By Fred Camper
To look at Billy Name, surrounded by his photos in a Wicker Park gallery, you may sense a connection to the 1960s. But Name is now more than 50 years old. If you didn’t notice his nervous manner and rapid-fire speech, you might peg him for R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, not the golden boy of Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Warhol’s chaotic studio reflected the artist’s interest in removing himself from the art-making process, and he encouraged contributions from all manner of artists, performers, drag queens, and hangers-on. At the center of this scene was Billy Name, who actually lived in the Factory for seven years.
Name recalls moving to Greenwich Village in 1958, fresh out of high school in Poughkeepsie. “This was at the tail-end of the old bohemian New York scene, where it was a tradition, whether you were homosexual or heterosexual, for older artists to keep younger artists.” Soon after arriving, Name–then using his birth name, Billy Linich–met lighting designer Nick Cernovitch. “I was his boy. He was keeping me when I met Andy in 1963. Andy and I started that way too, but by 1964 it had stopped because it wasn’t interesting anymore. Andy would say, ‘Oh, sex, it’s so hard to do it,’ and it was for me too because I was very shy and reluctant. But that was how the art culture worked; if you couldn’t find a job, you would find somebody to keep you for a while.”
Name says one benefit of this arrangement was that younger artists picked up the skills of an older generation. From Cernovitch, Name learned how to stage and light a theater production. With Warhol their work together defined the relationship. “Andy and I really loved each other; we were so interested in the projects we were involved in, the paintings, the silk-screenings, the movies, the still photography–so a sexual or romantic relationship seemed so silly, almost old hat.”
Before meeting Warhol, Name had met people associated with Black Mountain College, where Josef Albers, Charles Olson, and John Cage taught students like Robert Rauschenberg and Ray Johnson. He did lighting design for Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown of the now-legendary Judson Dance group. “They went through this whole thing of determining what the parameters of performance were, how little could you do and have it still be performance. It got to the point where a dancer could walk in, walk across the stage, walk out a door on the other side, and the audience could actually recognize it as a dance piece.”
Much of the art was inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s found objects and Cage’s Zen outlook and use of chance operations. Name provided “vocal droning” for “minimalist” composer La Monte Young. “We didn’t go into our personal selves as much as we tried to establish what the parameters of art were,” he says.
Name identifies Ray Johnson as his key influence. “He formed my whole basic aesthetic. Ray was such a playful person that if you had any sense of play in you, he would find it out. Walking down the street, Ray saw the whole world as art. Looking at a fire hydrant, he wouldn’t just say, ‘Oh, that’s a fire hydrant’: he’d notice the shape of it, recognize its function, and start bringing in the design of a whole city block, and you’d realize it’s all dancing together, that everything is alive.” Thought by some to be a precursor to pop art, Johnson’s collages were collections of sometimes obscure cultural references and abstract designs. “For Ray the whole world was his collage. He would treat you just like he would treat any other element. Your name would become part of his collages; when he would talk to you, you would become part of his happening. He didn’t have an art side and a regular side–he was an artist doing a happening.
“On the Bowery we used to go to the leather bars. He didn’t hang around or cruise or try to pick up someone; he would go in and do little tricks. Sometimes he would have a box of little dowels, and he would walk in and dump the entire box on the floor, and they would roll all over the place. Everybody was picking them up or not knowing what was going on, or slipping or rolling around on them, and there were two opposite reactions: ‘What a great funny thing–isn’t this a joyous art experience?’ and ‘Who the hell is this guy? Get him out of here.’ A lot of the art at that time was provocative like that, simply because it was so basic.”
Name discovered he was a talented barber, and sometimes dancers would come to him for trims. He began to host a weekly haircutting party at his East Village apartment. By then he was also doing his own collages–“one of the easiest ways to see how things work together if you don’t have the skill of working with oil paint.” He also turned his apartment into an artwork, using silver spray paint and aluminum foil. “After spraying I would cover things like pipes, or whatever wasn’t flat, with foil. The telephone and toilet would be sprayed silver. One night Ray brought Andy over, and Andy said he just got this big new loft space uptown and would I do to his loft space what I’d done to my apartment? He also said he was making films of things that people do, so he asked me if he could do a haircut film. Because I knew lighting and sets, I just started doing that for Andy’s films. Once I started working with Andy we became so interlocked that I said, ‘It’s like commuting. Why don’t you just give me the key and I’ll move in here?” Warhol agreed and Name moved into the Factory.
Name provides a picture of Warhol that’s very different from his popular image as a poseur, which Warhol himself cultivated. “The artists of that time were thoughtful and serious about art; we all talked to each other. We were building up our interior catalog of techniques, but each individual wanted his own expressive style. Andy knew what his was, and he would edit so much in terms of what he would allow to come into his field. He knew precisely what images, what colors to put together, what sizes to make his paintings.”
When Name first began visiting Warhol at his town house, Warhol was still doing shoe ads in the front room, but in the darkened back den he had started the silk screen series that would become his calling card.
“He would roll out canvases onto the floor and have a big Elvis silk screen. He would start by hand-painting it silver and then would put the silk screen down and silk-screen the Elvis images, and he’d space them so when stretched they would be the size he would want. He would go through a huge roll with twenty Elvises on it and later he’d cut it into separate compositions.
“I realized that what he was really driving towards with his films and portraits was to capture how glamour works, to use it just like acrylic paint. He knew that was a tool you can use in America to become a fabulous success. His initial portraits were of famous movie stars, and he would paint them in a stylized way, which would double the glamour level.” Silk-screening inks came in colors that you couldn’t get in acrylic or oil paint. “Andy really knew how to make color become a real living thing, not just a tone in a painting. This was something we all learned in the abstract expressionist days, how to see any work abstractly, so that each element in it becomes a functional operator in the artwork.”
The silk-screening process also fed Warhol’s interest in repetition, seemingly imitating the impersonality of commercial art. But Warhol wound up ignoring some rules of silk-screening, making recognizably personal works. “Silk-screening is hard to do unless you’re in a place with vises to hold everything in place, to align the background with images. Andy would do it on a table or floor without locking devices; he would paint a single color in the background, and then would have a silk screen with a big Liz Taylor head. Andy would take the acetate positive image of the head that he got from the silk-screen printer and make a tracing of the Liz Taylor head that would be the outline for his color selection. Once he’d filled in this trace figure with different colors he’d bring the silk screen over and lay it down and try to register it exactly, creating a single color overlay; originally these were usually black. If you don’t get it exactly, the registration is off. [Metropolitan Museum curator] Henry Geldzahler would be there too, and they would talk about this, and they decided that the mistakes looked more like art than the perfect ones. The off-registration would give a vibrancy and dynamic to the painting.”
After Name moved into the Factory, he became sort of a house photographer, using Warhol’s own 35-millimeter camera. While Warhol concentrated on films, Name set up a darkroom and began photographing Warhol, his paintings, and the whole scene. “I call my style ‘photography verite,’ following ‘cinema verite’–just looking through the lens, capturing what you would capture intuitively. I was trying to catch the essence of what was going on, trying to capture the dance of life as an event. I had an eye for framing; I had an eye for the essence of a situation when people would be together. People tell me there’s something intimate in my Factory photos, because I wasn’t a photographer who came in; I lived there, was there all the time. I had complete control of the whole place technically. I would know when people would be getting together to make an event, and then I would just pick up the camera and start shooting.”
Some of Name’s photos are now on view in “Ten Years After: The Warhol Factory,” a show of artwork by seven Warhol-related artists, at David Leonardis Gallery. There are kitschy yet elegant posters and prints from “superstar” Ultra Violet and spooky children’s book illustrations from nephew James Warhola (who calls Warhol his “childhood idol”). In many of Name’s photos, the camera is noticeably tilted. He says he was influenced by students of both Albers and Hans Hofmann, learning from them “why abstract art was art–so when I looked through my lens I was looking at creating an abstract collage. I saw the people and door and floor as components. If I just do a straight vertical shot the subject may look interesting and great, but the space within could be very flat and dull. If you just tilt 15 degrees, all of a sudden you notice if there’s a corner of a wall or a door. If you do that angle you make space become structure, and this becomes simultaneous with the person in the photograph.”
Another Name work on view is Floating Handgun (1964). On a walking trip to paint stores and junk shops, Name and Warhol came across a 3M office building with a company store on the ground floor. They saw 3M’s first copy machine, the Thermo-Fax, and Name, attracted in part by the machine’s ability to copy onto colored paper, said, “Oh Andy, get that for me.” Both were fascinated by graphics and illustration; Name created book covers and later album covers. In Warhol’s photo files Name found handgun shots, one of which he copied for this work, which is on beige paper. “I like that the copy is not hard-edged like a photograph, but much softer, buff. The handgun was simply a startling image that stood out on its own, strong enough to be used for an art piece.” Guns were not a major subject for fine artists then, and Warhol later used the same photos to make paintings. Name’s favorite piece in the show is Black and White Photography, a diptych of photos with areas of solid black and white: “It’s conceptual photography,” he says. “It’s like what we were doing at Judson–finding how little structure you need to have a piece recognized as a performance or a photograph. I also do concrete poetry stuff”–but not all of these are words on paper: some are installations made of actual concrete. “I found these beautiful broken pieces with rocks and stones in them. They just looked so beautiful, I took them and assembled them on a concrete road.”
When Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanis in 1968, Name was in his darkroom. “We were in the second Factory. I had taken the larger rest room for my darkroom and living space. I heard a couple of very loud bangs; I went out and there was Andy lying on the floor in a pool of blood. I immediately went to cradle him in my arms. I was crying; Andy thought I was laughing, and said, ‘Don’t make me laugh, it hurts too much,’ before he passed out.
“After that the whole attitude at the Factory changed; it was no longer a wild and crazy scene. The trauma was so intense and painful for all of us because we all really loved Andy. That someone from within our scene could do such a thing made us jump every time the elevator came up. It became much more conservative; Paul Morrissey started to take over the film part of it and it became more commercially oriented. I felt it wasn’t a real art scene anymore.”
According to legend, Name locked himself in the darkroom permanently. “I would stay in the darkroom all the time and people who knew me would say, ‘Where’s Billy?’ Paul would make some kind of crass joke like, ‘He locked himself in the darkroom a year ago and hasn’t come out since.’ It became a myth. Actually, I would develop or print, or read astrology books and cast charts. The only people I would let in were Ondine and Lou Reed, because they were interested in astrology.”
Name was getting restless. “Finally I said, ‘I’m going to go out into the rest of the world.'” With $300 from a Velvet Underground album cover he’d done–“more money than I’d ever had at one time”–he set out to hitchhike across the U.S. “I went to D.C.; this was summer of ’70. There were all these people camped out in tents on the mall”–part of the massive protests that had begun with the Cambodia invasion and Kent State killings a few months earlier. “I spent two weeks going from tent to tent, taking acid, sleeping outside, smoking hash, protesting the war. In New York we had thought you wouldn’t get involved in anything that was going on in the culture; you would depict it. We were conceptual artists; we were objective. In a sense Andy’s complete work is a conceptual representation of the culture in art forms.”
Name stayed in San Francisco for seven years, sometimes living in the streets. His health had been fragile for some time: at 18 he had been involved in a car accident; during his Factory years he had medicated himself with amphetamines, and as a result he suffered from malnutrition. He says he looked so decrepit that he had no problem getting public aid. His health worsened, and in 1977 “I called my father and I said, ‘I’m in really bad shape. Can I come home for a while?'” Back in Poughkeepsie, he transferred his aid to New York and eventually rented a room. He became a community activist and began showing his art. He lives there today, still making photographs and doing concrete poetry, but supporting himself. After Warhol’s death in 1987, “all of a sudden there were hundreds of people calling me for photos and interviews. Then I linked up with gallery people and showed my own stuff, and now in the past couple of years my career has started to take shape of its own, with shows in Tokyo and London, and museums buying my prints. I’m doing my own career.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Billy Name by Nathan Mandell, and Portrait “Drag Queen at the Roxy” by Billy Name.