Stories Fare thee well, Billy Name (1940–2016); We miss You.
Billy Name’s 47th birthday was remarkably sad, as it was on that very same day (Feb 22, 1987) that his old friend and mentor Andy Warhol passed away. In the years since then, Billy’s generous sharing of his memories with authors, academics, museum staff, and others, helped us understand not only what the 1960s Factory was like, but also some degree of its larger social context, and Andy’s relationship to both. As of July 18, 2016, we must carry on without him.
For me, Billy was the main attraction of the grand opening weekend of The Andy Warhol Museum in 1994. He was excited by the energy patterns he saw flowing on the museum walls, and he could feel Andy’s presence, especially in the collection storage rooms. I felt that he was a powerful connection to Andy; two legendary figures of a storied moment in culture: New York in the mid-1960s. He often spoke of Andy’s audacity in creating his work, yet Billy may have outdone his boss in audacity when he chose a name for his on-stage persona with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in 1966; he knew that he needed a name to attract attention, and gazing at a magazine subscription card, it came to him; he chose “Name” as his name. It still gets attention!
Billy returned to Pittsburgh several times afterward, either to give a public talk, sign copies of the latest book of his photos, or in 1997, to attend the opening of Billy Name: Factory Fotos 1963–68, which had originated at the ICA in London, through his gallery at the time, Gavin Brown’s enterprise. Most of the 200 photos were either from Billy’s collection, or the museum’s collection, with a few private loans. The Pittsburgh venue added many archival collection objects, including astrology charts for significant events (such as the moment when Andy was shot in 1968) or natal charts for assorted Superstars, all hand-drawn by Billy. The museum also showed the reel-to-reel audiotape boxes for opera recordings that he decorated with collages, and the Kodak photography books from which he learned his new art after Andy gave him a camera and set him on the path. The museum showed several hand-written notes from Billy to Andy, and the old steamer trunk that Billy found in the basement of 231 East 47th Street and painted silver; it quickly became a recognizable prop at the Factory and in some of Andy’s films.
I visited Billy at his home in Poughkeepsie a couple of times, too. One of these visits led to him lending the museum a fairly large group of archival materials, from which I curated a small exhibition in the old Archives Study Center also in 1997, titled Kronk! after one of Billy’s favorite words within his aerial canon of concrete poetry.
Billy was a special guest at the opening party for The Warhol’s exhibition The Warhol Look: Glamour, Style, Fashion at its initial venue, The Whitney Museum in New York, in October 1997. I saw Billy at the Gershwin Hotel a few times, too, just north of Madison Square Park.
In 2007 I had the honor of interviewing Billy for the catalogue for the museum’s co-produced exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia. In 3,000 words, built around discussing five of his photos that were in the exhibition, we touched on many fascinating details of Billy’s days at the Factory, and Billy cleared-up several of my misconceptions about Andy.
More recently (2014), Billy is one of the on-screen talents in the museum’s introductory film, along with Paul Warhola, Bob Colacello, Vincent Fremont, Brigid Berlin, and other significant figures in Andy’s life. This film was produced for the museum’s 20th anniversary in 2014, for which a star-studded party was thrown; it was the last time that I saw Billy.
In 2009, Andy’s Screen Test of Billy was one of the 13 chosen for the museum’s live performance event, 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, which features a selection of Andy’s four-minute silent film portraits with commissioned soundtracks by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, performing as Dean and Britta. In the film, Billy illuminated his face very dramatically, with a single bright light reflecting in the left lens of his sunglasses: it’s so bright that the right lens almost seems to be a hole. Billy may have learned this masterful technique from his earlier mentor, Nick Cernovich, lighting designer for the Judson Church and other avant-garde theaters in New York of the early 1960s.
Billy brought this knowledge and skill to his work on Andy’s films, as well as acting in several of them. He served Andy in other capacities: from business secretary to installing the Box sculptures at the Stable Gallery in 1964, and overseeing Andy’s books of the period: Andy Warhol’s Index (Book) (1967) and a, A novel (1968). In this lengthy quotation from my interview with Billy, he discusses why they decided to excerpt text from a to be used as a header on each page, and how that functions:
“The idea for the headers was simply to add the flavor of an actual ‘published novel—maybe even a historical novel’ to the tome. Leaving everything unedited with no evidence that the artist is sophisticated was a little too bland feeling. The headers gave an excitement of running themes throughout the reading and a suggestion of ‘body’ for the novella-like flow. The title of lower case ‘a’ was actually a tribute to e e cummings’s style with no case distinctions and no punctuation as a predecessor to a, A novel. An allusion to previous cultural standards has been the sign of an intelligent artist since Mozart and before. But anything more than these two applications to the manuscript would have seemed phony. It’s only because they are applied with a ‘camp’ attitude that it works. Andy really was intelligent; he simply wasn’t overly articulate in those days.”