When Warhol Jumped the Shark

MOCA’s “The Painting Factory” proposes Andy Warhol‘s late paintings of shadows, camouflage patterns, and ink blots as inspiration for some of today’s most engaging abstractionists. This isn’t the most adored phase of Warhol’s career—Christopher Knight calls it “mostly a flop—banal retreads.” The question is, can bad art be influential?

I suppose it can, though the show caused me to reflect on the possible influence of a later, badder Warhol effort. Yes, I’m talking about The Love Boat episode.

On October 12, 1985, Warhol guest-starred on a popular and long-running ABC sitcom set on a cruise ship. Nostalgia-dense The Love Boat was known for its guest stars, typically actors of a certain age whose own TV series had been cancelled. The fellow stars on Warhol’s episode tell the tale: Milton Berle, Andy Griffith, Cloris Leachman, Tom Bosley, and Marion Ross. Unfortunately, the Warhol Love Boat is not to be found on YouTube or anywhere else on the web, as far as I can tell. It’s been posted to YouTube but taken down. The main visual evidence for the episode’s existence is the above still photo with series regular Gavin McLeod, whose name Warhol didn’t catch. In his diaries, the hair-challenged Warhol referred to McLeod as “the ship captain from The Love Boat—the bald guy.”

It is one thing to paint pop culture; it is another to descend into the belly of the beast. That must have been the point. With no more suspension of disbelief than is demanded by “The Painting Factory,” one might trace a semi-facetious lineage from the Warhol Love Boat to Chris Burden on [Regis] Philbin & Company, and to James Franco and Kalup Linzy on General Hospital. The common denominator is a never-conceded smirk at the business of television. These artist-pranksters in turn heralded the more serious side of media-based art, which often finds ways to negate the familiarness of TV so that we can see how truly strange it is. The Warhol Love Boat might be called a point of cultural inflection—more plausibly than the silk-screened abstractions at MOCA.

The Love Boat was produced by Aaron Spelling and Douglas Cramer. One of MOCA’s founders, Cramer was president of the museum’s board of trustees before a falling out and move to Connecticut. At right is Warhol’s portrait of Cramer, from 1985, the year of Love Boat.

In the Warhol episode, Marion Ross (TV mom of Ron Howard in Happy Days) is a former Warhol superstar, married to stodgy Tom Bosley (TV dad of Ron Howard). Bosley doesn’t know about Ross’ past in underground film, and she’s afraid that they’ll run into Warhol, playing himself, aboard ship.

Warhol bonded with Ross. “I really love [Ross] so much,” he told his diary. Ross called Warhol “the sweetest guy in the world.”

The episode’s humor centers around Warhol being a money-obsessed huckster. This echoes two plotlines from the 1960s Batman TV series—which clearly referenced Warhol, albeit without him doing a guest shot. (Click for Warhol as the Joker and, more incredibly, Andy played by Walter Slezak.) “How does an artist know when a painting is really successful?” asks a Love Boat regular. Answer: “When the check clears.” The laugh track goes wild.

That punchline was delivered by actor Raymond St. Jacques, playing a drag queen in Warhol’s entourage. It must have been edgier for 1985 than Kalup Linzy, not in drag, on a 2010 General Hospital. The Warhol Love Boat acknowledged the gay angle more than you’d expect for pre-Will and Grace prime time. In his diary entry for March 26, 1985, Warhol reports: “Got picked up to go to The Love Boat set. Had to do my ‘Hello, Mary’ line, and the gay director is saying, ‘Give it some pizzazz—Hel-lo, Ma-ry!’ And I say, ‘Hel-lo, Ma-ry.'”

Another diary observation: “Andy Griffith seems bitter to be on the Love Boat.” On the final day of shooting, Griffith [TV dad of Ron Howard on The Andy Griffith Show] “suddenly got really happy, very friendly to everybody, and nobody could figure it out… He must’ve had a drink.”

Warhol was himself miffed when the show’s TV Guide ad didn’t run his picture. In New York, a couple of days after air date he “went to Sotheby’s and they had my painting of Ten Lizzes up. Ran into a lot of old ladies who said they saw me on the Love Boat.”

(Below, installation view of Warhol paintings in MOCA’s “The Painting Factory”)

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