Carson and Warhol back in the day.Photo: Anton Percih, courtesy of Neke Carson
“Page Six” readers may have scratched their heads when they read Monday’s short item announcing that artist Neke Carson’s “Portrait of Andy Warhol” was being shown at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh starting this Friday. Sure, it’s great that this painting is appearing for the first time in 28 years. But what’s the big deal? Carson painted it with a paintbrush sticking out of his butt. That’s the big deal. Carson, now 61, is the longtime co-curator of an eclectic, cult-following Tuesday-night performance series at the Gershwin Hotel. He spoke to an utterly fascinated Vulture about his ass-tonishing conceptual art feat.
How did you meet Andy Warhol in the first place?
He came and did his Exploding Plastic Inevitable show at RISD in the late sixties when I was a student. At the after-party, he said, “If you ever get to New York, come by the Factory.” That was a Tuesday or Wednesday, and by Friday I was knocking on the Factory door.
What was the Factory like?
Warhol come out and was very nice and then went back to work, and I watched what they all were doing. That night we went to some club, and I realized that I really hadn’t planned this whole thing. Typically they didn’t let people stay overnight at the Factory, but Billy Name was very nice and let it slide for one night. Once I graduated, I went right back and showed Andy my sculpture of a clear Plexiglas fountain. He said, “Why don’t you just leave it here?” Eventually it got reviewed in Time, and that was because of Andy. People don’t understand that about him, that he would do things like that.
So moving on to 1972…
I was working on a new form of portraiture, Rectal Realism.
This was the era of body art, and it was sort of a parody of that. I watched a lot of kung fu movies, and in one, the guy gets so angry, he thrusts his hand into a wall and pulls out the sword. I wanted to do something like that with a pen or pencil, and finally my wife at the time said, “Why don’t you just stick it up your ass and be done with it?” And I thought, you have a point there. My first idea was an El Marko, but it was way too big and had a big stopper at the end. So I tried it out with a paintbrush and Pentels. I’d dip one end into rubber latex so you could kind of grip them in a way.
Could you see your work as you did it?
I had to do it upside down and backwards, lifting my crotch. When I started Andy’s portrait, I made his eyes too far apart and he was very upset. The Factory people were filming it as I did it. [The film will be part of the new exhibition.]
How did you control the strokes?
With my legs. My idea was, your hand is way too sophisticated to make art. This had much less baggage, to get this eye-ass coordination going. You had to rewire your brain, go from your eyes to your butt instead of your arms. I don’t know if it helped that I was dyslexic.
Did it feel good or painful?
It was pretty neutral because I went for a thin Pentel. It was like a thermometer. Does a thermometer feel good?
Neke Carson’s Portrait of Andy Warhol.Courtesy of the artist
What was Andy like during the sitting?
You should see the tape, which I’m going to play piano to on Friday. It was such a hard job, there was no time for small talk. It was probably a 40-minute session. And we were sort of having a contest to see who could be more deadpan about it. Once he saw that it wasn’t a joke, that sort of relaxed the situation. He asked me if I had to go to the bathroom. And I said not really. I’d prepared myself.
What did he think of the results?
He said, “Oh, it looks great.”
Then the painting was briefly stolen in 1979.
It was part of a punk-art show in Washington. Someone came into the gallery and took it home and put it in his room. The police put out a call for it on the radio. Finally this guy turned it in. I took a train down to Washington and painted him a small picture of the portrait and gave it to him. I wasn’t angry. He was like a big, giant kid.
Have you done Rectal Realism in recent years?
No. That’s a young man’s game.