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Warhol in Colorado: John Bonath's 15 Minutes of Fame

Warhol in Colorado: John Bonath's 15 Minutes of Fame
John Bonath

When the exhibit Warhol in Colorado debuts tonight at DU's Myhren Gallery, one of the show's major components will include photos taken of Warhol by Colorado photographers in the early '80s, when the pop artist visited Fort Collins amid much hoopla for a major exhibition of his works, assembled by noted collectors Jon and Kimiko Powers, at the Colorado State University campus. John Bonath, then an art professor at CSU, is one of them, and here are some of his stories.

"I met Warhol in New York City at the Factory. He was scheduled to come to Colorado, and I was also the art director for Poudre Magazine and wanted to do an article on him. When I got to New York, I had forgotten his phone number, and although I had the date, I had no way to call him. So, I went to a phone booth and opened up the phone book and looked him up. There was a 'Warhol, Andy' in there, if you can believe it. I just called it up, and Andy Warhol picks up phone and says 'Hello?'

"I went and met with him, and it was very interesting. I also photographed him. He had no qualms about people photographing him, the more the better. Then he had a phone call while we talking, and it was Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger. He asked me, 'Do you mind if I take this call?' I photographed him talking on the phone. In the picture, he's got the handset against his ear, and the phone cord is a major part of the composition.

"I really don't think anybody existed on the planet or in the whole world -- I never met anyone remotely similar. He was really childlike, naive in demeanor, soft focus, very gentle. He was sweet, such a sweet person. It was like he would never step on an ant or hit a mosquito. There was also a real kind of awe in his look and in everything else. When he'd talk to me, he'd be looking right at me, and it felt like he was looking right through me, which went along with his demeanor. He wouldn't disappoint you as looking like you'd expect, with that straw-like hair and pasty complexion. That was who he was.  

John Bonath: Andy Warhol arrives on campus, CSU Fort Collins, 1981.
John Bonath: Andy Warhol arrives on campus, CSU Fort Collins, 1981.

"Then I spent five days with him when he was here in Colorado. He came here with an entourage of five people who always were with him wherever he went. By this time, the early '80s, he was famous, already an icon. All that history had already happened, and he had evolved into whatever he was in time. He surrounded himself with all these beautiful, young, attractive people who took care of him. He didn't have to deal with certain common things in life. His feet never had to touch the ground, He would just float around, totally helpless and vulnerable. That's how he wanted and preferred things to be.

"The entourage protected him and took care of him, told him when he needed to eat, rest, be here, be there.... If they saw him pushed over his physical limits, they said 'enough' and withdrew him, even if he was scheduled to be somewhere.

"One evening, Warhol and Kimiko Powers sat at a table, and everybody could bring anything they wanted for Warhol to sign. He sat there and signed things all night -- there was a line that went all the out of the gallery and was a couple miles long. People were camped out. Andy Warhol sat there like a movie star, and when all those people waiting in line finally got there, they weren't disappointed. He signed Campbell's soup cans and Brillo boxes, and one guy had him sign his arm with an ink pen so he could get a tattoo of the signature. Then one guy appeared in line and opened up his shirt. He pulled out a boa constrictor that he wanted Andy to sign. Andy freaked out: He peered up and screamed, and then Kimiko jumped up, and the police started rushing in. I actually got a shot of that.

"You always see him with that expression on his face, with his mouth hanging open -- just really stupefied. But that's not always the way he was. He was actually a fun person who laughed and joked a lot.

"Some photos I took when he was locked up in his motel room. When he withdrew from his obligatory schedule, I happened to be with them. I used it as an opportunity and shot him sitting on the bed in the room -- that's the photo they've used on the cover of the catalogue. I remember they had a bunch of bananas, and they all starting eating them while Andy was sitting on the bed. And then, they started throwing the peels at him, and Andy was dodging the banana peels, and I was shooting it. I still have those photos, but I've never shown them to anyone..."

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