Impressions of Warhol

People are always calling me a mirror and if a mirror looks into a mirror, what is there to see?—Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

There are artists we come to early in life, embrace right away and absorb into the fabric of our psyche. That’s the way it is with me, anyway. Van Gogh was such an artist for me. At seventeen I carried his biography around everywhere I went. And sometimes, for whatever reason, such an artist recedes below the conscious mind. I have lived with Van Gogh like a piece of old furniture hauled from one place to another over the course of many years.

Van Gogh book

Vincent Van Gogh by Julius Meier-Graefe, Literary Guild of America, 1933

It’s a part of me, but I don’t look at it every day. When I do, I fall into its familiar contours like a beloved chair. I know it will stay with me.

There are other artists that, despite the feeling that we know them, very gradually grow larger in our consciousness. Egon Schiele is such an artist for me. Everything about Schiele is so ostentatious, so over-the-top that I felt for a long time that I got what he had to offer, that there was nothing subtle to chew or grow on. But I was wrong. The more I have seen and the more drawings I have made the larger his example becomes in my mind, until I can say I know of no one in history who could draw better (and his paintings aren’t too bad, either).

And then there are artists we don’t hit it off with right away, that we have to make varying degrees of effort to appreciate. De Kooning and, believe it or not, Picasso were such artists for me. It might be mentioned that there are others we never fall in love with, no matter how beloved by others (Rubens and Jeff Koons—cherubic rococo pizazz in general—don’t turn me on).

But Andy Warhol doesn’t fit into any of these categories. He’s always been a stimulant to me, and sometimes an irritant, but a constructive one, like a ball in a spray-paint can. Looking at his work I don’t like it a hell of a lot, and never have—with a few exceptions—the Gold Marilyn, the cow wallpaper show with the silver helium pillows and the Mao exhibit, to give three examples in his vast oeuvre.

That's not a silver helium pillow, that's my head

That’s not a silver helium pillow, that’s my head

I find Warhol inescapable. For anyone even casually interested in the contemporary arts, Warhol is there at every turn, waiting for you. You have to come to terms with him at some point. Warhol has always been an itch I’ve had to scratch.

It has been said that it’s impossible to look at Warhol’s work without thinking. That’s true, but I’ve always felt like I’m trying to organize my thoughts. That’s due, no doubt, to my limitations, but I think it’s also because of how complex it is to think about Warhol. His enigma shines as brilliantly as the unstoppable machine of his ideas, or rather idea—together these twin elements comprise the flaming star that is the Andy Warhol Idea—an idea that continues to inform everything we do, everything from popular and commercial art to internet culture to every aspect of the visual arts.

How can Warhol occupy such a large part of my consciousness when I’m lukewarm to the actual objects he made (or manufactured)? The short answer is that he was a conceptual artist. But he was a conceptual artist like no other. Conceptual art, as a genre of modern art, took off about a decade after the beginnings of Pop art and is characterized by the supremacy of the idea, intellectual data, or language itself as the content of art. The whole point of conceptual art was to think, and in thinking, discuss. Implicit in the ongoing discussion that Conceptual art consisted of was the ongoing question: what is art? It could therefore be said that Conceptual art is the philosophy of art as art. Conceptual artworks often involved language (or were comprised completely of language). They sometimes looked like geometry or weird installations, performances or even scientific experiments. But they always looked like Conceptual artworks in the sense that you knew you were supposed to think about them and discuss them. Warhol’s work doesn’t look like Conceptual art. It doesn’t look like you’re supposed to think about it. On the contrary, it often looks downright stupid. A bunch of mock Brillo boxes in a gallery? An eight-hour film of the Empire State Building? Marilyn Monroe repeated fifty times? Some people claim that Warhol was stupid, and some are nasty about it. Can there be any middle ground between Morrissey’s claim that Warhol did nothing and thought nothing and Lou Reed’s that he was always working and thinking? Perhaps it can be found in the eye of a hurricane. As Carter Ratcliff wrote, Warhol “is more like a still center, a mirror in front of which we and the entire culture strike our various attitudes.” [Andy Warhol, p 26] We look in a mirror, see ourselves, and if we don’t like what we see we begin to embellish and invent. The fact that Warhol’s images relentlessly refuse to be anything other than surface forever asserts this process, without rest. Ratcliff contrasts Warhol’s relentlessness, which he ties to the artist’s integrity, with Lichtenstein’s slick aesthetic, which can comfortably be drawn in line with the “good taste and high style” of early Modern masters. [p 23] Warhol’s work is made to be uncomfortable, even as it strips iconic images of their power.

Warhol resembles Duchamp more than other Conceptual artists. Duchamp, of course, made the decisive gesture as R. Mutt, in effect inventing Conceptual art as a genre. Beyond the gesture they both continue to be cultural irritants as well as artists whose gestures are repeated by others. But such imitation misses the point. Duchamp would have wanted people to think for themselves and Warhol’s repetitions of other artists or images were subversive acts at the same time as they were celebratory. Always with Warhol, determining where one begins and the other ends is a challenge. Mere imitation has always been anathema to the art spirit.

Everyone should know by now that Warhol cultivated his famous persona, and the remarkable thing is that he built it out of what he himself considered to be weaknesses: his shyness, his pale skin and thin hair, his lack of glamour. He did this even as he turned the mechanism of capitalism into art. This is the very image of empowerment. The simple facts of Andy Warhol’s career are astonishing. Soon after arriving in New York City, Warhol had become a successful commercial artist and within ten years he was one of the most sought out, and richest. Surely he must have been dreaming all those years about exactly how he would make his move into the fine arts, but as far as I know this process is not documented. All we know is that he abruptly stopped being a commercial artist and just as abruptly became a fine artist. And the fine artwork he began making could not have been more different than his commercial artwork. Just as striking was the transformation of his persona. As a commercial artist Warhol was the supreme professional, always giving his clients what they asked for, and more. He had become a cultural sophisticate, with season tickets to the opera. After his Pop art transformation, it was rock ‘n’ roll, black jeans and sunglasses and the ultra-cool gee-whiz deer-in-the-headlights routine. And he never stopped. He has always had his detractors, but there was never a serious low-point in his trajectory, just bigger and bigger until he took his place between Elvis and Marilyn.

Andy Warhol made certain that his persona would live on. He invented his own myth. But the objects he left behind are problematical. Because his process devalued the notion of the handmade object, his works are not easy to authenticate, and forgeries abound. More than most artists in the history of the modern era, he is an example that the works left behind are always artifacts, traces of a human flame that burned so briefly.

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5 Responses to Impressions of Warhol

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I remember the first time I went to Dia:Beacon and encountered a huge room full of Warhol, all variations on a single image, of course (I don’t remember what). I never have figured out what all the fuss was about, so it’s all the more fascinating to come here and see you ruminating about him and his work. I’m surprised he’d be a stimulant for you, though the type of stimulant–a ball in a spray-paint can–makes sense somehow. I wonder how I’d react to him if I made art. (I did use an image of his bananas in a collage, I’ll confess to that.) I do love the idea that he might be the one conceptual artist whose work doesn’t look like you’re supposed to think about it.

    One Warhol here I liked right away, by the way, is the one of the cow wallpaper embellished with your profile. It’s perfectly composed: all those cows looking in one direction, and you are pointedly looking the other way. I love that.

    • When you have people on one side saying Warhol was an idiot about everything but how to hustle a dollar and people on the other side saying he’s the most important artist of our time, how can there be a middle ground? The controversy itself, it seems to me, is inescapable for anyone interested in the visual arts.

  2. angela says:

    So much to think about here… Is it simplistic for me to say that to look at a De Kooning is a bit like looking at a Picasso? As for Warhol, when we briefly studied Modern Art for a week in high school, I was smitten with the soup cans. It fascinated me that this was considered art. I didn’t understand it at the time, do not know if I do now, but it seems that Warhol’s art opened up the dialogue again for the public. He spun his commercial talent and called it ART – it was art when he was done with it because like a true PoMo artist he was able to conceptualize himself and make it stick. Would the real Andy please stand up. Sigh…pretty much the same story for Basquiat as well…was Warhol is savior or his executioner?

    Van Gogh, agreed, though I have not read that book. Terribly impressed with your early draw to him. I always equated my own to the fact that he was such a tragic figure – the depth of his psyche (for me) played out in the weight of his paintings – often somber, subdued -devoid of human subject. Even his sunflowers seemed to weep…

    Btw, thank you for Egon Schiele – again, learning from you! Halfway through the film…just amazing ~

    • Andy Warhol always claimed what you see is what you get – nothing behind the surface. From what I’ve studied so far, Warhol does not seem to me to have been a bad influence on Basquiat. They seemed to have been genuine friends. Yes I do think one of the reasons for his importance is his extraordinary impact on popular culture.

      I was also drawn to Van Gogh’s suffering – and the tragedy – as Artaud put it, “the man suicided by society”. Just saw a photo that’s going around now of a lost painting of sunflowers which looks like it was as good as the best of them.

      Love your first question, not just because, like scores of painters, de Kooning built on Picasso, but they have a broad knowledge of history in common. It varies with the painting, of course, but to look at a Picasso or a de Kooning is often to look deep into the history of painting. All three of these modernists – Warhol, Picasso and de Kooning – were great PoMo artists as well.

      Ah, yes, I love that Schiele film! It’s not only a fascinating story about art institutions and greed and law, but it’s especially interesting to me as a story about value: sometimes people badly want paintings because they’re worth a lot of money (or they think they will be someday), but sometimes paintings are valuable because of how badly people want them.

      • angela says:

        (just finished the Schiele film, wow! just wow! thank you so much for bringing it to light. I made my dog nervous because I was talking back to the computer (quite loudly), my agreement with the son – it was not about the money, but righting a wrong – the principle of it all.)

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