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Mark Van Proyen on Andy Warhol @ SFMOMA

by Mark Van Proyen

Installation view: Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again

 

The hardbound catalog for the current Andy Warhol exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art weighs 5.2 pounds, down half a pound from the the massive catalog of the 1989 memorial retrospective held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, reminding us that it has been almost 30 years since we have witnessed any major exhibition of the full array of Warhol’s complex and multi-layered career as a cultural producer.  During the intervening years, the influence exerted by that career has grown at an exponential pace, spawning several generations of imitators and extending its cultural reach far beyond the art world by dint of new communications technology, the ethos of which Warhol fully anticipated decades before it appeared.  Since Warhol died in 1987 at age 58, it is safe to say that the works included in both exhibitions are more or less the same; but that fact may be beside the point because the audience viewing these (and those) works is historically different.  By that I mean not only the art world, but the country at large, an America in a pitched crisis of contradictions, recently epitomized by the 91-plus-million-dollar purchase of a chrome wabbit on May 15 by Robert Mnuchin, father of the current secretary of the treasury who is presiding over unprecedented increases in the national debt. The wabbit in question was made by Jeff Koons in 1986, the most prominent heir to Warhol’s complex artistic legacy proclaiming successful art and successful business to be one and the same thing. Meanwhile, the planet burns and the huddled masses flee for their lives while all forms of moral ugliness emerge from once hidden shadows.

 

Self-Portrait, 1963–64. Silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas, four panels, 40 × 32 in.

 

The temporal gulf between the two exhibitions can be understood in other ways, not least of which being how they reveal how Warhol was far ahead of every curve: When the authority of the abstract expressionist brushstroke began to falter in the mid-1950s, he was among the first to mock its demise by showing us how honest fakery can say more than fake honesty. He was a master of irony decades before Postmodernism made irony its sine qua non, and was already forthrightly post-ironical when irony was king. He was an active proponent of appropriation two decades before it was still controversial in the 1980s, and he was among the very first to navigate and truncate the worlds of two very different representational regimes, those being of the gallery and of the projection screen. Now, any visit to any international biennial will confirm that those regimes have become all but one and the same, meaning that epater le Instagram is now the dubious watchword for the post-Warholian contemporary. It certainly functions as a motto for the state of art and culture in the age of Donald Trump, replete as it is with hot-and-cold running mendacity spewing from network news crawlers on an hourly basis. 

 

But with that much said, we still have to wonder if all of those curves were but the arcs of a downward spiral, and if so, how the credit that we give to Warhol for his prescience might also be translated to blame for the emergence of a financialized art world that now resembles what the Chicago Mercantile Exchange would look like if it were run by the court of Louis XVI. Okay, here I am indulging in a bit of tendentious, post-truth hyperbole, and blame is far too strong a word, because, first and foremost, Warhol’s work was (and still is) a clear, unvarnished and remarkably successful reflection of that world, rather than anything that can be held responsible for bringing it into being. Fairness commands us to also recognize how that same spiral can be

 

Installation view: Ethel Scull 36 Times, 1963. Silkscreen ink and acrylic on linen, thirty-six panels, 80 × 144 in. overall.

 

seen as moving outward rather than downward, always enlarging itself by absorbing new mediums, new technologies and most importantly, newly emergent identities in a world where all forms of social constriction (other than the rise of mass poverty) grew ever more absurd. And Warhol accomplished this by simultaneously placing (and abolishing) his own highly ambiguous identity at the forefront of his practice, making it seem that he had no identity other than that which comes from reminding the world of the deathly nothingness that lurks behind every surface. Thousands of artists have produced subsequent works that are variations on that theme, which is now fully present in every level of popular culture.  

 

This latter point is given a lot of emphasis in the exhibition, simply by virtue of the fact that the earlier one took place prior to the advent of social media and “reality” television, both of which now seem to be the most recent fulfillments of Warholian prophecy. It also shows that Warhol was also a master of theatrical self-branding decades before our current President put a gold T on his first tower, although in this later guise, we can note that he took a few lessons from Salvador Dali, who almost single-handedly invented the idea of the artist as media clown. When Warhol was once asked about what it felt like to be at the center of the postmodernist critique of the image, he replied in his characteristic billy-goat stutter that he was simply trying to draw better, a response that was deceptively honest and far too coy. In a post-McLuhan world that was being already overrun by mass-media in the early 1960s, the question of what could it

Rorschach, 1984. Acrylic on canvas, 13 × 9 feet

mean “to draw,” and how might we understand any idea of “better,” were and still are maddeningly complex, but not so much as the even more vexing question of what could and should be the most relevant subjects for that activity.

 

It was Warhol’s special genius to continually be asking and answering those questions over and over, always getting new, surprising and provocative answers. The exhibition does an excellent job of tracking and revealing the results of those questions, and credit for its organization goes to Donna De Salvo and the Whitney Museum, which originated the exhibition earlier this year. It includes close to 400 works and other bits of archival ephemera spanning the years from 1948 to 1986, spaciously distributed over three of the SFMOMA’s seven floors, with smaller early works located on the second, while a stacked, salon-style array of 42 late portraits are featured on the fifth. The bulk of the exhibition takes up most of the fourth floor, and this is where you will find the most iconic of Warhol’s works displayed in a pitch-perfect installation.

 

Positioned on that floor is a late work from 1984 titled Large Rorschach, and it is from this point that we can begin to survey the exhibition. The painting is in black and white and shows a large Rorschach blot taken from what was once a series of standard personality tests inviting those tested to project fantastical associations upon them, suggesting that at the time of its making, Warhol himself had recognized that he himself had gained cultural prominence simply by positioning himself as the object of such projection, all writ large as social obsessions. Covertly, it is a self-portrait, and a better one than most of the others in the exhibition, which are not nearly as interesting as his portraits of other people owing to the fact that they show no trace of hidden malice toward their subjects. It is also the most overtly Duchampian of all of Warhol’s works, and for that reason can be regarded as a synecdochal proxy for the entire exhibition, inviting viewers to project their presumptions into it while also reminding them that in doing so, they are making and unmaking the work that the artist has purposefully made as a trigger for associations. Warhol always preferred to remove his own subjectivity from his artistic equations, and that how he was able to simultaneously mock and flatter his viewers. 

 

It has been said that Warhol single-handedly revived portraiture throughout his career, but this statement is misleading. All one has to do is think of the contemporaneous portraits painted by Francis Bacon, Alice Neel and Larry Rivers to realize that, as Abstract Expressionism waned, there were plenty of prominent artists working and re-working the portrait idea. Nonetheless, Warhol did take that idea in a very different direction from those of his contemporaries. Early on,

 

Triple Elvis, 1963. Acrylic, spray paint, and silkscreen ink on linen, 82 1⁄4 × 118 1⁄2 in.

in works such as Gold Marilyn (1962), Silver Liz (1963), Triple Elvis (1963) and Silver Marlon (1963) he used reflective metallic paint to mimic the reflectivity of the silver screen and the electronic brilliance of the cathode tube at a time when the explosive chromatics of post-painterly abstraction occupied center stage in the New York art world.  In doing this, he reached back to his early experience as a young child attending services at St. John Chrysostom, a Byzantine Catholic church in the Greenfield suburb of Pittsburgh, which had and still has an impressive altar replete with over 30 gilded icons of male and female saints. Throughout his later life, Warhol was a practicing Catholic who regularly attended services at the Dominican Church of St. Vincent Ferrer at Lexington and 66th (often with his mother who shared his downstairs flat with a platoon of cats). Yet, despite this long-standing affiliation, Warhol had no problem deviating from church doctrine or avoiding confession (“I never felt that I did anything wrong,” he once said), and the above-mentioned works did just that, by treating their subjects as the new saints and madonnas of the global religion of consumer capitalism, all shrouded in idealizing otherworldly colors.  The Marilyn works are of particular interest because they were executed closely after her untimely and suspicious death in August of 1962 (even though they were all based on a publicity photograph from 1953). Warhol idealized President John F. Kennedy, who was America’s first Catholic president, and he was no doubt sensitive to and fascinated with the allegation that Kennedy had an extramarital affair with the actress and might have had something to do with her demise. 

 

Warhol’s religious affiliations are relevant because of the connection that can be made between Byzantine painting and its older Coptic precedents reaching all the way back to pharaonic Egypt. Death and the fantasy of resurrected, eternal life were at the core of that tradition, and indeed, the first stand-alone portraits that are recorded in art history are Coptic death masks that were attached to the coffins of the deceased so as to eternalize how he or she looked in life. Warhol’s portraits are also death masks of a sort, and they are of interest because they capture their subjects not as living beings, but as members of the celebrity undead who walk the earth as media phantoms long after relinquishing their earthy coil. Warhol’s use of a silkscreen

 

Marilyn Diptych, 1962, acrylic, silkscreen ink and graphite on linen, 81 x 57 inches

 

as a painting instrument is chiefly responsible for achieving this effect, at once abolishing the idea of the artist’s hand while also extending it into an uncanny marriage with photo-mechanical image reproduction—almost as if the swipe of the silkscreen was a Frankensteinian equivalent to the Abstract Expressionist brushstroke that possessed the “magical” capability to lay down a complex likeness in its spontaneous wake. Another more fanciful way of looking at Warhol’s silkscreen swipes suggests that we draw a parallel between them and his self-proclaimed “swish” identity as a radically uncloseted gay man. Like the wave of a magic wand, they “magically” conjure glamorous ghosts that seem to simultaneously appear, dissolve and float like frozen ectoplasm before our eyes.

 

Look closely at these works and you will note the slight misses of registration that are visible from layer to layer, looking as if a mortician was trying to compensate for the onset of facial rigor mortis. The technique works best where the same screen was used repeatedly, as in Marilyn Diptych (1962), where it is clear that the resolution of the individual screen passes degrades from sharp to vague (owing to not cleaning the screen properly), creating an effect where disturbing clarity dissolves into confused mis-rendering. This effect, however, is not visible in the large work titled Ethel Skull, 36 Times (1963), which takes an array of photo-booth images of the collector pulling glamor faces, inscribing them onto a large multi-colored grid comprised of 36 panels. Because each image is unique, there is little visible degradation of repeated silkscreen passes, and the fact that this particular work presents a greater array of colors than any of Warhol’s other paintings is also worthy of note, as is the fact that it is jointly owned by the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum, a rare example of a new kind of institutional fetishism of the type that will likely become more common in the foreseeable future.      

 

The effect of subtly mis-regisistered silkscreen passes was further explored in several series of

Mao, 1972. Acrylic, silkscreen ink, and graphite on linen, 14 ft. 8 1⁄2 in. × 11 ft. 4 1⁄2 in.

screenprints made during the early 1970s, right after the time when Warhol fatuously proclaimed that he had “given up painting.” Several of these images take an iconic image of Mao Tse-Tung and play nonchalant color games with them, while another work from 1972 shows us an image of Richard M. Nixon captioned with the words, “Vote McGovern.” Warhol’s diaries reveal that Warhol added the text because he was afraid that people would think him uncool if it appeared that he was supporting Nixon’s re-election campaign during that year.  Starting in about 1976, Warhol started doing commission portraits of celebrities, almost all of which were created for princely sums: $60,000 in 1976 dollars which today would be $272,000. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Warhol jokingly quipped that he had returned to being a commercial artist, reminding all where he got his start and making us wonder if he ever was anything else, or even if it were ever possible to be anything else.  An array of 42 of these works is presented in a stand-alone section on the 5th floor, each 40 by 40 inches and all hung salon style.  Seen in the aggregate, they come off as a cavalcade of leering ghouls peering out from thick layers of painterly grease paint, looking cheerful and gruesome at the same time. No doubt, this is how they looked in the wee hours of a Studio 54 party, illuminated by raking disco lights and animated by alcohol, paparazzi and pep pills, but the artistic attempt to simultaneously flatter and demean his subjects seems to be a consistent attribute. Notable subjects among this particular rogue’s gallery are Liza Minnelli, Muhammad Ali and Reza Pahlavi (painted when he was still the Shah of Iran), and some sport the addition of fine diamond dust to their neon color schemes. This grouping shows that, at the onset of the final decade of his life, Warhol had completely succumbed to the rising tide of celebro-fascism that now afflicts the world.  #Sad, but we can nonetheless take some comfort that Donald Trump is not among the subjects of these portraits, although, as is recorded in several of his diary entries, Warhol did try to entice Trump into commissions. Apparently, The Donald was, in Warhol’s words “too cheap” to follow through on the suggestion.

 

Contrast these works with another set of “portraits” contained in a projection room on the 4thfloor, those being the so-called screen tests (1964-66). These are short, black-and-white films consisting of awkward headshots of some of Warhol’s early entourage (Edie Sedgwick, Billy Name and Jack Smith, among several others—there are over 400 extant examples of these works, about 15 of which are presented in the show). The majority of these were shot at the East 47thStreet Factory—the first of three Warhol studios given that name. All are approximately four minutes long, each showing their impassive subjects nervously staring at the rolling camera that was freezing their likeness. Taking the aesthetics of cinema verite to a

Liz #6 1963. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 40 x 40 in

deadpan extreme, these works reveal Warhol turning social nobodies into mechanistically reconstructed pseudo-somebodies, an idea that found a lucrative apotheosis in the later celebrity portraits, the heads and tails of an imagistic vampirism that further underscores the libertine deathliness lurking throughout the Warhol project, engendering the unconscious fascination that it holds for so many. It also provides an explanation as to why Warhol was nicknamed Drucilla by some members of the early Factory crowd. The moniker was a curious conjunction of Dracula and Priscilla, connoting the unlikely attributes of manipulative malice and effeminate seduction. The combination of those ingredients turned out to be a powerful mixture that heralded something much larger and more socially powerful than yet another new phase of delinquent hipsterism; it was nothing less than the initial onset of a persistent and pervasive culture of narcissism, to use the term taken from Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book of the same name. And with that onset came a momentous shift in the role of the artist, which, after a full century of living as an isolated antagonist to the realm of the social, at long last became an embedded reflection of its own manufactured system of self-fulfilling fantasies, all the while mocking them with subtle irony.

 

Warhol accomplished this in a myriad of ways that extended far beyond the making of paintings, prints and low-budget films. In 1969, he founded his own miniature media empire with the debut of Interview magazine, and he earlier promoted musical performances by the Velvet Underground and other “happenings” at New York nightclubs; the current exhibition contains a generous helping of archival ephemera documenting these aspects of Warhol’s career including Ronald Namuth’s film projection of the famous Exploding Plastic Inevitable, featuring a performance of the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed and Nico.  He also published several books that elucidated his philosophy, starting with a novel titled A in 1968 and The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, from A to B and Back Again (1975), from which this exhibition takes its title.  He

 

 Ronald Nameth, Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, 1966, 16mm film transferred to digital video w/sound, 22 minutes

even produced a short-lived television program titled Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes, which aired on MTV in the mid-1980s. Through these and other channels, he was able to successfully advertise his complex system of interlocking self-advertisements that always seemed to hint at the deathly nothingness at the core of his complex echo chamber of manic self-promotion. 

*   *   * 

The key punctuation marks of Warhol’s career can be understood in relation to two sets of momentous gunshots, the first being those that ended John F. Kennedy’s life in 1963 and the second issuing from Valerie Solanas’ failed attempt to assassinate Warhol in 1968. The years prior to the Kennedy assassination also had several phases, all of which are represented in the exhibition.  The earliest work is a 1948 watercolor that reflects his years as a student at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University).  It is a small and charming scene of an uninhabited living room picturing three chairs, a slipcovered couch and a brick fireplace with a small crucifix on its mantle.  It shows windows partially shaded and two lamps with shades askew, and it has some wonderful passages of delicate painting in the rendition of carpet and upholstery fabric. We are told that the work was executed as a response to an assignment given in a class in social observation, and it is all but certain that the subject of the work is from Warhol’s Pittsburgh family home, revealing a working-class standard of living — Warhol’s father was a coal miner who died from a jaundiced liver age of 53 in 1942 when Warhol was 20 years old.  The painting looks to be influenced by the way that Milton Avery might have painted a similar subject, but it also reflects the esthetics of the kind of American scene painting that was prominent in the 1930s and 40s. There is nothing fancy or avant-garde about it, nothing pretentious to see here, other than an impressive display of raw talent.

 

Living Room, 1948, watercolor on paper, 15 x 20 inches

After Warhol moved to New York in 1949, we can see examples of his efforts to sell illustrations to various magazines and department store catalogs, and even at that early juncture, we can see that he was making an effort to stamp his own distinctive style on the work that he submitted to those sources of commercial income.  During those years, the art directors on Madison Avenue called him “Raggedy Andy,” and he was especially good at drawing the sleek contours of women’s shoes.  In a few instances, he took commercial techniques in a non-commercial direction, as we can surmise from a series of nine collage works executed throughout the 1950s, each featuring deft ink drawing atop and around gold metal leaf (fake), and named after celebrities such as Christine Jorgenson and Elvis Presley.  These works were unabashedly Camp a full decade before the publication of Susan Sontag’s famous essay on the subject, and they are saturated with intimations of things to come: reflective surfaces, the use of stencils to achieve crisp shapes, the magic slippers of Wizard of Oz fame, a film that has always been highly esteemed in American Gay subcultures.  (He even enlisted his mother to add ornate text to some of them). There is also an assortment of his pen and pencil drawings, many of which making use of a deft, Matisseian line to limn coy homoerotic subjects and abbreviated portraits of his friends an associates. These are interspersed with about 20 examples of his commercial illustration, reminding us that he was highly successful in that field well before he ever exhibited work in any gallery.  They also remind us that early on, Warhol had exceptional capabilities as a draughtsman, a topic that was explored in convincing depth in an exhibition that was held at the New York Academy of Art this past spring, concurrent with the Whitney’s initial presentation of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again.

 

Diana Vreeland, 1956. Collaged metal leaf embossed foil, ink on paper, 12 1⁄2 × 16 5⁄8 in.

 

All of these works are presented in an intimate gallery on the second floor, and just outside of it are four other works that can be said to be Warhol’s earliest attempts to make paintings. All of them are roughly 40 by 47 inches and feature Warhol’s blotted- line technique and use of pastel coloration. Two of them (Two Heads, 1957 and Dancing Children, 1954) also reveal the use of stencils and spray paint to inscribe shapes that look vaguely like Rorschach blots, and for this reason they seem like uncanny premonitions of things to come, even though they might not be that strong as paintings from that era go.

 

The years 1960 and 1961 show Warhol starting to make his big move into the artworld. In 1961, he showed paintings of cartoon characters such as Popeye, Dick Tracy and Nancy the window displays of Bonwit Teller on Fifth Avenue, a display space that had also hosted historical presentations by Salvador Dalí, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist (it was demolished in 1988 so that Trump Tower could be built on that location). Soon thereafter, he completed a series of paintings titled Dance Diagrams (1961-62), which were deadpan black-and-white renditions of step-by-step dance moves—cleverly spoofing the idea of spontaneous action held so dear by the Abstract Expressionist artists of the previous decade. Two of these works are presented on the floor of one of the galleries in the exhibition, which was how they were presented at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in 1962. Other black and white works from that period include Coca Cola (1961) and Where is Your Rupture (1961), both executed

Dance Diagram [3], [‘The Lindy Tuck-In Turn-Man’], 1962 casein on linen, 69 3/4 x 54 in.

 in water-based casein, reminding us that Warhol always preferred water-based media. The pictorial organization of the works from this period are also of interest, as they can be seen as reflecting the work that Robert Rauschenberg was doing at the same time, particularly his famous suite of transfer drawings and prints from the 34 Cantos From Dante’s Inferno series (1958 to 1960), which were exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery earlier that same year. Most of the critical literature on Warhol points to Larry Rivers as being the important (and acknowledged) early influence on Warhol—particularly his 1953 painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware. But during the early 1960s, it seems to me that Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns loomed even larger as influences (and through them, the earlier surrealist work of Francis Picabia). It was during those early years that Warhol sought acceptance to the Jasper Johns/ Robert Rauschenberg circle at Castelli, but he was frozen out of their semi-closeted scene because he was deemed to be “too swish.” But a turnabout was in the cards: Just a few years later (1963) it was Warhol who showed Rauschenberg how to use the photo-silkscreen technique, to impressive effect.  

 

Nineteen-sixty-two can be seen as Warhol’s pivotal year, and it started with several famous series of still life objects, such as Coca-Cola bottles and the series of 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans—each a different flavor. These were first exhibited at Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, which attracted international attention from an upstart magazine called Artforum.  That same year, Warhol’s work was included in a notable exhibition at the Pasadena Museum titled New Painting of Common Objects—the first museum exhibition of Pop Art. Soon after that, he was back in New York, showing his Brillo Boxes at Eleanor Ward’s Gallery, prompting the philosopher Arthur Danto to write his important essay titled The Artworld, proclaiming that the distinction that can be made between works of art and everyday objects lied in their being designated as such by “representatives of the Artworld.”  This was the point where Warhol’s career skyrocketed, turning his name into a household synonym for the previously unrecognized

 

Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962, acrylic with enamel paint on canvas, 97 x 163 in.

 

beauty of consumer culture banality.  The exhibition contains an ample selection from these various series, including all 32 of the Campbell’s Soup Cans, and given the fact that they have been so widely reproduced, it is a bit startling to lay eyes upon the actual objects in a face-face encounter. And ironically, the viewer needs that real-time encounter to get the point of these works, which show commodities made as an immense array of self-proliferating signs substituting for the absence of the real.   

 

Warhol was never one to rest on his laurels, and 1963 had him making other bold moves. It was the year that he began his famous disaster series, presumably in response to the Kennedy assassination and highly publicized overreactions of law enforcement to civil rights protests of that year. This is my favorite series of Warhol’s paintings.  It shows how he remade the esthetics of social realism into a powerful and disturbing media realism. With repeated swipes of the silkscreen, he creates an effect that echoes the quick pulsations of projected 16-millimeter film stock, evoking the Zapruder film, among many other things.  For example, in an image of an electric chair applied to a large canvas, maybe referencing the controversial 1953 execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, where black silkscreen ink makes for a formally perfect addition to

 

Big Electric Chair, 1967–68. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 54 1⁄8 × 73 1⁄4 in.

 

a magenta color field.  I would say that this work is the most powerful of any in the exhibition, simply because it tosses aside the gloves of polite irony and gets down to the blunt truth of state-sponsored execution—a resurgent theme in our own troubled times. All of the works in the disaster series are, from a formal point of view, exceedingly sophisticated (anticipating the later work of later work of David Salle and Gerhard Richter), so much so that it seems fair to see them as politically pointed responses to the kind of “apolitical” Post-Painterly Abstraction that Clement Greenberg was promoting at the same time, and like the early works associated with Minimalism, they can be seen as representing a kind of reverse Futurism, finding uncanny effect in declaring a radical stasis at a time when the rest of the world was speeding up.  We should remember that, throughout the 1960s, Warhol always had unkind words to say about the work of Barnett Newman.

 

Warhol could not sustain the morbidity of the Disaster Series for too long, and starting in 1963 he simultaneously embarked on another series that pulled in what now seems to be the opposite direction, but still may have been a response to the then over-blown prominence of Post-Painterly Abstraction.  Here, I refer to the Flowers series (1963-65), which are silhouette images of the same quartet of hibiscus blossoms, all in searing bright colors set against fields of grey or muted green grass. There are a great many of these works included in the show, leading me to think that they might be readable as funeral bouquets frivolously placed on an imaginary grave of American democracy in the post-Kennedy era—a subtle reference point that was lost when Jeff Koons started his career as a post-Warholian artist by

 

Installation view of: Flower Series (at center) and wallpaper, 1963-64, spray paint and silkscreen ink on linen

 

photographing inflatable sculptures of flowers in 1979.  The best of these Flower paintings are displayed on wallpaper that Warhol designed.  They feature repeated cows in fluorescent colors, making for a visually overwhelming experience.  We are reminded of the fact that Warhol used this kind of wallpaper as a backdrop for much of the work that was displayed in his first retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1971. I have never understood these cows as being anything other than branded merchandise (and in Warhol world, isn’t that what art is?), but maybe they are representative of how Warhol saw the crowds of people who were lining up to be his fans.

 

It took Warhol several years and several surgeries to recover from the gunshot wounds inflicted on him by Valerie Solanas in 1968 –and many are of the opinion that, psychologically speaking, he never did recover with that close brush with death. Certainly, when he finally returned to work in the early 1970s, we can clearly see that images of death are the featured subjects. Most powerful among these are a quartet of Skulls (all 1976) set memento-mori style on a flat tabletop, each casting an ominous leftward shadow. There was another series of works that Warhol executed in 1979 that are here under-represented, that being a group of 102 large paintings of a cast shadow photographed on his studio floor—each done in different darkly toned colors. I had the opportunity to see the entire series in Shanghai in 2016,

 

Skull, 1976. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, 72 × 80 in.

 

and I found the experience powerful and overwhelming, and, next to the Disaster Series, I would hold them as Warhol’s best works. Warhol himself dismissed these works as mere disco décor, but to see them is to see something very different, something along the lines of an encroaching angel of death reaching across the twilit room toward the impassive artist, who at that time may have intuited that he had little time left in life. This thought makes each of the 102 shadow images seem like clusters of illuminated sand quickly dwindling through an all-too-finite hourglass or scenes from a recurrent nightmare.             

 

Insofar as the uneven work from the 1980s is concerned, we also see two large paintings done in 1984-85 that were collaborations with Jean Michel Basquiat, who at that time was one of the reigning stars of the then newly emergent East Village art, a burgeoning enclave of younger artists who collectively repurposed a dilapidated Manhattan neighborhood near Tompkins Square park by turning it into a miniature, hyper-Warholian microcosm of the Soho-based artworld located a few blocks to the west. For a brief and improbable moment, it became the New York artworld, as might have been witnessed in the 1985 Whitney Biennial, but the important point here is that it represented a moment when a great many younger artists actively embraced a new configuration of Warholism as a master signifier of their own cartoon-fed experience, paving the way for subsequent movements like Neo-Geo and Pop Surrealism.  It is easy to imagine Warhol being very happy about this turn of events, and his interest in collaborating with Basquiat may simply be an expression of that satisfaction. 

 

Shadow, 1978. Acrylic paint, metallic paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 78 ¼ x 166 ¾ in.

 

The later of these two paintings is titled Third Eye (1985), featuring a striking background of deep red-orange, covered by some of Basquiat’s characteristic scrawls of things like a skull and peering eyeballs.  Also visible are three of Warhol’s signature images of signs advertising meat products, not silk-screened but painted by hand. The other work is titled Paramount, which does feature a layer of screened paint applications of the star-studded logo of that studio conglomerate, with more of Basquiat’s gestures arrayed around it.  These works have not yet been subjected to the full critical scrutiny that they deserve, partly because it is difficult to locate them within a clear stream of authorship. I think that it is best to see them as evidence that Warhol was trying to pass some kind of torch to Basquiat, who was uniquely positioned to receive it. Among all of his contemporaries, Basquiat was the artist who was best able to wed the neo-Pop esthetics of the East Village Art Scene to the other reigning style of the time, European Neo-Expressionism, which was what the SoHo galleries were showing at the time. Additionally, Basquiat’s work also made it clear that the sassy gesticulations of street art were more lively and relevant than the kind of convention-bound art that was working its way from art

 

Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquait, Third Eye, 1985, acrylic on canvas, 81 x 128 inches

 

school to gallery to museum, and it is certainly imaginable that Warhol might have seen that as representing the wave of the post-Warholian future. Susan Sontag might agree with this suggestion because in number 18 of the 58 propositions comprising her famous Notes on Campessay, she wrote: “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp.  Pure Camp is always naïve.  Camp that knows itself to be Camp (Camping) is usually less satisfying.”  But as it turned out, it was self-conscious Camp, rather than Basquiat’s naïve version, that carried the day, because Warhol could not have known that Basquiat would only live a year longer than he did, or that Keith Haring (another collaborator who is represented by one small example in Warhol from A to B) would die two years after that.  Only Jeff Koons survived long enough to pick up the torch and carry it forward on contemporary art’s Camping trip, and his was most certainly not the naïve version.

 

Is it again time to look at the totality of Warhol’s career and re-consider the nature of the politics represented therein?  Previous commentators have veered away from this question because Warhol makes such a point of presenting himself as a neutral reflector of the world around him: the world of runaway wealth wed to the technological enhancement of runaway narcissism.  Academic studies of Warhol’s work tend to make a special effort to avoid this

Installation view: Silver Clouds

?aspect, preferring instead to focus on the Duchampian aspect of Warhol’s career as a way of conferring a dubious intellectual respectability to their analyses, overinflating those aspects so as to avoid dirtying their intellectual hands with the shameless and unvarnished hyper-capitalism that has always been at the core of Warhol’s project. But as we have recently learned during the past three years, you can run from politics, but you cannot hide, especially if you loved money as much as Warhol did.  Meaning, that he had no choice but to love the people who had that money, without regard for how they made it.  His status as court painter of the world of celebro-fascism American Style certainly confirms him as an early flatterer and enabler of an ascendant global oligarchy, as do the ever-rising auction prices of his work that confirm their status as material synonyms for unearned wealth.  If we read his diaries, we can note that he had no trouble consorting with the likes of Roy Cohn (whose birthday parties he attended), because they were where the deals were being done.  But successful artists have always operated amidst the double bind of wealth and truth, and at the very least, we have to say that Warhol’s career did the world a small service by revealing the inner workings of the machine by which he garnered such an outsized benefit.  But given the subsequent legion of artists who have tried and sometimes succeeded in replicating Warhol’s formulas, we might want to consider the possibility that the Warhol blueprint for artistic success is now, at long last, wearing a bit thin, and that the time for the creation of a new model for artistic success may now be upon us. On the other hand, as long as money is the stick and carrot that engenders artistic production, it seems that such an advent may only lie on a far distant horizon.  

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“Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again” @ San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to September 2, 2019. 

 

About the Author:

Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing InnocenceThe Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.

 

One Response to “Mark Van Proyen on Andy Warhol @ SFMOMA”

  1. Do we really need another Warhol show? How about Wally Hedrick why is this great local artist being ignored by those trying to curry attention from generation app?

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