The Soul and Andy Warhol’s Do It Yourself (Sailboats)

Bill Wilson's twins, Kate and Ara, resting in front of Do It Yourself (Sailboats) at the original exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1962. Photo William S. Wilson

Subject: [unknown, Andy Warhol, sailboats, soul]
From: Bill Wilson
To: Gary Comenas

On 5 Feb 2013, at 23:08, Bill Wilson wrote:

Gary: every word I use is a perplexed crossroad, so I have to resist temptations to write to you, and get back to my themes, which this week should be “wall,” with Andy never questioning the effects of the meaning of walls the way Ray did. I see mentions of Andy as“autistic,” which is destructive in too many ways to list. He sought me out sort of hiding at parties, looked me in the eye, and talked like a regular-enough guy from Pittsburg, remembering friends whom I also knew. With interviews, he performed a semblance of passivity which I didn’t appreciate (understand) was a (mere) semblance, so I still need to get the relations between active Warhol and passive Andy precise. Thus the “shadow” paintings make a reappearance as images conveying ideas about causalities, in that shadows are effects caused by objects in relation to light, yet shadows can also become causes. So another part of his work claims my interest.

Soul: To quote me: “soul” as the plane of ultimate commitments – what is felt and acted on behalf of as real. If you read more slowly you might save time, but this way, I get to see where I need to explain more and to justify my exploratory images to a person who knows the texts. Toward the end of 81 years, having read Aristotle’s “De anima” at least 20 times, owning 20 or more books by and about Warhol (3 large reasoned catalogues), with experiences of early drawings in catalogues, I can be assumed to have thought past the obvious “eternal soul” of transcendental religions, and, aware of the problems, be understood to have ventured a statement which is in accord with my other thoughts: “soul” as the plane of ultimate commitments – what is felt and acted on behalf of as real.

When Picasso said, speaking of“what goes on in a painting,” “That’s what reality is” (that’s what his reality is), his thought intersects with and overlaps what I am trying to think, although I admit that “soul” is distracting and misleading, but must be included because it is bound to come up. You don’t need to go over what I must already have taken into account – in 2013, “soul” as something not eternal, but more than materialities can account for or even describe. [“…Taylor indicates that he plans to marry Nawana Davis, an irresistible dancer who is the “wealthiest girl in La Jolla.” Nawana, however, considers Taylor to be a stalker, but she’s trying to give him some “soul.”] A “soul-singer” who eats “soul-food” affirms a different reality from that of a disenchanted post-Enlightenment white disbelieving critic who can figure that something has been lost in the Enlightenment, which Enlightenment brought about disenchantments with magic, and skepticisms about illusions, yet the mind/”soul” can still be experienced overcoming brute undesignated matter (mass). The enlightened materialist skepticism has reached even aesthetic illusions, and aesthetic anti-illusions, which is about where my thoughts are hovering, a trembling finger pointing toward a painting of a paint-by-numbers image of a sailboat.

A sailboat uses the resistances of the sails to move forward, hence is a model for how to get along “toward.” “Soul” is questioned in the Selma images and in the electric chair, and in the mystical powers of reigning Queens of Europe. Both Ray and Andy, upon discovery of desires regarded as sins in childhood religions, necessarily wondered about Eternal Soul, and acted in accord with later adult understandings. Andy may present himself as shallow and facile, but that doesn’t matter, for his predicament is profound, and every image, especially an ordinary image responding to an activating context, may become profound as implications awaken and unfold.

For me, Andy’s self-revelations and even his self-discoveries are manifest in the image of a sailboat painted free-hand, yet following the lines and preserving the implications of paint-by-number industrial commercial kits with explicit instructions – images for sale. The kits, I think for Andy’s moral-aesthetic values, underestimated “soul” in art as a sincere commitment toward expression of the artist’s own ultimate reality as his/her moral and aesthetic values – an aesthetic expression which could both construct a “soul”(self-discovery) and reveal a self or “soul” (self-revelation). The process is rather obvious in the image of a sailboat, a method of transport that requires attentive commitment to sailing, under an incalculable sky (once residence of gods), and above unfathomed depths (within which one might drown among monsters and sea-dingles).

If, in the old poetry, the soul is a sailing boat, then how is that sailboat to be represented? Is a soul-boat to be misregistered with a mechanically reproduced outline on canvas-board? An image of a sailboat is off-registered in a commercial “kit” for aesthetically impoverished people, poor souls, who buy from within the same capitalist manipulations which have impoverished them. Those manipulations include overestimations and underestimations which so spoil attention that they despoiliate attention. Because I am usually looking for the plane of passionate sincere commitments in works of art – a plane I designate an image of the artist’s “reality” – see below for: “Anything else must not, for you, be thought/ To exist…”

I write “attentive commitment” because of the moral implications of attention. Some Warhol films make the attention of a spectator so self-conscious that attention becomes a self-conscious theme about competitions for attention. “Attention must be paid to such a man” (Arthur Miller). Elsewhere I write about attentation as engagement, even attention as “marriage,” using images to suggest implications like Andy’s disengagements as “off-engagements” with this world, enough “stuff” for another note.

You write that you don’t know what a prayer-card is. A prayer-card might be sold for a dime in a Catholic church as a method of focusing attention. Prayer can be intense attention, with moral themes of attention going through Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch, as I wrote in an early timid essay suggesting that the experience of attention to a work of art was sufficient, without explicit academic theories. Anyone in my downtown world of the late 1950s might have said, “Work is prayer,” or, “Prayer is attention,” when a purpose was to get a person looking at art to participate in the values of the artist as manifest in the work of art. Thus Goethe can see Duerer as seeing that does justice: “To see the world as Albrecht Duerer sees, neither overestimating nor underestimating.”

Andy did not paint-by-numbers himself, but he represented an image of a sailboat outlined to be painted by an unskilled technique of following simplistic instructions. Calculations – say the #2 on the image is a code that means the area should be painted “blue” – deplete colors of their unique irreversible expression of feelings, their correlations with emotions. If #2 = blue, then blue = #2, which misregisters blue, and off-registers #2, since a numeral has no color. The abstractions and coded designations obviated expression of “soul,” even of “self,” yet also grievously falsified the image of a sailing boat.

A sailboat was not like a paint-by-numbers kit, a sailboat was like a soul, which was not a matter of instructions to paint-by-numbers, yet that level or plane of calculating instructions had to be acknowledged as a component of the realities: Andy knew that he did not live in a world of his own making. A sailboat suggests risks, skill, improvised responses, experiences of winds and tides, hence is a model for how to become a “soul,” when “soul” suggests the precariousness of adventuring within this world which threatens pain, suffering and death-by-water.

An interlude with T. S. Eliot, “Death by Water”

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passes the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

I quote poetry as a reminder that the generation of Andy and Ray used the arts not merely as entertainment, but as methods of thinking about realities and values – while they turned the wheel and looked windward . Rimbaud’s image of a “drunken boat” could be used to think with about experiences, and could be used in conversations because the other guys would recognize the image even if they shied at the name“Rimbaud.”

The idea in an image of a sailboat can be seen in a glance. I might say to a sailboat, “I – Thou,” in recognition of identity of spirit, meaning or “soul,” while not feeling a sense of recognizing a kindred spirit in a kit sold for profit or loss (Eliot gets“profit and loss” into “Death by water”). I would not say “I – Thou” to a kit in a hobby-store, although – and here is his brilliance – Andy might acknowledge the possibility. He had a different experience of profit from Ray, who eschewed profit. Andy, like anyone who attended Carnegie Tech, had to become aware of the methods by which the money had been profit from the labor of the men – Carnegie the “robber baron.” The school as an institution had an atmosphere that was “cold as charity.”

“Profit is theft,” Ray might have said, echoing “Property is theft,” although he eventually bought property. Artists did not need to read long philosophic treatises. Someone might have said, during a conversation in a bar,”Existence precedes essence,” thereby changing a friend’s understanding of life and of art, both by the content of the three words, and by the fact of quoting them in a conversation.

I regard the sailboat painting as a self-portrait representing quandries and perplexities in the life and art of a man — gay as a sailboat – struggling for his soul in the realm of art as the truth of the artist as self-discovery and self-expression (but also inadvertent self-revelation). Andy was able to keep his life “on an even keel.” He had had experiences of various “values” in the various markets which were profiting from other people’s hungers by selling the necessities of physical life. In Pittsburgh, a soul could seem as much a luxury as a sailboat in a regatta.

I have quoted a poem which is in some ways sympathetic: “Anything else must not, for you, be thought/ To exist.” That sense of reality (criteria of real existence) suggests, like the psychology of Ludwig Binswanger, that we develop criteria prior to experience by which we judge what is real experience. I am pointing toward the development of “a priori” criteria as the developed equivalent to what used to be thought of as a “soul.”

For Andy, I am looking toward — imagining with playfully projected “facts” — his teen-years for the developments of criteria for his later years. I intend to understand (interpret) his images, not in anecdotal terms… but as his experiencies with experiments on realities. However Andy got to images of flowers is one story, but I am thinking in terms of the meanings accrued by flowers for hucksters who sold necessities like vegetables, but maybe sold flowers if they got a good deal at the wholesalers — two-day-old flowers marked down in price to look like a “bargain” for a special “sale.” “They got ‘nother day or two left in ‘em.”

Andy must have known by experience that the language of buying and selling — “sale” “bargain” “I can let you have a dozen for a dollar” — was unreal, a bad imaginary, with prices as rancid phantoms (woefully now his paintings get haunted by prices which deplete the realities of sensory experience ameliorated by tentative thoughts). A commercial “sale”as a reduction in a price was and is a mental event, illusory in its own way. However, a “sale” and “buying-and-selling,” even if illusory events, are not like the illusions of aesthetic events, because they are not aspiring toward truth, and thus are not answerable to the process of “moving-into-nearness” as moving toward truth, which is never to be reached (hence I mention paths, but not arrivals at ultimate goals: “The Grail is in the seeking, not the Cup.”)…

In a climactic statement, associable with the paradoxes of logic, set theory and critical philosophy, Andy asks an interviewer: “Have I lied enough?” His question to a questioner, as though interviewing an interviewer, aligns with Jasper Johns: “I am a liar,” which is true if it is false, and false if it is true. If “I am a liar” can be proved to be true, then it is not true. Here is where the most “anagogic” or “philosophic” themes of foundation, and of foundationlessness, enter the quotidian events of Andy’s experiences.

My future attempts to describe him will begin with the statement in which he participates in an interview as an interviewer. If he said, as he is quoted, “I am a deeply superficial person,” he participated in the “is and is not” of philosophy which is viable in 2013. The themes reach the groundlessness of faith, and even the event which is like the play of a child making mud-pies, as when Jesus points toward wine and says, “This is my blood.” Andy’s paintings of Leonardo’s“Last Supper” are not explained by anecdotes of dealers, although facts about cheap reproductions are to the point, which includes the experience that the path of Communion becomes a pathlessness for most disillusioned, disenchanted, de-myhthologized people.

I think that Andy was representing the conditions of receiving Communion for a gay painter from Pittsburgh for whom success was a job in New York. “Communion” would take me toward “causality, ”but I’ll give you a rest, after 3 items:

A poem, always handy to have a poem at hand:

Philip Larkin: “Continuing to Live”:

Continuing to live – that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries –
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
It varies.

This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise –
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
But it’s chess.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list. Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

2) Genet, and Sartre on Genet, are necessary to understand my words on authenticity in relation to both violence and “being bad in order to be good.” I use Sartre’s uses of Genet — Genet as a model — as a model. “Warhol was most definitely aware of Genet and of the film Un Chant d’Amour.” One evening two showings were planned; I was telephoned an invitation to the 1st showing where we would be arrested. However, the police raided the 2nd showing. Thus I continued on my way, vanilla with sprinkles, rather than entered into the system of swirls.

3) My son’s birthname is “Ocean Andrew Daniel Wilson,” given “Ocean” by Ann, “Andrew Daniel” by me; but in early summer, 1966, I dropped the “Ocean,” not to confuse the nuns, not knowing about Oceanus (Saint): “Oceanus Ammianus, and Julian, martyrs who were put to death in the Eastern Empire. They died by being burned at the stake under Emperor Maximinus.” “Andrew” was in memory of my grandfather who died quite young.

As punishment for your good deed in getting me to explain my prose you get more prose: Bill

[Note: The quote in item 2 beginning “Warhol was most definitely aware of Genet….” is something I wrote in a previous email to Bill dated February 3, 2013. gc]


Note: This email and image were shared by Gary Comenas on his website about Andy Warhol and Warhol’s stars:  The original post: Gary’s obituary/remembrance for Bill is also online: . July 24, 2016 – SK

Bill Wilson’s essay about Warhol: “Prince of Boredom: The Repetitions and Passivities of Andy Warhol”, Art & Artists, London, March 1968


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