Benjamin Liu, Part II: On Warhol

by Michelle Jubin

October 2011

“There are certain things he does care about. I know it’s not artistic to talk about that, but it’s true.” In Part II, Benjamin Liu discusses the Warhol years, his time as the pop artist’s last assistant before his death in 1987. Audio + transcript below.

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Artwrit: So how did it end up going from working with Hugo to working with Warhol? Was it a smooth transition?
Benjamin Liu:
It is kind of smooth because I spent two summers with Halston and Victor at that rented estate in Montauk that belongs to…

That’s a beautiful photograph of you! I think you’ve shown me that photograph at one point or… How have I seen that?
Yeah, that Andy took.

It’s you in your twenties, and you were a very handsome twenty-year-old. And you’re still very handsome now but…
Let’s go on that more. [both laugh] You know Andy doesn’t…

It’s just so, it’s full of, like, a joie de vivre, it’s really beautifully done. I didn’t realize it was taken by Andy, though.
Yeah, Andy took that photo. We’d just got up basically, you know, cause we all stayed up. We usually stay up late until sunrise, basically.

You do.
Yeah, it’s those moments. So Andy owned that with Paul Morrissey because they made—there are two films that they made together. Well, they made many films together, but two made a little money, which was Flesh and um… I’m forgetting them now… I’m supposed to know all this stuff. Flesh and the other one.

Yeah.
So they bought that estate. So…

And the estate was where?
Halston rented it. Huh?

 

The estate was where?
Montauk.

Montauk, okay.
It was situated right next to: Dick Cavett is here, and then Richard Avedon is here, and then Peter Beard is down at the lighthouse, so it’s right there, you know? So Andy was always invited for major holidays along with his boyfriend. Major holiday meaning Fourth of July, Labor Day and so on and so forth. So on those occasions, there were many times… You know, he always dressed the same, be it the beach or be it the city. You know what that look is: black turtleneck, black suit, jeans and black backpack. I mean, for God’s sake! And he’s kind of anemic to the sun, he’s very pale.

Yeah.
So he’d always carry an umbrella, so sometimes I felt… I volunteered to carry his umbrella while he could, like, take some pictures, stuff like that. So we start talking and stuff and got to know each other better and he asked me to work for him, actually. And I think in looking back now, I think he kind of liked this creative synergy that I have…. Well, creative fun that I have with Victor and Halston, we’re always laughing and drawing and, you know, whatever we we’re doing. Like, some things would come out of it and some things don’t come out of it. Sometimes it’s pure silliness, you know, but that’s what that is all about, right?

Yeah.
Yeah, amongst creative people!

You worked with him for three years?
I actually worked for him… Three years.

Yeah.
Because…

Between which dates? Just so I keep it in chronology, I’m tracing your trajectory.
Yeah, yeah… Around what time?

Yeah.
Between ’82 to ’86.

Okay.
He died in ’87.

Yeah.
What happened was, the first day when I showed up, I remember showing up and Brigid Berlin, the resident superstar who can… who answers the phone for us, but she’s much more than that but, you know, she needs a day job.

Yeah.
That’s a joke. So she said, “Oh my god, Benjamin, you’re gonna be a lifer!” So I—[laughs] I thought to myself, “Oh my god.” I’m kind of like… I’m not really a lifer. So that week or that month, I kind of make a pact with myself that I actually… “All right, I’m going to work here for three years.” I’m kind of like that you know, maybe that’s a Chinese part of me. So I kind of even like, in my head, I kind of figure out that maybe I’m going like, the last day would be 1986 on February 14. [laughs] That’s how crazy I was. And I gave my notice, actually, and Andy didn’t believe me. But I gave him a month notice. So, actually, I did go back and work for him, but that’s a little-known part of it, ’cause a lot of people, like would… I think he told people to send emissaries to come and talk to me and stuff. It wasn’t… there was no disagreement, I just thought I should kind of experiment after that, you know? He said, “You know, Benjamin, if you come back every Friday, I’ll give you a box of chocolate!” [laughs]

Just for coming in on the Friday or for…
Yeah!

Oh! And did you…
So ’86 to ’87 that’s what I did. He did give me a box of chocolate. Now, he didn’t go out and buy them.

Every Friday?
See, what happened is that Andy is known as a sweet… has a sweet tooth. But he, in his later years, he became much more healthier. Like, he doesn’t drink vodka and he doesn’t eat sweets as much, or hardly. In the old days he did, you know. I think maybe he got… maybe also because he finally got rid of his pimples.

Oh, I didn’t realize that.
He had skin problems for a long time, even when I worked for him. He finally got it cured by Doctor Burke, Karen Burke, who is a famous cosmotologian [sic].

Huh, didn’t realize that.
This is a known fact, this is not even gossip. But it was a miracle. For him it was, so… [laughs]

But then he cut out sweets?
There are certain things he does care about. I know it’s not artistic to talk about that, but it’s true. Yeah.

Well, he was very concerned with his image, yeah.
He is, who isn’t?

Who isn’t? Yeah.