In the summer of 1963, Andy Warhol hopped into a Ford Falcon and drove from New York to Los Angeles. Then in his mid-30s, Warhol had accepted an offer by Dennis Hopper to throw a party in his honor. With an inkling that he wanted to develop his skills in film, the avant-garde artist and three of his friends — poet Gerard Malanga, filmmaker Taylor Mead and painter Wynn Chamberlain — set off on a wild 4 1/2- day excursion across the country.
That adventure, a footnote in most Warhol biographies, is the centerpiece of Deborah Davis’s breezy but enlightening “The Trip.” The book uses the seemingly inconsequential excursion as a window not only into Warhol’s life but also into pop art and the cultural history of ’60s America.
Relying on a stash of Warhol’s receipts (the artist was a notorious pack rat who kept memorabilia in “time capsules”) and interviews with surviving friends, Davis re-creates the quartet’s visits to steakhouses, motels and photo booths. Davis’s own journey along Route 66 allowed her to visit and make firsthand notes about the various places Warhol visited on his journey, such as the Town House Motel in Amarillo, Tex.
Through this tale, Davis highlights Warhol’s burgeoning ideas about consumerism and art. He was, for example, particularly fond of the billboards splashed along Route 66. “I don’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 hot dogs and motel signs flashing,” he said at one point. The trip also offers a colorful anecdotal history of American advertising and pop culture during the ’60s, including the history of the billboard and the inspiration for the song “(Get Your Kicks) on Route 66.”
‘The Trip” also reveals enticing details about its famously cryptic subject. Davis divulges, for example, that Warhol, who never knowingly let his friends see him without the iconic silver wig he wore to disguise his balding head (the result of Sydenham’s chorea), used Johnson & Johnson medical tape to fasten it on. She also writes about how the artist realized he wanted to direct — to be part of what he called “vacant, vacuous Hollywood” — and offers details about the filming of “Tarzan and Jane Regained . . . Sort Of” (1964), his first major independent film. Yet for all of Davis’s insights, Warhol remains at arms-length distance — a “master of deflection and camouflage,” it seems, even to those who knew him best.
Such are the limits of posthumous biographies, perhaps, and of Warhol’s own nature. “The Trip” is an accessible and original book, skimming through his artistic exploits with a joie de vivre that might have delighted the man himself. As a jaunty romp through American pop-art history, the book is a light and entertaining read. Warhol, alas, remains as enigmatic as ever.