Portrait of the Ultimate Neo Nature Boy
by Paige Powell, NYC 2005
In New York City around 1985 I was introduced to BillyBoy* by Andy Warhol, my boss, and naturally I fell in love with this exotic, romantic and exquisite creature.
He had the genius to inspire Andy to make portraits of the Barbie Doll and that is why he ended up at our office known to many as ‘The Factory’.
We hung out and ran around town in his limousines or sometimes Mattel sponsored limos with the poet/artist René Ricard and with Andy in Stuart Pivar's chauffeured car enroute to the Odeon, Mr. Chow's or west side flea markets, antiques shows at the Armory or up to Harlem to visit the Doll Museum in an old townhouse and eat at La Famille, a jazz bar/restaurant then off to the Beverly Hills bar or Lenox Lounge.
I would quietly observe Billyboy*, watching the way he elegantly flipped his hand, his Schiaparelli gems lingering and receding like a gentle wave on his wrists, the perfectly tailored Parisian suits and sometimes a smart chapeau.
Always sublime with a Dorothy Parkeresque wit, perfect posture, beautiful manners, well read and a ravenous curiosity for totally everything. I mean everything.
BillyBoy* is a connoisseur of all that is visually stunning and significantly outrageous. His buoyant sense of humor sees charm and beauty in all. He will always find something fascinating in the most banal objects; exuding optimism and fun on the rainiest of days.
I went with Andy to the unveiling of his Barbie Doll painting called “Portrait of BillyBoy*”. It was in a large space on a Westside pier and there were many business men in suits running around the place and an elevated podium on a little stage with a microphone. There was BillyBoy*, in a marble print silk pyjamas suit and a ton of Schiaparelli jewellery, doused in ‘Shocking de Schiaparelli” perfume.
The event had all the drama of an unveiling when the black scarf covering the canvas was pulled off to reveal Andy's painting to much applause. It as all because of BillyBoy* and his splendorous imagination.
Andy was so excited about the Barbie project and adored BillyBoy* because he was so talented and fun to be with. Andy loved to go junking with him too.
His superb flare for innately understanding the lunacy of human psychology and all of its by-products puts BillyBoy* on the pedestal as the ultimate Neo-Nature Boy. (...)
Text in extenso in Frocking Life
In 2008, BillyBoy* and Lala have created a series of artworks for an exhibition called "IDENTITY" in Geneva. We were inspired by the Barbie (BillyBoy*) portrait by Warhol and replaced her features by one of these emoticons currently used on internet chat platforms and cell phones: two dots and a bar for the mouth. It was called "The Portrait of BillyBoy* Behind The Portrait of BillyBoy*", which is a Mdvaniiism artwork. It was a way of closing the circle and an occasion to explore the meanings of identity.
"EDIE SUPERSTAR" (Lala, 1992). In this video filmed in 2008 by BillyBoy* & Lala in Switzerland, after a song written and sung by Lala about Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol's 1960s Superstar, the artists have used documents and glimpses of Warhol iconography and other Warhol-size imagery of their own. The video includes "psychedelic" pop art inspired work mixed with Mdvani artworks called Mdvaniiisms and black and white film parodying the Factory from 1990 for French TV channel Antenne 2 (© BillyBoy*).
Genesis of a Portrait
I remember the day BillyBoy* flew back from New York to Paris on the Concorde, in the mid-1980s, carrying next to his seat a one by one meter flat package, wrapped in bubble and craft paper. As usual, I would always fetch him at the airport, always amused in advance at the idea of discovering how he would be dressed and how much bigger his luggage would be. Because of his incredible and sometimes truly outrageous rock star looks, he was frequently stopped at customs, since it seemed that they thought a person with such looks would obviously have something to hide, notably drugs. Or maybe simply because the task of custom officers must be so monotonous, so drab sometimes, that they pick up one character hoping that at least they would have something fun to tell at the end of their day. However, it was always a huge waste of time: just like Salvador Dali who made the most LSD looking paintings in the world and never even once popped a yellow sunshine, BillyBoy* has never taken drugs, not even once, in his life. So after a minute search in his luggage with special attention to the huge crocodile handbag he was always carrying at the time, thoroughly checking everything from his Chanel compact to the casual day wear lipstick by Dior, and they still found nothing, of course. Then came the time when the officer asked him what was the wrapped thing he was carrying to which BillyBoy* replied "Oh it's just a picture of me as the Barbie doll, do you want to look at it too, it's very nice". By that time, the over zealous employee had already gotten the picture, which means he just did not get it at all, he was just utterly fed up and that's how it all went, perfectly smoothly: it was a Concorde flight after all, some pretty eccentric people were flying it. I think that on the way to New York, BillyBoy* was with the four members of Abba. When they stopped the Concorde, the most beautiful plane ever, after a terrible crash caused by a piece of metal detached from an American airplane, I guess international air transportation lost it's last chance to be glamorous and prestigious.
"If you want to do my portrait, do Barbie, because Barbie c'est moi" (BillyBoy*, 1985)
The story of this exceptional painting, itself still relatively unknown in the art world, is truly fascinating. In the mid-1980s BillyBoy* had the brilliant idea to ask couturiers, designers and artists in Paris and then those from all over the world who he knew personally to dress and celebrate the Barbie Doll through their own work and various mediums. He himself had designed the very first Barbie doll with a designer's name, his own, on the box, and it was named "Barbie Le Nouveau Théatre de la Mode de BillyBoy*". It was followed by an exhibition of it's namesake, and this show toured France and then the USA with tremendous popular success. Alongside a book which was a best-seller in many languages, this project, the brainchild exclusively of BillyBoy*, had a huge influence on the production of commercial dolls and doll collectors.
At the time, Andy Warhol offered BillyBoy* on numerous occasions to make a portrait of him as a gift. But BillyBoy*, much to his surprise, always declined. As he said himself, "I did not feel like having another picture of me, by Andy to boot. Anybody could have that, as long as you could afford it." Finally one day while shopping at the 23rd Street flea market in Manhattan, upon yet more of Warhol's insistance, BillyBoy* replied: "If you want to do my portrait, do Barbie, because Barbie, c'est moi", a certainly humorous paraphrase of Gustave Flaubert's famous "Emma Bovary, c'est moi". Warhol took him literally word for word and did this portrait. He named it, casually between himself and BillyBoy*, "Portrait of Billy Boy" and that's how Warhol always referred to it in conversation with BillyBoy*. The first one was in a very bright blue, a colour Wathol called "BillyBoy* Blue", the colour used as the background for the portrait. It was based on a certain BillyBoy* Surreal Couture jacket BillyBoy* often wore at the time. It was unveiled in New York City as recalled by Warhol in his diaries. This first one he generously offered to BillyBoy* as a gift. BillyBoy* had suggested to Fred Hughes to sell one to Mattel at the time which Hughes negotiated with them, and it had a bright red background (and not pink as Mattel has printed it in various books and even a commercially-made rug, of all things). He sold Mattel the second one for the usual price, which was about $75,000 at the time. Andy also did a tracing, a simplistic traced drawing made from the original photo of a Superstar Barbie in BillyBoy*'s own collection, in order to do the piece and he said he would do a third in yellow, which if he did it, seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth since both the Warhol Museum and the Warhol Fondation have never heard of it.
Warhol's Last American Icon
Warhol explains himself that he did not like the 1980s Barbie which he found "puny". Regardless, he would probably never have painted Barbie without BillyBoy*'s suggestion, though it is impossible to speculate on that point.
"We want people to know that there's much more to Warhol than Campbell's soup cans and Marilyns" said Eric Shiner, the new director of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in an article from The New York Times by Blake Gopnik (Saturday-Sunday May 17-18, 2014). Indeed, Warhol icons such as Marilyn or Liz Taylor are undoubtedly as famous as the Mona Lisa today and they can only be rivaled by his landmark Campbell's Soup, Coca Cola Bottles and Flower paintings. And just as these icons, Barbie was world-famous, a pure product of mass consumerism which was sold with Hollywoodian hype as if she was a living being. However and surprisingly even when he did his relatively lesser known "Myths" paintings in 1981, which included Mickey Mouse, the Witch from The Wizard of Oz and Howdy Dowdy, the Barbie doll was not part of this series. Throughout his career, Warhol did many illustrations of toys and products of all kinds, and even, I think, one of the Cabbage Patch Kid doll, but at no point was Barbie ever in sight.
The Barbie photograph itself, which was given to Warhol by BillyBoy* for the portrait, was of a 1980s Barbie and Warhol explains how he liked the vintage Barbie better, with her closed mouth. Something quite interesting also since the first thing BillyBoy* had asked Mattel when he did his second Mattel Barbie, called "Feeling Groovy Barbie"
, was to have a doll with dark hair and closed lips (he had Mattel's executives spinning their wigs around many a time with this crucial debate, which BillyBoy* finally won with his Feelin' Groovy Barbie by BillyBoy*,
made by Mattel in 1987, after Warhol's death).
By doing the portrait of Barbie in place of BillyBoy*'s, Warhol certainly could not imagine that this portrait would turn out to be his last American icon. The master of Pop Art, who made a blond Marilyn his first icon, sort of finished this series with a blond Barbie doll, the ultimate industrially-made product, in plastic to boot, on the suggestion of an androgynous young gay man, a perfect warholian subject if any. In the previously mentioned New York Times article titled "Rearranging Warhol's Legacy", Blake Gopmik points out: "The one Warhol persona that is slighted in the new installation is his presence as one of the first notably gay artists to reach mass attention. The museum is open about Warhol's homosexuality, displaying his "Studies For A Boy Book", a series of pre-Pop drawings from the 1950s and mentioning boyfriends in wall text. But it never digs-in how important he was for the history of gay culture and how vital his gayness was vital for his art."
As a matter of fact, BillyBoy*'s intuition was truly visionary. Instead of having done "yet another portrait of a relatively famous individual" (BillyBoy*'s own words), Warhol created an iconic painting, which can be seen today as the epilogue of his entire oeuvre. Andy Warhol died age 58, much too early, very shortly thereafter, much to the stupefaction of all the people who loved him and praised his work. BillyBoy*'s own book on Barbie, "Barbie, Her Life And Times" (Crown Publishers, New York), which was published after Warhol's death, became a best-seller translated into many languages. As a tribute to Warhol, it opens with the BillyBoy*/Barbie Warhol Portrait. Seen by millions of people, this image is certainly familiar for a whole generation if not even several.
I tend to disagree on a point with Warhol's Diaries: I find fascinating that the Barbie doll that was painted was not a vintage one but a typical 1980s one, with her bigger than life hairdo, so utterly American, her sentimental big eyes and universal smile. She's truly like a contemporary version of the Virgin Mary, giving love to everyone. A vintage Barbie doll with her "hard glamour" make-up and ponytail taken from the 1950s German Bild Lilli would have just looked retro and much too post-war European chic. Plus, the Bild Lilli doll was made at first as a men's adult gag party favour based upon the cartoon of a good time girl, a Hamburg hooker with a hugely naive and camp sense of humor. That would simply not do. But even more fascinating, the Barbie doll on the painting, which happens to be the 1980s version of Mattel's Superstar Barbie, turned out to be a perfect choice art wise and entirely suggested by BillyBoy*. It is interesting to know that Warhol, who invented the term "Superstar", painted the only commercial doll that used this name as a proponent for the marketing of her to little girls.
The first time I saw this painting unpacked in our lavender and almond green salon of our first apartment in Paris, I was literally thunderstruck. It was superb, utterly magical, so obvious and right in your face. It radiated an amazing inner light. The most popular doll in the world in place of the portrait of my life partner, a brilliant idea transcended into an unquestionable masterpiece. For more than 28 years we have been living with this portrait and it was always looking at us, with that everlasting smile following us each time we moved from one place to another, still even today. Lately on a shocking pink wall, as BillyBoy*'s bedroom was entirely painted in this color, the painting felt sumptuous to look at. Throughout the years, I felt the pertinence of this artwork's meaning growing and growing, becoming more obvious as the years passed by. Definitely a masterpiece, I would like to see it once exhibited in the Louvre next to the Mona Lisa, the female portrait with the ultimate enigmatic smile, with a Dora Maar Picasso portrait in between. It would certainly illustrate a fascinating evolution of the female portrait from the Renaissance to Modern Art and Contemporay Art.
Warhol and his century
If I had to sum up the art of the 20th-century by selecting only three artists, I would personally choose Picasso, Dali and Warhol. I would choose Picasso and Dali for the first part of the century. Picasso first, because his work more than any other artist's, can be seen as a systematic destruction of the 19th-century heritage: as stated by Dali* he " Picasso killed modern art (…) with all the violence of his Iberian anarchism". Dali's work represents the essence of Surrealism, a movement unlike many others which still has so many links with our epoch and which notably explored the underpinnings of deviant sexuality. His art was a constant reference to classicism and great masters such as Vermeer and Raphael, which he admired more than any painter in the history of art (and certainly had an equivalent skill). Both belong to Modern Art. As for Warhol, he sums up by himself the second part of the 20th-Century Contemporary Art. Warhol turned his fascination for industrial products and popular culture into an amazing body of work, which appears to be, as decades go by, as one of the most original and visionary of our times.
One thing which is certain is that these three artists had an acute sense of self-publicity and were amazing masters of public relation. Aside from his unique sense of humor and paradox, I believe that Warhol's communication's genius started with his generic white wig, which made him instantly recognizable and look forever young. He was definitely the one who anticipated the endless multiplication of images and commercial products, our narcissistic times, our fascination for celebrity (with everything that comes along with it) and translated it into his art. In that regard, if Picasso is anarchism and power, Dali is sex and money, Warhol is glamour and TV.
More than ever, Warhol is for now. Aside from his unique sense of humor and paradox, Warhol's communication's genius can certainly be summed up by his generic white wig, which makes him instantly recognizable and look forever young. He was definitely the one who anticipated the endless multiplication of images and commercial products, our narcissistic times, our fascination for celebrity (with everything that comes along with it) and translated it into his art.
As for most artists, his art was not always understood or appreciated by the public and even the art world the way it is today. In one of his first exhibitions which featured his now classic serigraphed wood Brillo boxes, none of them were sold and their price was only $200 dollars a piece. But the mediatic success around him, the Factory, the Superstars, his controversial movies and his own image are constant vehicles of glamour. It is no surprise that now Photoshop and Instagram filters propose applications which allow you to create instant Warhol-style images. He probably would have loved these tools. Nearly everything on Twitter sounds like a warholian quote and everything on Vine is like a miniature Warhol movie. As BillyBoy* says, "Like the Stone Age, which was the Fred Flintstone Age, the Iron Age, the Industrial Age, we live now in the Age of Warhol".
Warhol's famous quote ("In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes") has long turned from a prophecy into a Youtube and TV show reality (he eventually grew really bored of this quote, preferring his new version: "In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous"). The concept of the "reality show" in itself is totally warholian, since the most boring people can become famous just because they are on television, endlessly played back and rerun forever on Youtube. The backlash of it all is that anyone today can believe their own narcissistic delusions, resulting in huge amounts of frustration, anger, disappointment and even sometimes self-entitlement. All you need to hear is some of the stories of the original Andy Warhol Superstars, none of whom feel they were treated correctly or profited justly from their appellation of "Superstar". While some became mythic, very few of them lived the apparently privileged and materially comfortable lifestyle of a real star.
A New Enigmatic Smile For Our Times
Warhol always claimed that anybody could do his paintings and that "anyone can take a good photograph", which he said in the sixties and seventies. This is now certainly true more than ever before in the history of photography. Today digital cameras and even basic smartphones, make taking pictures easier than ever before. Applications such as Instagram can give to the most banal landscape an absolutely stunning magical light. This doesn't make it art however, as it is not that simple. There will always be a difference between an artist's eye and the common use of today's and tomorrow's apps, which are just tools. A genuine artist's eye is developed through many years of work and practice. It is worthy to also mention that Warhol's use of early Polaroïd photos and the facility to make glamorous overexposed images transferred directly to silkscreen was a hugely innovative process, a precedent unique to him. His massive film production and early video art is a major part of his oeuvre, just as his photography. Warhol managed to make everyone look like a movie star and every product look like glamorous Madison Avenue advertising. His work was simply visionary and from the mind of a true genius.
In that regard, the Barbie portrait of BillyBoy* or Portrait of BillyBoy* as Barbie, or simply the Barbie painting as it appears to the neophyte can definitely be seen as the exceptional legacy of a complicity between two strong personalities as well as the closing of a circle: Andy Warhol's last American Pop Art icon painting and a new enigmatic smile for our times.
Lala Jean Pierre Lestrade
*Dali On Modern Art, Dial Press, New York 1957.