A trip on Route 66 often changes the life of the person taking that journey. Andy Warhol’s trip from New York City to Los Angeles in 1963 — much of it on 66 — probably didn’t change his career, but it accelerated it into him becoming a Pop Art icon.
Deborah Davis makes the case about the road trip’s crucial role in the entertaining book “The Trip” (subtitled “Andy Warhol’s Plastic Fantastic Cross-County Adventure”). The author describes the happenings, culture and trends gripping America that Warhol experienced during his rise from a sickly child of poor immigrants in Pittsburgh to a commercial artist in New York City who desired fame and fortune.
Warhol perhaps is best-known — and notorious — for his series of Campbell Soup can paintings. Because of that, some people to this day consider Warhol a talentless hack. However, “The Trip” makes clear he’d forged a successful career in commercial art in New York City. Madison Avenue didn’t hire schlubs, and it gave Warhol as much work as he could handle.
Warhol’s art style didn’t occur in a vacuum, either. In a harbinger of the massive change coming in the late 1960s, art contemporaries influenced by American culture pushed the envelope — most notably Roy Lichtenstein and his cartoon-strip art. In fact, Warhol produced a variation of a Popeye cartoon and probably would have made more if he hadn’t discovered Lichtenstein did it better.
Warhol’s now-familiar silkscreen paintings arose more out of practicalities than aesthetics — to make art faster. But Warhol discovered it produced unique effects. And the fact his art subjects often were celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor made more people notice his work. His paintings started showing up in galleries in New York. That brings us to L.A. and his road trip there.
The Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles invited Warhol show his artwork. Warhol, who couldn’t drive, piled into a Ford Falcon station wagon with underground actor Taylor Mead, artist Wynn Chamberlain, Warhol assistant Gerald Malanga, a pile of magazines, a mattress, a Carte Blanche credit card and a few amphetamines to help stay awake during the 3,000-mile journey through 21 states.
Davis actually traveled the Mother Road in an attempt to retrace Warhol’s 1963 path. The artist kept all the receipts from his journey, giving Davis specific places where he and his chums stopped.
The group joined Route 66 in St. Louis and shortly afterward ate a meal at the Diamonds truck stop, where the fashionable New York City bohemians stuck out in conservative rural Missouri like sore thumbs.
America was so large that it could take three years for the latest fashions, trends, mores, everything, to spread inward from the coasts (let alone London) to Main Street, USA. The kids were friendly and curious, especially after they heard that the interlopers were from faraway New York City. Trying so hard to be cool, they awkwardly used beatnik vernacular, like “dig,” which was amusing at first. But it was hard to enjoy the meal under such relentless scrutiny.
The four stopped for some sleep at the Town House Motel in Amarillo (for $7.21 a night). They refueled the Falcon at the Texas-New Mexico border town of Glenrio, which would become a ghost town within 15 years because of the arrival of Interstate 40.
The many billboards along Route 66 at the time proved to be revelation for Warhol.
… Andy was able to revel in the proliferation of fantastic advertisements for products, motels, diners, gas stations, and attractions that flashed by in rapid succession, just like a high-speed slide show. He found the glorious commercialism of Route 66 to be its crowning achievement, and the sight of it made him feel good about being an American. “I didn’t ever want to live anyplace where you couldn’t drive down the road and see drive-ins and giant ice cream cones and walk-in hotdogs and motel signs flashing,” he enthused.
Another memorable moment for Warhol and his chums was Tucumcari, New Mexico. Dozens of neon signs lined Route 66, and “The Trip” cites TeePee Curios, the Blue Swallow Motel, the Buckaroo Motel and the La Cita restaurant in particular.
Andy and his companions were impressed by the neon creations that competed for their attention. They never expected to come face-to-face with the real-life antecedents of their kinds of art on a road trip across America. As Taylor summarized their reaction: “It was a whole new way of looking at the United States, filled with the bright primary colors that Warhol or Lichtenstein might have painted. Especially the signs over the motels along Route 66. As we got farther west, all the signs on motels were really Pop Art.” He considered Andy’s passage through this vibrant landscape a great event. “It was like Pop Art was meeting the great king of Pop Art from the East,” he said.
Warhol’s journey included side trips to Palm Springs and Las Vegas, both which also made an impression because the former was a celebrity magnet and the latter blazed with even more neon.
Warhol, a budding avant-garde filmmaker, shot footage for “Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort of” during his short time in Los Angeles. It was during this filming he learned a detached attitude made his subjects act even more outrageous and revealing. This stoicism served him well the rest of his star-studded career until his death in 1987 from complications of gall-bladder surgery.
Undoubtedly one of the most memorable episdoes for Warhol in Southern California was when he earned an invitation to a party at the home of husband-and-wife actors Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward, who were aficionados of modern art. By all accounts, it was a wild party with plenty of music, celebrities, booze and reefer.
After the L.A. show, Warhol returned to New York City, where his career grew as if it were on steroids. He continued to make films, sold out gallery shows, founded Interview Magazine, managed the deeply influential rock band The Velvet Underground and became an unlikely celebrity among celebrities.
As for the Ferus art show, Warhol sold only one painting, and the woman who bought it persuaded the curator to refund her money because because her family loathed it. It later sold for $24 million.
I recommend “The Trip” not only because of its well-considered and researched sections about Warhol’s Route 66 trip, but also it explains the world in which Warhol inhabited that even a non-artist can easily comprehend.
(Image of a young Andy Warhol by Thomas Hawk via Flickr)