Friday, October 24, 2008

Brigid Berlin

Brigid in her living room.
Although neither of us are particularly enamoured with the whole Andy Warhol/Factory era, there is no denying that in interviewing artist, Brigid Berlin, we got to vicariously experience some of it because she was no mere hanger-on. She really was Andy Warhol’s best friend for 35 years, worked at the front desk of the Factory, surrounded by her pugs and doing needlepoint. It is a bizarre juxtaposition: someone absorbed in that most ‘ladylike’ of pursuits in the midst of the drugs, decadence and neon colors of that era. Not that needlepoint was her only form of artistic expression or that she didn’t partake in all those enlightening substances on offer. She was known at times as Brigid Polk, a nickname derived from the ‘pokes’ of vitamin B and amphetamines she injected into anyone who wanted one and she has never denied her own obsessive and addictive personality. She was the creator of, amongst other artistic endeavors, ‘tit paintings’, involving smearing paint on canvas with her breasts, and the Cock Book, full of drawings, of, well, cocks, by people like Jean Michel Basquiat and Jane Fonda. Oh those Factory folk! (The Cock Book sold not so long ago to the artist Richard Prince for $175 000.)

A few weeks ago at Bergdorf’s, Interview magazine was giving a party for Brigid Berlin, who is in the process of auctioning off some of her warehouses of objects, artworks, jewels, etc., that she has created/acquired over the past forty years since she first went to work with Andy at the Factory.
The daughter of Dick Berlin, who was head of the entire Hearst empire for 52 years, she grew up with money and privilege but spent a lifetime in a horrible battle with her weight, her anxieties amplified by her socialite mother who hated having a ‘fat’ daughter (‘Imagine what it is like for me walking down the street with you’). Much of this is documented in the film about her life, Pie in the Sky. She admits that she still has problems with intimacy and, apart from a brief marriage, only truly loves her dogs – all pugs. Her apartment is a kind of shrine to them. But what really interested us, even more than all of this was how deeply conservative she is, and how compulsively tidy she is – witness the photographs of her closets. She told us that she always was this way, even during all her self-destructive bouts with booze and pills and binge eating. Paradox maketh the man – and the woman. Her new needlepoint exhibition: Oct. 21st- Nov.22nd at John McWhinnie at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, 50 1/2 East 64th Street.

These needlepoint pieces you make [of the front pages of the New York Post] are amazing.

I think I’ve taken needlepoint to another direction, which is that I’ve done 15 covers of the New York Post. And I am obsessed with the New York Post.

Why are you obsessed with the New York Post?


Because I absolutely love it. I read every word. My heroes other than my first hero – you know my father was involved with Hearst for 52 years -- and I kind of went from Hearst to my obsession being with Bill Buckley, and from Bill Buckley, the second part of it all is Rupert Murdoch.

You’re obsessed with Rupert Murdoch? When you say you’re obsessed with him, what does that entail?

I love everything he does. I’m absolutely addicted to Fox News – I love it. I love Roger Ailes … frankly I don’t really think it’s biased. But I’ve never really lost my young … and I don’t mind talking about but I make it a rule that I don’t talk politics with other people. I am a Republican but I would vote for a Democrat if I liked them.
A collection of tortoise shell snuff boxes fills a side table in the living room.
Another view of the snuff boxes on a living room side table. A collection of porcelain pugs sits atop the painted living room mantel.
Right: Pugs and porcelain vegetables share space with the snuff boxes.

Below:
A striking rug was designed and needlepoint by Brigid.
A German Shepard served as ‘mom’ to a litter of pugs when their real mother died giving birth.
So what’s it like being a Republican in New York City? You’re an endangered species.

If I wear my McCain button, I feel like I’m going to get slaughtered on the street.

So for this sort of wild child of the Warhol Factory…

I was the same then. And it was during the Vietnamese war that I was just not involved, you know in the bombings on 10th street … you know I’d go down at night after Max’s Kansas City closed and I’d go to Bob Rauschenberg’s house every night and we’d watch TV on the floor. We’d watch Angela Davis and we’d watch the Vietnamese deaths coming home … there were so many people who began that radical left movement and I think it really stemmed from the hippie generation.
Needlepoint pugs line the top of the living room sofa.


Brightly colored, flower-patterned needlepoint pillows fill a living room sofa.
A collection of porcelain pugs sits atop the painted living room mantel.
Another view of the living room.
Well did you think when you were hanging out with these people that a lot of the stuff they were talking about was rubbish? Did you get impatient with it?

They didn’t really talk about it that way … you know I sort of left the back room of Max’s even though I was with Andy every day of my life for 35 years, Andy was a Demorcrat … you know he did that print with Nixon’s picture on it with ‘Vote for McGovern’ – that didn’t bother me. Andy got this idea from Diana Vreeland that he should have around a bunch of young kids from good families and sort of have them as volunteers.
Brigid's “Cock Book,” which sold for $175,000 to artist Richard Prince.
Why was he such a snob? Why did he like well-connected people so much?

He really wasn’t a snob.

He liked money, he liked the well-connected.

Oh yeah, but the reason for that was business. He always said that work was fun and when he had to go out every night, sometimes to three dinners -- that meant he was trying to get portraits. And then Greg Hughes and Bob Colacello, you know, Bob would wine and dine the ladies like Lynn Wyatt and Betsy Bloomingdale and all these people, and it was the next possible portrait. He always said to me: ‘Brigid, I don’t understand why your mother won’t let get your father’s portrait done.’ I said: ‘My mother would rather die than have one of your portraits in her library.’ This was not art to her.
Views of the master bedroom.
Above: Photos of family and friends.

Right: Limoges porcelain boxes with pug designs share space with family photos.
Another view of the master bedroom.
A cozy corner of Brigid's bedroom. Brigid’s closet. Stretch cotton pants from the Gap and Belgian Shoes are a staple of Brigid’s wardrobe.
A pug rug, courtest of who else but Brigid.
Brigid’s dressing table.
A photo of Brigid as a baby with her mother, Honey Berlin. Honey Berlin.
A childhood painting of Brigid and her sister, Richie.
How do you feel about your mother now?

Um … that’s a very hard question. She died in ’87, four months after Andy. And you know when Andy died, it was the first time that she ever really told me that she realized how close I really was to him and she felt very badly. And he would send her little notes, draw hearts …

Did he win her over?


I think by the end …

You have thousands of Polaroid pictures and you made thousands of hours worth of tapes of conversations with all the people and artists from that time. What was behind that need to document and record so much?

Well I really believed that I recorded an era and I recorded everything. I even recorded WINS news, I would do little snippets. And you know Andy taped too, but he never cared … I did it very, very seriously. I must have 5000 tapes and they’re all catalogued.
A favorite pair of Brigid's needlepoint shoes.
A needlepoint in the works.
A photo of Richard Berlin and a portrait are placed in a corner of the dining area.
Contents of Brigid's dining room table.
What will do with all this material?

Because I taped all the great artists, and I’m talking about Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg … I have hundreds of hours with the most wonderful stories, not like an interview, just sitting and being his friend. Vincent and Shelly Fremont are in possession of all my archives. They’re working on another movie right now with Ed Sanders. They bought the rights of Tales of Beatnik Glory … I watched Pie in the Sky last night because Bernadette Pignatelli was here for Italian Vogue. You know I never went to the opening. I don’t like to go out.

So what do you like to do in the evenings?


If you can believe this, I’m in bed by 8:30. I watch Bill O’Reilly, then I watch Hannity and Colmes, then I watch Greta [van Susteren] …
Pugs. Pugs everywhere! Brigid's collection of porcelain pugs in her bedroom.
When I look back on my youth, I’m embarrassed by quite a lot of things I did – I thought I was oh so clever. Do you feel that way when you look back?

No. I feel like it’s all been part of my life. I accept everything that I did – but I’ve definitely changed.

How have you changed?

Well, I would never take another drug. I would never take painkillers, you know Vicodins or Percocets or something like that. I think I have a very addictive personality, and I don’t want one of anything. I don’t know what the word ‘one’ means.

Lesley Hauge and Sian Ballen; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch
Peeking into the dining area from the guest bedroom.
The guest bedroom.