Last fall, Andy Warhol had been dead for thirty years, eight months, and thirty days when Jeff Martin and I examined the timeline on the wall of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. It prefaced their exhibit of Warhol’s work, called “American Icons,” featuring many of Warhol’s classic screen prints, as well as some lesser-known film works that he had created. When I met Martin in the exhibit, he wore hiking shoes, a camouflage jacket, and a pair of very thick, oval-shaped, wire-framed glasses. His face was sprouting a thick, gray five-o’clock shadow and his white hair was still windswept, falling in different arrangements on his forehead as he read the paragraphs below dates and pictures on the wall. The timeline only marks a handful of events from Warhol’s personal life, largely concerning itself with larger, societal events; the end of World War II in 1945, the beginning of Warhol’s career in advertising in 1949, the start of the Vietnam War in 1955, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. One rare personal note it makes of Warhol is the date of the attempted assassination of him by Valerie Solanas in 1968. The timeline also marks the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, And John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Jeff Martin could be considered a local guru of art in Grand Rapids. He consistently publishes essays recalling concerts and events from years ago on his Facebook page, weaving together elements of his detailed memory, history, and the occasional opinion. His posts vary in topic, ranging from an exhaustive list of the best local drummers to a recollection of a conversation he had with his boss in the mid-90’s, a boss who loved R.E.M. but dismissed Patti Smith as “some old lady who was really kind of boring.” Martin, once a painter, he created Pollock-esque abstractions after a breakup in 1999. He realized some level of success while walking by the library, seeing a car parked on Ransom Street with what he believes could have been one of his pieces sitting in the back seat, that he had created decades ago.
Jeff was staring at the paragraph about Solanas’ murder attempt of Warhol when he spoke. “sixty-eight… June third. That must’ve been when the Beatles were still in India, working on the songs that became their ‘White Album.’ So that would’ve been—” Martin counts through the summer months— “that was two months before I began kindergarten.” The Beatles, a band that grew so big that the mania around them has its own Wikipedia page, engulfed the mainstream culture to the point that it became an inseparable part of it.
Martin, born in 1962, commented on their cultural prevalence. “I was born when the old world and the new world were meeting, it was kind of cool while I was growing up. I wasn’t so into music as a kid, but you always knew it was a new Beatles song when it came on.”
You could ask, how can you have an exhibit about icons and exclude the Beatles? But I didn’t. Instead, I asked about the album that came out a year before the “White Album,” the one called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the one in which the album cover is rumored to be another in a string of messages that imply Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced with a look-alike.
“I’m hip to the clues,” Jeff said, “I’d like to think those guys made a pact, like some little stoner joke. I’d like to think I can differentiate between an actual synchronicity and a coincidence, but then there’s some things that make you scratch your head. Like in Strawberry Fields Forever, it sounds like they say ‘I buried Paul,’ but it turns out they were just saying ‘cranberry sauce,’ the voice on the record was just slowed down.” On their White album, John Lennon even sings “Here’s a clue for you all, the walrus was Paul.” on track three, Glass Onion. “Ultimately, it’s such a tenuous thing.”
We had come to observe Andy Warhol’s “American Icons” exhibit, and Without skipping a beat, Jeff told me of three movies that feature Warhol, that would be interesting; “Rubin and Ed,” “I Shot Andy Warhol,” and an Oliver Stone film about the Doors, aptly titled, “The Doors.” Martin comments on movie, “Warhol gives Jim Morrison [played by Crispin Glover and Val Kuilmer] a phone he could call God on, it’s a funny little scene. That one has a very good soundtrack, too. A lot of good alt-rock bands covering a lot of great classics.”
Before entering the Warhol exhibit that is to the left of the grand foyer of the gallery, we wandered forward into the first exhibit in sight, Carl Wilson’s collection of starkly contrasted black and white linocut prints. They were accompanied by paragraphs of short stories, describing Wilson’s childhood, growing up poor and black in Detroit. “My basic attitude towards art is, I don’t know what I like, but I know what I hate, and I don’t hate this.”
Martin wanders into the Warhol exhibit, stopping at the timeline in the entryway, following the path around the wall. There is an eight-hour still-framed video of the Empire State building. After some time, watching for some change in the grayscale hue of the grainy horizon, he moves on, past a print of Gertrude Stein, in which she is clothed in a bright red shawl, with the halves of her face painted red and blue, and expressing a slight grimace. Martin pauses briefly at the print of Jackie Kennedy, the one with the lavender background and two simple, saturated prints of Jackie, both facing some point just to the left of the viewer.
He walks further, past the large canvas of green coke bottles, seven rows of sixteen bottles, to the corner at the end of wall that holds two versions of Warhol’s “Moon Walk” print. To some it would bring to mind the nineties and MTV, but Martin’s mind went elsewhere when asked if Buzz Aldrin had a chip on his shoulder, since it seems like Neil Armstrong is more commonly a household name. “You have to remember, though, Buzz Aldrin was on the Simpson’s, the episode ‘Deep Space Homer,’ Armstrong wasn’t.”
Adjacent to the prints of the astronauts, on the next wall are “screen tests,” a continuous loop of a number of or so ten-minute-long clips of Warhol’s friends, standing around and staring at the camera. Martins stands a few paces back for a significant amount of time—long enough for me to wander off and strike up a conversation with the curator standing by, an old, seated man that was long in the legs, with white hair and a navy blazer. “The screens are supposed to rotate, there’s six of them on there, they’re supposed to rotate, but they don’t rotate fast enough, people lose interest.”
But Martin is steadfast. When asked, he says, “I’m waiting for Dylan to come up.” But all that is visible on the screen is a Jake Gyllenhaal-esque face, close up, a face that I’ll learn is Lou Reed. And then the screen fades out and back again, with Bob Dylan seated some ways back from the camera, looking cooler than cool in a leather jacket, and sunglasses.
We watched it in its entirety. As the Dylan screen test ends, a near-eternity has passed, and the screen fades to black yet again. Jeff moves slowly past the prints of Muhammad Ali, pauses just after to view flat-screen TV showing a video of Warhol crafting one of his prints on a large canvas, then stops at the back wall, next to the exit of the exhibit. “What is an American Icon to you?” stenciled text reads on the wall, surrounded in sticky notes. Martin takes up a pencil and a pad, scrawls down “Daffy Duck” and sticks it on the upper-left fringes of the others. “he’s kind of a cynical, down and out loser, gets pissed off at the drop of a hat. He would always have a chance to win if he didn’t have to be a thorn in Bugs Bunny’s side, but Bugs is always going to win. A lot like Americans these days.”
Then Martin exits the room, emerging into the rest of the gallery. The beachy pop music that accompanies a video of Warhol gets swallowed by echoing shrills and percussive noises. “I wonder if that’s the Christian Marclay exhibit upstairs,” Martin said, “He’s an avant-garde, experimental composer.” We go to watch it. It is a video quartet, a mashup of hundreds of short clips from movies throughout the century, and afterwards, Jeff turns to me. “I wish I remembered more of the films from where those clips came from, those were just as much American icons as anything in the other exhibit.”