Andy Warhol: Genius, or Not, or Maybe?

WINSTON MASCARENHAS

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Is the impact of Andy Warhol on contemporary art from the 1960s onward indisputable? How recent history has critically appraised him is the core question of this essay. Much has been written about him, many retrospectives have been mounted, and a foundation and museum established in Pittsburgh, insure his legacy for future generations. The scope of this essay is a commentary on some of the many reviews, arguments, and critical theories supporting the various appraisals referencing the core questions: was Warhol truly a genius, insightful, knowing, and original—or was he brilliantly astute, determined, learned, focused, contrived, and capable of sensing the right move? Was he truly indifferent or perhaps ignorant of his power—or was he very aware of his power, a genius at branding himself and maintaining a detached observational interaction of the world, knowing banality’s common appeal to the masses? Warhol desired fame, money, and success; wanted to be a “Star” and was unusually fearfully obsessed with death: but as a successful very talented commercial illustrator wanting Fine Art recognition, did he approach his work and career with deep thought, analytical prowess, consumed with writing history? It is my intention to present various arguments and theories to evaluate his contribution and importance to the evolution of contemporary art history of the twentieth century. It would be hard to dispute he was a brilliant manipulation of the times, and was damn lucky to be in the right place, with the right skills, at the right time.

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Andy Warhol was born of poor Slovakian immigrants Andrew and Julia Warhola. The youngest of three living children he was raised as a Catholic in an impoverished eastern-European ghetto of Pittsburgh. As a young boy he developed Sydenham’s chorea (St. Vitus’ Dance) believed to be a complication of scarlet fever. A nervous system disease that causes involuntary movements of the extremities, and causes skin pigmentation blotchiness. Already a timid, somewhat unattractive boy, the blotchy skin affected his face and as a young man he started loosing his hair and thus wore wigs the rest of his life. He was homebound most of his younger years, sickly, an outcast at school, and closely bonded with his mother. When confined to bed and house he drew, listened to the radio, looked at magazines, and collected pictures of movie stars. His father died in an accident when he was thirteen. He enrolled in the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, where he studied commercial art. After graduating with a BFA in 1949 he moved to NYC and began his career quickly becoming a very successful commercial illustrator working for Vanity Fair, Glamour, and Harper’s Bazaar (Tate, 2016). The celebrated Pop works that gained him fame only spanned a small part of his career between 1961-63 (ArtHistory.net, 2016). He drew inspiration in much of his work from his modest family upbringing, one example being his Campbell’s Soup series. He stated that his mother feed him Campbell’s soup for lunch when sickly and homebound while growing up and as a daily practice as an adult possibly for good press and publicity (Neatorama, 2012; MoMA, 2016). He led an illustrious life crossing many social boundaries in the changing society struggling with civil rights, war, and sexual liberation (ArtHistory.net, 2016). He died from the complications of gallbladder surgery in 1987 at the age of 59 (Andy Warhol Documentary Films, 2013).

Robert Hughes’ assessment for the New York Review of Books in 1982, seemed to center on Warhol’s person and challenge to the established Art World presenting an abnormal figure (silent, withdrawn, eminently visible but opaque, and a bit malevolent) who praised banality. After decades as voyeur-in-chief to the marginal and then the rich, Warhol was still unloved by the world at large. What the public saw was this remote guy in a wig. His work of the 60s was subversive through its harsh, cold parody of ad-mass appeal (Grudin, 2010). The repetition of brand images, like Campbell’s Soup, Brillo, or Marilyn Monroe (a star being a human brand image) to the point where a void is seen to yawn beneath the discourse of promotion and the viewer is desensitizing. One image or one object, can be interesting, unique, and beautiful but hundreds can only be a stack of something whether cans or pretty pictures (Phaidon, 2013). From 1963 on, right up to the end, the most important thing in his work was the question of the face and the possibility of representing it. His early celebrity portraits were timed to capitalize on death and fame. The Marilyn Series, coming right after her suicide, are probably the most famous and are among the most coveted because of their scarcity and the tragedy and glamour of their subject (Bolinger, 2010). His premonitions of death almost came to pass when Valerie Solanas shot him in June of 1968 and nearly killed him (The Art Story, 2016). Afterwards many of his works depicted himself as a living symbol of death; skull portraits, his wig self-portraits, and photographs of his scarred body (Hughes, 1982; Sothebys, 2013).

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Warhol’s studio of the 60s onwards was the Factory, a haven for all cultural space-debris, drifting fragments from a variety of 60s subcultures orbiting in smeary ellipses around their unmoved mover. Warhol observed and photographed or filmed the downward spiral of many, to even death, and did not intervene (Krauss, 1989). The Factory resembled a sect, a parody of Catholicism. There was a hunger for approval and forgiveness played out in perhaps the only form American capitalism knows how to offer: publicity. Warhol was the first American artist to whose career publicity was intrinsic. The timing was right because in the 60s established distinctions and boundaries were eroding and the art world was gradually shedding it idealist premises and beginning to turn into the Art Business. Warhol was a major instrument of this change. The hierarchical orders of American society were being replaced by the new tyranny of the “interesting” and Warhol probably did more than any other living artist to disrupt the perceptions of fine art. He was not an establishment artist, a man mastered by a particular vision and anxious to impose it on the world. He wished to be culture and culture only: “I want to be a machine” (Bolinger, 2010; Krauss, 1989). He also was quoted as saying “Just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it” (Mattick, 1998). His firm adherence to the surface went against the grain of high art as such. His paintings were all superficies, no symbol. Their blankness seemed eerie. In general, his only subject was detachment: the condition of being a spectator, dealing hands–off with the world through the filter of photography. Warhol certainly had a piercing insight about mass media, but his most famous images were suggestions by friends, rather than chosen by Warhol himself. This fact is minimally stressed. But savvy as he was in producing and promoting a great suggestion, Hughes questioned whether Warhol represented a “revolutionary” aesthetic and this is hard to defend by his later career cranking out society portraits and running a gossip magazine. Was he really a cultural subversive? Likely so to many critics, but for sure a major factor and stimulant of change in the art world establishment itself (Hughes, 1982).

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Marshall McLuhan, a media theorist of the time, in his groundbreaking book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, first published in 1951, described in depth how film posters, comic books, advertisements, and magazine covers exerted their persuasive powers. McLuhan, known for his aphorisms, often mirrored Warhol’s social and aesthetic observations. The 15 minutes of fame quip by Warhol, was believed to have been paraphrased from McLuhan. Another famous quote “Art is what you can get away with” has been attributed to both men with no real agreement as to who said it first—the art historian Gregory Battcock believed Warhol to be the visual Marshall McLuhan. This is the view of Warhol as predicting the end of painting and becoming its executioner. Mass media, movies, television, and magazines, all played a role but art’s real usurper from McLuhan’s point of view was advertising. With a definite understanding of religion, sociology, and the mass society of his time, Warhol intuitively manipulated all those factors in promoting his art and fame as one (McLuhan Galaxy, 2016).

Bob Dylan visiting Andy Warhol's Factory in December 1966. Dylan sat for a filmed portrait for Andy ('Screen Tests') in exchange for a silk screen of Elvis Presley. ** NO UK SALES ** HIGHER RATES APPLY ** CALL TO NEGOTIATE RATE ** © Nat Finkelstein / Retna Ltd.

David Pollock’s ‘Andy Warhol-Pop, Power, and Politics’, states that as Warhol was drawn into the realms of real power he related to it with the combined degree of impudence, cynicism, and respectful naiveté. In his 1972 screen printed portrait of Richard Nixon he gave the then President a ghastly blue skin pallor, disconcertingly infernal orange eyes, a showman-pink jacket with scripting that read “Vote McGovern.” From then on his taxes were regularly audited. Was he on one of Nixon’s infamous “enemies” lists? His diptych portrait of Jimmy Carter in 1976 left the President looking iconic, though tense and pensive. Warhol’s portrait of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt shows the leader in a cigarette holder-flaunting, strangely movie star-like pose. His works on the reigning queens of the Netherlands, Swaziland, and the UK, were bright and respectful. His portrait of Lenin was contextualized and believed to pay homage to a fellow assassination attempt survivor. Examples of some of his most enthralling successful works were the iconoclastic pop recreations of the US dollar sign and the Russian hammer and sickle, and his Campbell’s Soup Series passing judgement on art as capitalism, and the haunting Flash-November 22 series of manipulated images and tele printer copy reports from the Kennedy assassination, restaging the event as a cinematic storyboard or a glossy magazine shoot. So as his fame grew so did his work dealing with political reference. The times of capitalism, commodities, media society, and celebrity demanded it and Warhol responded in a smart and intuitive way (Pollock, 2013).

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Willem de Kooning once shouted at Warhol “You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty, and you’re even a killer of laughter” (Brown, 2007). He did this just month after Warhol had been shot by Valerie Solanas and thus securing Warhol’s status, by the perverse logic of the era, as a giant of the 1960s. David Wallace Wells in his 2009 article ‘Andy Warhol is Sooooo Overrated’ for Culture Magazine assessed views by many of Warhol’s denouncers and critics. One author, Gary Indiana purported that Warhol’s Soup Cans were the first shots of a total revolution in American culture (Conrad, 2010). Warhol’s paintings had acquired a remarkable mythology: waging a victorious battle against abstract expressionism, introducing a mass audience to fine art, and making American painting truly democratic, shattering category distinctions, and reshaping aesthetic criteria as dramatically as Marcel Duchamp had with his Fountain. Wells argues also that Warhol was no great iconoclast and that his work was derivative of preceding Pop and its precedent, Dada. What seemed innovative was not just bad but insidiously so—his work at the Factory, with Interiew, and in his voyeuristic films.  To laud Warhol as a prophet of the saturated media culture we inhabit today is to apportion praise according to the perverse logic of our own era, by which we lionize the first person to do anything, even a bad thing. Pop was revolutionary on the American art scene but Wells is one art critic who feels Warhol was not its vanguard practitioner. Other artists such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Rauschenberg were inventing pop and refining it. Biographers Tony Scherman and David Dalton go on to say that any genius attributed to Warhol would be his last-minute leap onto the bandwagon that was threatening to leave without him (Leddy, 2010). Early Pop amounted to cultural criticism but Warhol offered only cultural indulgence—Pop emptied of critical content. Per Wells his paintings were vacant- not images that would reward our scrutiny being inscrutable, but admittedly so, transfixed us anyway. The Soup Can effect was not to rescue American banalities from banality but to give banality a self-value. Art critic Dave Hicky argues that Warhol’s best paintings—the sloppy, silk-screen memento mori of screen stars, singers, and other American celebrities and grotesques—illustrated a powerful balance between the secular nature underlying the images with an emptiness and absence of the depicted and a true iconic depiction, expressing their immanent and intoxicating presence (Wells, 2009). Wells goes on to state that Warhol’s true faith, not Catholicism, was in the Factory—a confluence of devotees confessing to a godlike camera and absolved by inclusion in a community of dysfunction. Warhol hovered over his tribe and benefited from it while sitting idly by as his Factory superstars disappeared and despaired, as they drugged out, deteriorated, and died. Hicky professes that there is no evidence to suggest that his overriding project was anything more profound than to make the art world safe for Andy Warhol. In making the world safe for himself, he made the avant-garde dull for us believes Wells. Art critic John Ashbery wrote in 1968 “to experiment was to have the feeling that one was poised on some outermost brink” and “to gamble against terrific odds.” That double element, he wrote, is what makes religion beautiful and art vital. Ashbery believed this to be missing in Warhol, whose work was a measure instead of what the market might bear (Wells, 2009).

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Noteworthy are a few arguments make by Marc Siegel on Andy Warhol and queer history in his art history article Doing it for Andy in 2001 following the retrospective held at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin 2001 and then the Tate Modern, London in 2002. Curator Heiner Bastian completely ignored and downplayed the queer production and Warhol’s sexuality as influences in his work. Despite the breadth of the retrospective, Bastian placed a thematic emphasis on the Disaster and Death in America series, with, for instance, Warhol’s Atomic Bombs, Electric Chairs, Car Crashes, and Suicides. Like it or not, suppress it or not, Warhol’s life and work, which spanned the homophobic 1950s and the sexual liberation of the 1960s and 1970s and continued through the post-Stonewall era, play a major role in just about any significant account of twentieth century queer history (Lobel, 1996). Critical analysis of Warhol’s massive oeuvre of work continues to detail the complexities of his savvy negotiation of the changing codes regulating the representation of homosexuality and homoeroticism in the US in the second half of the twentieth century. Warhol’s Marilyns, Lizas, Lizs, Elvises, and Warrens, as examples, implicitly attest to a longstanding gay male interest in flamboyant female and sexy male stars. But it is the works of Edies, Ondines, Candys, Jackies, and Hollys, his film work and the well-known context of his film production—the Factory of the 60s that explicitly represented the open ended desires and glamorous queer differences of the years prior to the institutionalization of the gay liberation movement. Siegel professes that Warhol positively reeked of a seductive American queer culture at its most exaltedly blatant. Warhol’s prolific film production represented a variety of forms of the 1960s countercultural resistance, which is to say that in addition to being explicitly homoerotic Warhol’s films were also explicitly critical of Catholicism, a theme suggested by some conservative critics as the defining influence and not as a subordinate motif. A significantly noteworthy example of censorship was Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men. First censored at the NY World’s Fair in 1964 and painted over with Aluminum paint. Some critics saw the monochrome silver 20 feet square painted over the mural as a separate artwork, as a form of ironic comment on images of the “most wanted” men not being suitable for the World’s Fair. Later commentators noted that the title “wanted” bears a double meaning, referring to homosexual desire, with the mugshots rearranged so many of the men were looking at each other (Lobel, 1996). The work’s subversive nature resides in its radical critique of state power and specifically, in the queer nature of the critique, creating a circuitry set up between the image of the outlaw and Warhol’s outlawed desire for that image—and for those men (Siegel, 2003).

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In conclusion it seems as with any uniquely accomplished individual the more you read about Warhol, the more there is to read: the opinions, reviews, and analysis of his life, work, and influence continue to be numerous and varied. But Andy Warhol was not just an artist, he was an influential element and representative of change in American culture from the 1960s on. One could say a perfect storm involving a talented artist crested him to fame and iconic status. Many factors hampered him in his early life: sickly, disfigured with facial blotches, not very attractive, quiet, effeminate, and artsy. Even though he displayed artistic talent early on something drove him to dig deep to find the strength to overcome the hurdles dealt him. I choose to believe and venture to say there was an underlying genius wanting to surface, driving the young Warhol to dream, to be determined in getting out of the immigrant ghetto of his upbringing, to get an education, and to go to NYC. A powerful, deep-seated, consuming desire to be someone, to be reckoned with, to be a “Star.” I would venture genius in his work ethic and success as a commercial illustrator. Personal recognition in the elitist established art world was important but to Andy Warhol fame and movie star-like fame was the ultimate goal. With an acquired educated knowledge of branding, mass appeal, and advertising, I would venture genius in being brilliantly astute to capture the moment of knowing. I would also venture genius in acknowledging the possibility of another’s suggestion, such as the soup cans. I would suggest genius in quietly and subversively expressing his homosexuality and its influence in his work and being proud in the midst of a slowly crumbling suppressive society.   If Warhol’s measure of success was attaining fame and stardom, he certainly achieved that. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is the largest museum in the United States dedicated to a single artist. To this artist, a matter of genius was never in question.

 

 

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