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.

What Money Can’t Buy: A Review of Rosamond Bernier’s Some of My Lives

February 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Merridawn Duckler reviews Rosamond Bernier’s Some of My Lives

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2011
Rosamond Bernier, daughter of an English mother and a Jewish Hungarian father, was raised in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia where Rachmaninoff came to dinner but refused to remove his fur coat. When Philip Johnson plans your wedding,  and Aaron Copeland gives you away as Pierre Matisse seats Andy Warhol on the bride’s side, a reader might be forgiven for thinking she’s just around to gawk.

Wouldn’t our lives be as charmed, if only we had the dough? I spent some years among millionaires when I was a young bride, and I am here to tell you the answer, alas, is no. Maybe the rich are different than you and me, but not in the ways you might think. I remember listening to a guy list what he’d buy if he won the lottery. I kept thinking to myself, geez, haven’t you already won a lottery? But the moneyed classes are prickly. Someone is always richer, and resentment is the luxury of choice.

As Some of My Lives abundantly demonstrates, there are things money can’t buy (no, not true love, which Bernier did find, later in life) like taste. She holds to her chest the tragic loss of her mother, a bad marriage “at one point the situation grew unpleasant,” she writes, and that’s the extent of it. The secret burden of modern memoirists may be that their livelihood depends on how much dirt they can dredge up from their lives, but Bernier is no narcissist. She’s a type that is almost out of fashion, the intrepid girl explorer. She takes hair-raising trips to visit quarries with Henry Moore and fends off naked diplomats. She tosses off a line about “a terrible life crisis” and then it’s back to haunting the brothels with Giacometti, all verve and cheer.

The book is subtitled “a scrapbook memoir” though there’s only a modest scattering of pictures, including Bernier in a sexy froth in Madame de Sevigne’s bed. But the scrapbook part may be Bernier’s wink at addressing a life spent among some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. She’s humble about her part in fostering American understanding via the Met lectures that made her justly famous. A “talker” she calls herself, telling funny stories about her experiences, including a young Mormon publicly thanking God that He had sent her to their school. “The first and only time,” she writes, “that I have ever been linked to the Almighty.”

The chapter headings are studded with memorable names, but the real lure is Bernier’s extraordinarily deft ability to pin legends to the page. A lifetime of looking at art has given her a rare gift for anecdotal description, all the right details and not a hint of condescension. My days of hanging out with millionaires are far behind me, but I am reminded again of them, as signs are raised against that one percent. What we dream, I think, is not to inhabit a world where Rothschild maids daily iron the pleats on the sheets but to be allowed the poetry of extravagant gesture. We want to be freed from the shrinking of the soul that comes with penny-pinching. It’s hard to begrudge Bernier her choice placement when the pleasure she takes in every aspect is shared so naturally. Reading the book is to sit next to a charming woman turning the pages of her scrapbook in your company. Here’s a great story about Gertrude Stein’s poodle! And we’re off. If it gives the occupier any succor, I have to say that one percent barely covers the fun. But Bernier proves that a smart, courageous woman, who can rock a pink Carolina Herrera, will always be a minority. It is entirely to her credit that she is willing to spread the wealth with this book.

Merridawn Duckler has published in Carolina Quarterly, Georgia State Review,  Main Street Rag, Isotope, Green Mountains Review, and Night Train. She was nominated for Best Creative Nonfiction Anthology and a Pushcart Prize. Reviews of her work have appeared in the L.A Times, The New York Times, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She teaches at the Attic Writers Workshop in Portland, Oregon, and is an associate editor at Narrative magazine.

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