“GRAPES OF WRATH: HOW A CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP MADE AN ARTIST OUT OF ANDY WARHOL
In 1963, Andy Warhol drove from New York to Los Angeles with his friends Wynn Chamberlain, Gerard Melanga, and Taylor Mead. Deborah Davis’s new book, The Trip (Simon & Schuster), an examination of this cross-country journey, argues that the brief episode in Warhol’s life was a turning point in the artist’s career. It was a metaphorical passage to fame, allowing him to become the character for which he’s remembered.
Davis begins the book with an introduction to Warhol’s upbringing in Pittsburgh as the sickly child of poor immigrants, his studies at art school, and his move to New York. Warhol was peculiar, sending out his early advertisement work to employers in brown paper bags. He was ambitious, though, and quickly achieved financial success with his commercial illustrations. He began accumulating a collection of offbeat friends who called him “Raggedy Andy.” His life was comfortable, but he sought a different level of respect for his work.
In New York, Warhol won the support of Ivan Karp, the director of Leo Castelli Gallery. One day at Castelli, Warhol saw Roy Lichtenstein’s painting, Girl with Ball, and claimed he was doing similar work. Intrigued, Karp visited Warhol’s studio, and Karp introduced him to Henry Geldzahler, a curatorial assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Warhol also charmed L.A.-based dealer Irving Blum, whose Ferus Gallery was fast becoming the chief authority of the avant-garde on the West Coast. On a visit to Warhol’s studio in the spring of 1962, Blum first viewed the artist’s Campbell’s Soup can paintings and “was so impressed—especially after Andy told him that he intended to paint all thirty-two varieties—that he instantly offered him a show at the Ferus,” Davis writes. Blum gave Warhol a gallery show that July, and Warhol rushed to complete thirty-two soup can paintings for the opening.
Dennis Hopper and his wife, Brooke Hayward, bought a work (although Blum soon bought it back after deciding to keep the soup cans together as a set). Hopper and Hayward subsequently visited Warhol in New York, with whom they become enchanted. At Warhol’s studio, he and Hopper got along “famously.” Hopper invited Warhol to join him on the set of a television show he was shooting called The Defenders. Warhol’s career was beginning to take off, and in early 1963, Ethel and Robert Scull, two prominent collectors, gave Warhol his first commission, which became the iconic portraitEthel Scull 36 Times, now in the collection of the Met. Blum scheduled another Warhol show at Ferus for September 1963, and Hopper and his wife promised to throw a party to mark Warhol’s arrival in L.A. Warhol, seduced by the prospect of mingling with movie stars, planned his trip.
In her recounting of Warhol’s early career, Davis rattles off new names page by page, as if approximating Warhol’s own social and conversational habits—he too, Davis implies, would have been quick to tell you who was at which party or staying at the same hotel as him. When Warhol threw a party at his Factory in 1964, he made sure to summon the “right” people and stationed a guard at his door to “keep the wrong people out.” If Davis renders Hollywood of the early ‘60s, perhaps appropriately, as a series of fleeting namedrops, she renders Warhol and his travel companions typologically, in broad strokes. “Wynn was quiet; Gerard was a dreamer; and Andy was a hypervigilant observer…Taylor assumed the role of flamboyant raconteur and car clown.” Together, the group left New York on September 24, 1963.
heir first stop was St. Louis, where they ate at a steakhouse. They continued west on Route 66, “a world-famous attraction,” Davis writes, which “offered a panoramic view of American life, one where tourists could see everything from the place where a young Abraham Lincoln had practiced law to one of the banks robbed by the outlaw Jesse James.” Mead seduced men at various stops. Melanga composed poetry about the landscape. Warhol developed a love for the billboards he began to see along the road. At a stop in Albuquerque, they took a picture in a photo booth, the only existing image from the trip. Mead and Warhol feuded over their restaurant choices. Mead, according to Davis, “more sophisticated than his companions,” was unimpressed by the restaurant Warhol chose in St. Louis. At another stop, he threatened, “I’m leaving this tour right now if we don’t eat where I want to eat for a change.”
Gerard Melanga served as Warhol’s faithful companion and “Sancho Panza,” according to Davis. Taylor Mead appealed to Warhol as a companion for his driver’s license, experience traveling cross country, and his growing status as an underground film star. Wynn Chamberlain was an artist and acquaintance “whose chief qualification was that he owned the all-important Ford station wagon” that was to transport the group across the country. The Ford Falcon they drove was “one of the most iconic and bestselling cars of 1960,” Davis writes, and the brainchild of Robert McNamara, then a Ford vice president. While Melanga was a faithful companion to Warhol, his employer sought more from him. Towards the end of the group’s stay in L.A., Warhol hosted a party at the Looff Hippodrome on the Santa Monica Pier. Melanga brought a woman back to the hotel room he’d been sharing with Warhol at the Surf Rider hotel. A “very jealous” Warhol became “outraged that Gerard brought a girl to their room.” Gerard expressed his irritation on the return trip to New York, during which Taylor was also, as Davis describes it, “in a snit because he accused Andy and Wynn of trying to bully him into giving them blow jobs.”
Warhol’s recently purchased Bolex movie camera served as another companion on the road. At the Ferus Gallery, Warhol filmed “a few panoramic shots, spinning so quickly that the paintings appeared to flicker.” At his Hippodrome party, Warhol filmed Irving Blum and Claes Oldenburg balancing on the wooden ponies of a carousel, capturing “quick flashes of happy faces, which would somehow make their way,” Davis writes, into Warhol’s first scripted film, a remake of Tarzan. Mead played Tarzan, and New York socialite and occasional actress Naomi Levine, who followed Warhol to the West Coast, played Jane. Warhol shot much of the film in Lewis Marvin’s Moon Fire Ranch, soon to become a famed hippie haven. During filming, Aldous Huxley “appeared from nowhere,” tripping on LSD. The movie was an important precursor to Warhol’s filmmaking career. At the Hoppers’ party, Warhol socialized with members of the art world alongside famous film and television stars such as Peter Fonda, Sal Mineo Tony Bill, Richard Fleisher, and John Saxon. Also in attendance were the tabloid couple of the moment, Troy Donahue and Suzanne Pleshette. Guests danced, Claes Oldenberg’s wife sent an Ed Kienholz sculpture crashing to the floor, and some of the revelers snuck away to smoke marijuana. The party, Davis argues, offered Warhol something like an epiphany: that “this was actually a good moment to break into show business.”
In the final chapters of the book, Davis’s story about a man’s quirky road trip as he rests on the cusp of fame disintegrates into darkness, much like the decade in which the story is set. As Warhol’s career took off, the figures of his early life collapsed, and his personal history becomes entwined with that of the country at large. Davis mentions Valerie Solanas’s 1968 assassination attempt that left Warhol hospitalized with a gunshot wound. Chamberlain, Davis writes, grew “unhappy with life in America” and, at the end of the ’60s, abruptly left the country. Naomi Levine had a mental collapse and bounced around between psychiatric institutions for years. Two of Warhol’s major supporters, the Sculls, suffered an acrimonious divorce and a legal battle over their artwork that lasted the remainder of their lives. Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward separated, and Hopper spiraled out of control into substance abuse. Charles Manson vandalized the Moon Fire Ranch. Ford stopped producing the Falcon in 1970. Mead described Warhol’s behavior as a “terror” upon the group’s return to New York. Warhol, insulted by Melanga’s rejection of his sexual advances, refused to offer Melanga cab fare home to the Bronx. Soon, Warhol began “trading up socially” and banished Raggedy Andy in favor of a “slim hipster,” to use Davis’s term, complete with “tight jeans, a black leather jacket, and cool, dark shades.” The journey had brought out Warhol’s manipulative side, turning him into both a celebrity artist and a caricature.”