in the oeuvre of Warhol and Grīnbergs respectively, both artists in their eagerness to work with new media at the time—photography and film—employed quite similar strategies in creating works of art in the sense that the notion of an artist as a skilled producer is replaced with the artist as a consumer of new picture-making gadgets.39 Grīnbergs claims that he started to photograph his performances as his “unrealized paintings”: “I could not draw well to express myself, write well or express myself well in music, yet I had ideas.”40 Thus, it was more the question of organizing and managing all the stages of the processual art—or creating the necessary environment—, inviting the photographers and participants, finding the venue and accessories, setting the time, etc., as opposed to creating a work of art on his own in a studio manifesting exquisite craft skills, for example, in painting. Warhol, too, with his silk-screened images that reiterated or appropriated photo-journalism and a team of assistants around him exhibited similar gestures, claiming that “picture-making skills were of minor importance in making significant pictorial art.”41 In this strategic choice, Warhol was, of course, following the ideas of Pop art, depicting empty, banal images42 and dropping all the aspects that “had been known in modern art as seriousness, expertise, and reflexiveness.”43 Consequently, it can be stated that art as a project and team-work is what characterizes Warhol’s and Grīnbergs’s works best.
As regards queer aesthetics, they have both succeeded in creating self- portraits, which require close and informed reading to peel the visible surface off layer-by-layer hoping to find the “real” Andy or Andris. Whether it is possible at all, can be epitomized by the following quote from Grīnbergs:
Of course, I have often thought that entire life is a theatre and all that we get depends on how well we play our roles. Where is that place where one can be real? This double life continues endlessly.44
1 Romeo and Juliet (1969).
2 E-mail correspondence with the author on June 12, 2015.
3 See Collins, Bradford R. Dick Tracy and the Case of Warhol’s Closet. American Art, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 54–79, for this quote p. 67.
4 Collins, Bradford R. Dick Tracy and the Case of Warhol’s Closet, p. 68.
5 Though Grīnbergs states that his performances were never commissioned and never intended for exhibiting in art galleries or museums. http:// fotokvartals.lv/2012/03/02/yesterday/
6 Mark Allen Svede mentions Andris Grīnbergs and Miervaldis Polis as the protagonists of Soviet dandyism. Svede, Mark Allen. Twiggy and Trotsky: Or, What the Soviet Dandy Will be Wearing This Next Five-Year Plan, in: Dandies. New York University Press, 2001, pp. 243–270.
7 The Self. Riga, 2011, p. 258.
8 Butin, Hubertus. Andy Warhol in the Picture. Self-Portraits and Self-Promotion, in: A Guide to 706 Items In 2 Hours 56 Minutes. Edited by Eva Meyer-Hermann. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2008, p. 50.
10 Svede, Mark Allen. All You Need is Lovebeads: Latvia’s Hippies Undress for Success. Style and Socialism. Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe. Reid, Susan E. and Crowley, David (eds.). Oxford – New York: Berg, 2000, p. 191.
11 The Self, p. 250.
12 Meistere, Una [Interview]. Atmoda Atpūtai, 1992, March 3, p. 2.
13 “I only wanted to find great people and let them be themselves and talk about what they usually talked about and I’d film them for a certain length of time and that would be the movie.” Warhol, Andy and Hacket, Pat. Popism – The Warhol Sixties. Orlando: Harvest Book – Harcourt, 1980, p. 139.
14 Foster, Hal. A Figment in a Factory, in: A Guide to 706 Items In 2 Hours 56 Minutes, p. 105.
15 Warhol, Andy and Hacket, Pat. Popism – The Warhol Sixties, p. 276.
16 Russell, Catherine. Experimental Ethnography. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999, p. 170.
17 In these series appearing transcribed as “Grinbergs” as opposed to “Grīnbergs”.
18 Butin, Hubertus. Andy Warhol in the Picture, p. 55.
20 Foster, Hal. A Figment in a Factory, in: A Guide to 706 Items In 2 Hours 56 Minutes, p. 108.
22 Hal Foster. A Figment in a Factory, in: A Guide to 706 Items In 2 Hours 56 Minutes, p. 108, reference 12.
23 Grīnbergs talks openly of his sexuality and queerness only in interviews after 1992.
24 http://www.warhol.org/edu_additional.aspx?id=7016#ixzz3dLRS9cBZ (2015. 10.06.)
25 Lobel, Michael. Warhol’s Closet. Art Journal, Vol. 55, 1996, Issue 4, p. 46.
26 Wayne, Koestenbaum. The Queen’s Throat: Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Vintage Books, 1993, p. 62.
27 Ibid., p. 170.
28 Tyler, Carole-Anne. Death Masks, in Gender Performance in Photography. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997, p. 123f.
29 Collins, Bradford R. Dick Tracy and the Case of Warhol’s Closet, p. 54.
30 http://www.glbtq.com/arts/grinbergs_a.html (17.06.2015 no longer accessible); http://www.glbtqarchive.com/arts/grinbergs_a_A.pdf
32 Blessing, Jennifer. Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. Solomon R. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1997, p. 70.
33 Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin Books, 2009, p. 280.
35 Very vividly manifested in glitter rock, which Warhol influenced.
36 Blessing, Jennifer. Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose, p. 70.
37 Ibid., p. 71.
38 Interview with the author of the essay on 15.06.2015.
39 Wall, Jeff. Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art, p. 42. http://www.art.ucla.edu/ photography/downloads/Wall001.pdf.
40 Meistere, Una. [Interview.]
41 Wall, Jeff. Marks of Indifference, p. 41.
42 Wall reminds us that “the empty, the counterfeit, the functional, and the brutal” were nothing new as art in 1960, as they were all tropes of the avant-garde entering the art scene via Surrealism.
43 Wall, Jeff. Marks of Indifference, p. 41.
44 Una Meistere. [Interview.]
Blessing, Jennifer. 1997. Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Buchloch, Bejnamin H.D. (ed.). 2010. Andy Warhol. A Special Issue.
October, Spring, no. 132. MIT Press.
Collins, Bradford R. 2001. Dick Tracy and the Case of Warhol’s Closet. American Art, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Autumn), pp. 54–79.
Demakova, Helēna (ed.). 2011. The Self. Personal Journeys to Contemporary Art: the 1960s-80s in Soviet Latvia. Riga: The Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia, pp. 246–264.
Grīnbergs, Andris. 2012. Yesterday. http://fotokvartals.lv/2012/03/02/yesterday/.
Lobel, Michael. 1996. Warhol’s Closet – Andy Warhol – We’re Here: Gay and Lesbian Presence in Art and Art History. Art Journal, Volume 55, Issue 4, pp. 42–50.
Meyer-Hermann, Eva (ed.). 2008. A Guide to 706 Items In 2 Hours 56 Minutes. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.
Russell, Catherine. 1999. Experimental Ethnography. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sontag, Susan. 2009. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin Books.
Svede, Mark Allen. 2001. Twiggy and Trotsky: Or, What the Soviet Dandy Will Be Wearing This Next Five-Year Plan, in Dandies. New York University Press, pp. 243–270.
Tyler, Carole-Anne. Death Masks, in Gender Performance in Photography. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, p.123.
Wall, Jeff. 1995. ‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art. The Last Picture Show. http://www.art.ucla.edu/photography/ downloads/Wall001.pdf. Originally published in: Goldstein, Ann and Rorimer, Anne. Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965–1975. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995, pp. 247–267.
Warhol, Andy and Pat Hacket. 1980. Popism – The Warhol Sixties. Orlando: Harvest Book – Harcourt.
Wayne, Koestenbaum. 1993. The Queen’s Throat: Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Vintage Books.