On Andy Warhol

SEP 10, 2017

by Robin Kelsey

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The rise of mass commerce in the twentieth century seemingly left artists with two options. You could stand against the tide, against cheapness and easy sentiment, against immediate legibility and ready affirmation, or you could immerse yourself in mass culture, sampling its packaged pleasures and reframing its sensational pandering. If you did the former, you risked fatuous snobbery and self-aggrandizement. If you did the latter, you risked vacuous complicity and self- abandonment. Nobody said the twentieth century was easy.

When Andy Warhol came of age in the 1940s, the painter Jackson Pollock was exemplifying the heroic first option, crafting a swaggering practice around the masculine mythos of the visionary loner. His drip paintings were abstract and inscrutable. They seemed both primeval and atomic, both deeper and more revelatory than ordinary commerce could be. His struggle with celebrity, including his relapse into alcoholism in 1950 after recording sessions with the photographer Hans Namuth, only seemed to confirm his authenticity.

Sixteen years younger than Pollock, Warhol went the other way. Trained as a commercial artist, he reveled in the beckoning surfaces and mechanical ways of advertising and trade. In the early 1960s he became a leading figure in Pop Art by proffering reproductions of Campbell’s soup cans, lurid newspaper articles, celebrity photographs, and other commercial fare. He used his immersion in the gay subculture of New York City to populate his scandalous Factory with an off beat cast of collaborators. Whereas Pollock reputedly flung his deepest psychological contents onto canvases, Warhol screen printed the public’s most superficial fascinations on his. “Art should be for everyone,” he said.

Leading critics lambasted Warhol for sidling up to the crassness that art was supposed to transcend. In 1962, Irving Sandler wrote that Warhol “does not appear to satirize” mass culture’s “vulgarity and idiocy but to accept its values complacently.” Dore Ashton wrote of one Warhol show, “the air of banality is suffocating.” For critics committed to the defiant difficulty of abstract art, homemade Brillo boxes seemed a craven surrender.

But Warhol was on to something. He perceived that there was no outside to the market, no island in the flow of commerce upon which an individual could heroically stand. Rather than lament or forestall the sheen of commodities or the machinations of celebrity, he internalized them. He made them a part of his persona and his art.

This internalization was no simple reflection. Signature works by Warhol, such as S&H Green Stamps and 200 One Dollar Bills, exaggerate signs of reproduction, making multiplicity and sameness troublesome themes rather than simple facts of mass commerce. Paradoxically, his images also subtly diverge from their models, with paints and inks stubbornly bleeding here and there, leaving every surface beset with misalignments and tiny accidents. Over time it became clear that there was something disquieting and trenchant about Warhol’s fixation on the magnetism of supermarket shelves and tabloids. His beautiful and haunting works remind us of the everyday pleasure of commodities and movie stars, but also of our debilitating compulsion to identify with them and not with ourselves.

Warhol’s studied persona was also ambivalent. He discomfited interviewers with his happy bumpkin routine, always liking things and talking about how great people were. And yet just as Warhol’s art works betrayed a lurking trauma, so his interviews and writings occasionally admitted the shadows of his affirmations. Anyone who once said, “Being born is like being kidnapped and then sold into slavery” was not as sanguine with the world as all that.

Whereas Pollock was famously unsettled by the presence of cameras, Warhol premised his practice and persona upon them. He understood their strange and sometimes brutal power. To make his so-called Screen Tests, film portraits produced between 1964-66, he would put a celebrity (either a recognizable celebrity or one of his Factory “superstars”) in front of his 16mm camera and ask them to sit still during a three-minute filming of their face. He would then project the film at a slower speed, so that the viewer could partake of the painfully distended temporality experienced by the sitter. The best of the Screen Tests represent the sitters in an anguishing process of dissolution, each initial confident and assertive expression undone by the slow grind of time under hot lights and the camera’s cold stare.

Like every artist, Warhol got by with a little help from his friends. Of particular importance to him was the documentary film-maker Emile de Antonio. De Antonio helped Warhol realize that you could make art by reworking what mass culture gave you. Warhol allegedly showed de Antonio two paintings of Coke bottles, one including abstract expressionist markings, the other unadorned. De Antonio is reported to have said, “One of these is crap. The other is remarkable—it’s our society, it’s who we are, it’s absolutely beautiful and naked, and you ought to destroy the first and show the second.” Warhol later recalled that de Antonio had given him his “real art training.”

De Antonio had a big effect on Warhol. His greatest documentary was Point of Order, a film entirely constructed by splicing together fragments of TV network footage, without the addition of voiceover or commentary. De Antonio took the footage from the Army- McCarthy hearings, a nationally televised spectacle credited with destroying the reputation of red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. For de Antonio, the protagonist of the film was the camera, which gradually wore down McCarthy’s demagogic masks.

Warhol immediately understood the importance of what de Antonio had accomplished. On January 17, 1964, three days after Point of Order had its debut in New York City, Warhol made his first Screen Test. The Screen Tests enabled Warhol to reproduce in his Factory the effect that had captivated de Antonio, namely the destruction of the human façade under the pressure of the camera.

Works by Warhol leave us uncertain as to whether we should be enthralled or chilled to the bone. For many of us, the twentieth century did the same.

Robin Kelsey is Dean of Arts and Humanities, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography at Harvard University.

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