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TDR: The Drama Review 45.4 (2001) 142-162

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The Simplest Surrealist Act
Valerie Solanas and the (Re)Assertion of Avantgarde Priorities

James M. Harding

[Up Your Ass]

After the ambulance had rushed a near mortally wounded Andy Warhol from the Factory to a hospital on 3 June 1968, a small brown paper bag remained on a table close to where he had been talking on the phone when Valerie Solanas shot him. An incongruous and foreign object, the bag contained three items: a pistol, Valerie Solanas's address book, and a woman's sanitary napkin. Solanas had placed the bag on the table as she was departing from the scene of chaos created by her violent act. In a small but not insignificant way, its discordant contents echoed a sense of incongruity that had been hovering about Solanas for some time. Having already been thrown out of the Factory earlier that afternoon by Paul Morrissey (the coproducer of Warhol's films), Solanas waited for Warhol outside. When he arrived, she accompanied Warhol back into the Factory where she shot him. Though it was a hot summer day, Solanas had donned a turtleneck sweater and a trench coat, reminiscent of Hollywood spy movies; rather uncharacteristically, she was also wearing makeup. The makeup, the trench coat, and the mysterious paper bag, all served, as Laura Winkiel rightly asserts, as "props to stage the assassination" (1999:72)--even though, I would add, the sheer actual violence of Solanas's act served as a harsh reminder that the assassination was not merely staged. Somewhere between the props and the pistol shots, Solanas constructed a mode of performance that absolutely defied the conventions of mainstream theatre and tore at the very conceptual fabric of the avantgarde. In this respect, the seemingly insignificant paper bag left on the table at Warhol's Factory has a major part to play not only in establishing Solanas's act as a calculated aesthetic performance but also as a performance that, like the sanitary napkin among its contents, transgressed decorum by calling attention to basic feminine experiences that were publicly taboo and tacitly elided within avantgarde circles. 1

It is hard to overstate how far afield such a conceptualization of Solanas's assault on Warhol is from the accepted interpretations of her actions, interpretations that by and large are based upon Warhol's own reduction of Solanas's act to a mere attempt to use him as a trampoline to fame. "Being famous isn't all that important," Warhol subsequently claimed in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. "If I weren't famous, I wouldn't have been shot for being Andy [End Page 142] Warhol" (1975:78). At the time of the shooting, this clarification--subordinating Solanas as it did to Warhol and his agenda--was quickly picked up by the mainstream media, which was only too happy to depict Solanas as a product of Warhol himself, that is, as an expected outcome of what they considered to be the morally suspect world that Warhol encouraged. 2 While the fleeting sensationalism of that event and the moral drumroll against Warhol have come and gone, Warhol's account of Solanas's actions has endured even in projects implicitly aimed at finally giving Solanas her due. I propose an assessment of Solanas that understands her shooting of Warhol as the pivotal gesture in a radically subversive project aimed at recalibrating the trajectory of the American avantgarde. [End Page 143]

Forgetting Fame: Solanas and the Narratives of the Avantgarde

The appearance in 1996 of Mary Harron's film I Shot Andy Warhol was one of those ambiguous moments that all too frequently accompany long histories of neglect. Evincing the almost incomprehensible power of the cinema, the film arguably did more to give Valerie Solanas's name a lasting place in the cultural imaginary than did her actual attempt to kill Warhol. In this respect, a subtle irony shadows the tag line printed on the poster advertising the film. That line claims "You only get one...


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