On Memoir and Bearing Witness, & Warhol’s Piss Art

March 24, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Marcia Aldrich

In the winter of 2013, in blizzard-like conditions, the Associated Writing Programs had their annual conference in Boston. I was on a panel, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction,” which I viewed as ironic since Companion to An Untold Story, a memoir about the suicide of my friend, was being celebrated at the conference as well and could have been Exhibit A in the discussion. You’d think the topic would have been exhausted since memoir was far from an outlier in nonfiction, but you would be wrong. Each year panels assemble, and huge audiences gather to wring their collective hands over the unavoidable transgression that memoir embodies. My fellow panelists, B. J. Hollars, Roxane Gay, Bonnie Rough, and Ryan Van Meter, tried to patiently answer the audience’s questions, but let’s just say it: you can’t write a memoir without writing about other people, and some of those people won’t like being written about, they might feel betrayed—there’s no getting around that inconvenient fact. It isn’t as if you’re writing about a bunch of trees or a series of sunsets. It’s messy, this memoir business. Someone quoted Joan Didion: “Writers are always selling someone out.”

After my panel, I walked from the hotel to the Museum of Fine Art. It felt good to breathe in the chilly streets, to let go after being on point for hours and hours. At the museum I wandered until I found myself in front of Andy Warhol’s painting, hanging in the Art of the Americas Wing, called The Oxidation Painting, from a series Warhol made in the late 1970s referred to as the Piss Paintings. Its background is a copper-tinged rose, warm and ethereal against the museum’s blank wall, and then sprayed over that blush background are green splatters, in a faint, ghostly green, with darker islands pooled among the spray. The darker green reminds me of moss growing on flagstones, dank and vibrant. There’s a shimmering map like quality to the painting, a map to nowhere in particular.

Warhol worked on the series from 1977 to 1978 in his studio, the Factory, where his friends frequently stopped by. He spread the canvasses on the floor and applied the copper paint and, while it was still wet, invited friends to urinate on them. What we see in the stains and shifts in color is the urine oxidizing on the surface of the metallic paint. The paint reacted to the urine differently, depending on the composition of the urine, and the amount. Some changes were immediate, and some emerged over time. The mode of execution of these piss paintings were controversial. The aesthetic presented was achieved through the application of bodily fluid, a waste product, urine, and this bringing the body literally to bear on paint to create art has received a divided reaction.   

Companion was excruciating to write—it took me many years to realize the form it had to take.  A simple narrative would not have captured the obsessive struggle with the burden of my failure to act upon the suspicions about my friend’s plans. 

Companion was even more excruciating to talk about. It was painful to give readings, to do interviews, to field questions.  After one radio interview, the producer urged me to develop standard answers to questions I would be asked in order to protect myself. He said I was too raw, too real—I wouldn’t survive launching the book. 

I knew I would be asked why I hadn’t done more to stop Joel from killing himself. I knew this because I asked myself that question. But I was thrown by some of the aggressive questions I was asked that suggested memoirs were rotten at their core. An interviewer asked me if I wasn’t profiting from Joel’s death. While I had worried for years about whether Joel would approve of my writing about him since he had destroyed much of the documentation of his life, I had never considered my book as profiting from his death. The question suggested I was exploiting his death for my own gain. It had taken me years to write the thing, there were boxes of drafts I had painstakingly written and rejected. The struggle of writing was long lasting and visceral. If you added up all the hours that went into writing the book, I lost money. I did little to promote the book. It saddens me to think how poorly memoir is still understood, as a lesser art, as a defilement or transgression, as piss art.

Warhol, Andy, Oxidation Painting, 1978, urine on metallic pigment, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Walking home from the museum through the snow, I rehearsed some of the questions Joel’s suicide did not answer and how they haunt me still like the squiggles and lines created by the urine on Warhol’s piss art. Why did Joel not ask for his correspondence back if he didn’t want any record of his life to remain? It seemed to me he wanted to be remembered. He had been intent upon our having things from his life that would outlast him. Would he be angered or moved at my remembrance of him? The book was my struggle with these questions but not an answer.

It was a lucky convergence that I saw Warhol’s painting on the same day I was immersed in all things troubling about writing a memoir. I’m sure Warhol was changed by surviving being shot and in the aftermath he made a luminous painting, haunting in its glimmering squiggles and he used raw waste to do it. Urine. Isn’t that something we flush away—don’t want to see or think about? Just as we hide suicide, we don’t want to make public that someone was a suicide. It’s a transgression. But Warhol took that unwanted thing and used it to create a painting that transcends its materials, and he often used a friend’s urine to add an intimacy to the cold metallic paint.

Joel’s death messed me up and what emerged was Companion. I hoped it would transcend its materials, be something to memorize my friend’s life and mourn his death, and outlast us both. I return to Joan Didion’s assessment that writers are always selling someone out. Maybe we nod in agreement too easily. Sometimes writers do something else—they bear witness, they honor the complexity and contradictions of living, they give of themselves, the blood and the waste, they make piss art.

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton, and of Companion to an Untold Story, which won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, published by the University of Georgia Press (with teachers’ guide here), and has been the editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.

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§ 20 Responses to On Memoir and Bearing Witness, & Warhol’s Piss Art

  • […] On Memoir and Bearing Witness, & Warhol’s Piss Art […]

  • wow

    For most of my life now I have had a recurring dream about a high school friend. We meet someplace that does not matter and there is surprise and joy and laughter—How’ve you been? It’s so good to see you!

    And then I remember he killed himself when we were in college, and I begin screaming at him. And then I wake up.

    If I could somehow make art of him, of his life and death, that would be beautiful. It would also be a painful experience, mostly for me.

    Thank you for this.

  • Marcia,
    This is a beautiful piece. I’m appalled yet not surprised by the interviewer’s question. I’ve been working on a piece about a friend’s death and I fear that same question. But the process of writing about it, and this is what I yearn for and savor in writing creative nonfiction, gives me moments of revelation, exploring and exposing new truths I hadn’t recognized before.
    Thank you for this blog post!

  • What a powerful essay. Without having read your memoir, I can imagine that you wrote about your friend with great care, love and respect. It’s two-fold: you honor your’s friend life and make him live so-to-speak in the hearts and minds of readers, but you also reveal the before and after of suicide, something that too many people want to sweep under the rug even though suicide rates in this country are heartbreaking. Thank you for this essay and for working through your pain to write your memoir.

    • Max says:

      Marie–I think you say what memoir attempts well. It’s complicated and does many kinds of work if it is deeply conceived. Thank you for reading and writing.

  • joellefraser says:

    I’m going to order your book right now. It’s inspired me to think about my own memoir in progress, about my elderly parents and their decision to live dangerously off the grid. Am I exploiting them by writing about them? Will I be held to account for all I have not done to persuade them to live more safely? Already people ask me, “Can’t you do something?” What will happen when it’s a memoir (if I someday finish and publish this)…Your reflection here has helped me. Thank you.

    • Max says:

      Oh that’s a tough one. Just how responsible can we be for the decisions others make? Can you, should you step in and impose your wishes upon your parents? These seem like worthwhile questions to write about. Not always about landing on an answer. Thank you for reading and writing. And good luck.

  • Jenny says:

    Art is how we survive an often brutal world and an attempt to let go of fear. Thanks for this reflection on your work and your friend.

  • bone&silver says:

    Thank you for your courage, your enquiry, your honesty, and your decision to share. A dear friend of mine recently published a memoir, and it has caused much drama in her family, including threats of legal action! So it is not a light task to take on, especially with such a sensitive subject as suicide. I guess all you can ultimately do is trust that your art is in service to Joel’s very existence, to his essential legacy, and to your love of him. That can’t be wrong. Blessings, G in Australia

    • Max says:

      I sometimes think I write for strangers. Distance can allow readers to see the work in terms of their own experience and they aren’t burdened by the actual relationship. Thanks for reading and responding.

  • Thank you for sharing this. Such a powerful piece. I hate that we can’t do memoir without trespassing on others’ lives. And yes, there is that suggestion we might profit from them. In writing and publishing stories about my late husband’s Alzheimer’s, I have felt the same way. But our stories need to be told.

    • Max says:

      Well, we need stories about aging and Alzheimer’s. My mother had Alzheimer’s and my father wanted to hide it, did try to hide it and it was wrong to do so. There is so much to learn. Good luck with what must be very difficult.

  • Nancy Julien Kopp says:

    I write personal essays and short memoir pieces that are family stories. I have always encouraged others in programs in writing family stories to write about the sad and tragic stories, too. We learn from these stories. They should be shared, not hidden away. Writing about tragedy is one step in the healing process. I enjoyed your essay very much.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Thank you for this. I often struggle with the ethics of writing about the subject of my current manuscript. I never knew her; I found her story one day and wanted to pursue the mystery of her. But how do I know what she wants? Does she want her story told? Am I exploiting her? I’ve spent a lot of time meditating to try to get answers.

  • Max says:

    Yes, these are thorny questions. In part the fact you are asking them suggests you are proceeding carefully and with long thought. And perhaps raising them in the writing itself. Best of luck. Thank you for reading and responding.

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