TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL
Uncritical reflections on Andy Warhol obscure what is lasting in his work, writes Sebastian Smee
IT’S time we faced it: Andy Warhol is not the interesting figure he once was. The edgy enigma he used to represent — deadpan social critic or innocent celebrant? — has, with the passage of time, turned into a rhetorical fizzer. Turning your mind to it is like trying to get excited again about fax machines, or the question of free will. In this age of Big Brother , American Idol , Paris Hilton, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, untangling irony from cynicism feels more and more like a fool’s game.
This is not to say that Warhol is not important. He is. Nor is it to deny that much of his work can be giddily gorgeous, thrillingly cool. It can; and when it is, like everyone, I love it. It is just to suggest — humbly and with no wish to be the party- pooper — that it is time we grew up about Warhol.
The much- hyped Warhol retrospective at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art could have been an occasion to do just this. It could have been discriminating. It could have been smart. It could have asserted something new and intelligent and thought- provoking.
Instead, it is like a cult convention, with a shop and some gimmicks tacked on.
Perhaps it was a mistake to expect anything else. The Gallery of Modern Art, a new building at Brisbane’s South Bank dedicated to post- 1970 art, opened a whole year ago, generating a buzz not seen in Brisbane since Charles Kingsford Smith touched down after crossing the Pacific. Since the opening, however, almost nothing has happened there. Given the goodwill and excitement garnered by the opening, the year has been hugely anti- climactic.
Obviously, the hope was that a Warhol show, slated to open exactly 12 months after the building’s inauguration, would generate enough electricity to shock the place out of its torpor. It may yet succeed, but to me the whole thing looks like a failure of institutional nerve.
The show was imported more or less wholesale from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which sends Warhol exhibitions across the world all the time, especially to museums in need of a bit of shock treatment. And although it is, as advertised, ‘‘ the first major Andy Warhol retrospective’’ mounted in Australia, covering almost every important stage of his career, it seriously lacks tang. Where it could have been cool and acute, it feels kitschy and nostalgic, and where it could have been taut it feels blowsy.
The show’s layout is a problem. From the very start, where, counter- intuitively, you turn right instead of left, it is unclear which way to proceed, though the organising principle is supposedly chronological. The walls of the central atrium are plastered with Warhol’s signature Cow Wallpaper . Atrociously, this wallpaper is used again inside as a backdrop for Warhol’s electric chair screen- prints.
These works — gorgeous, macabre, terrifyingly deadpan — deserve better. Warhol, it’s true, would have approved of the hang: he was always finding ways to deflate the aura of inviolability around high art. Tacky wallpaper was right up his alley. But this is a perfect example of where the gallery needed to stand back from the cult of Andy and make a judgment call; to ask, ‘‘ do these images matter?’’, and if
they do, to hang them clashing cow wallpaper.
Why, anyway, did Warhol matter? To some it’s self- evident. But if it’s not, it helps to understand the context from which he emerged. Beyond the abstract, esoteric pieties of the 1950s art world in America, commerce was rampant. Post- war affluence had created a new fascination with mass produced commodities. These products, made freshly desirable by the same advertising industry that employed Warhol at the outset of his career, were accessible in ways they never had been before.
So were wealth and fame. American society was being convulsed by a new kind of social mobility. Whole new classes of people — from show business, the art world, fashion, crime, the media and business — were fluted up into the higher brackets of society. Hierarchies were shuffled in ways we take for granted now but which were entirely new then.
Warhol, the son of an immigrant labourer, was one of the most conspicuous beneficiaries of the new situation. He was also one of its keenest observers.
The early works in the show illustrate Warhol’s shift — tentative, almost reluctant — from advertising illustration toward the burgeoning new pop art sensibility. He was no trailblazer here: Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had all done things in this field before Warhol came along, and they were generally more interesting.
But Warhol distinguished himself by choosing, in the words of art historian Robert Rosenblum,
the grittiest, tackiest and most commonplace facts of visual pollution in America that would make the aesthetes and mythmakers of the ’ 50s cringe in their ivory towers.’’ In this show, we find diagrammatic drawings of hardware items such as turpentine and spackling knives, as well as arbitrarily cropped drawings of tawdry
against newspaper headlines and vacuum cleaner ads.
Warhol’s eye was not just on the outside world. He had a keen eye, too, for art world dogma that was ripe for heresy or reinvention. Taking his cue from minimalism ( think of Donald Judd’s immaculate rows of perfectly proportioned boxes), Warhol introduced some of his funniest, most inspired conceits: random piles of Brillo boxes, each one made by slapping silk- screen ink and paint on to plywood boxes so they exactly resembled commercial cardboard packaging.
Again, Duchamp and others had long ago made art that was visually indistinguishable from objects that were not art. Nothing revolutionary there. But Warhol’s focus on products — his fascination with replication, mass production and the strange fizz of desire produced by attractive packaging — felt unique.
He thought about newspaper photographs and television news in similar ways. They weren’t just sources of information: they bubbled over into short- lived forms of yearning and fear. That, or they pooled into huge, glassy oceans of indifference. Either way, they reflected back on us, mediating the way we went through daily life.
So while one silk- screened image of a smiling Marilyn Monroe in the middle of a rectangular field of gold can suggest the sobriety of an icon, another work showing rows of images of Natalie Wood, some clumsily superimposed on one another, their outlines broken and blurred to suggest the imperfections of newsprint, affects us no more than peeling street posters. Something about the contrast between the two possibilities, technically and visually so similar, feels thrilling, and true to modern life.
As he explored this new world of production — the production not just of commercial products but of fame and notoriety — Warhol also became interested in boredom, dissatisfaction, internal emptiness. The way he thought about these things ( and this is what I have always liked about Warhol) was not superior and scathing, like so many culture critics, but simply curious, amused, sad, bewildered.
And very insightful. In fact, Warhol became a real wit, perhaps the greatest in American art since James McNeill Whistler. He was a kind of Oscar Wilde for the jet set era. ‘‘ Death can make you look like a star,’’ he said, ‘‘ but the make- up has to be right.’’ Or: ‘‘ An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he — for some reason — thinks it would be a good idea to give them.’’
Predictably, instead of grasping Warhol’s barbs and feeling their sting, the exhibition organisers use them to validate their own gleeful surrender to commercialism. Emblazoned across the cover of the pink media kit, for instance, is: ‘‘ When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums.’’ ( Why, I wonder, did they choose that one? Go to the shop and see.)
In the mid-’ 60s, Warhol stopped painting, more or less, and began making films, which he liked, he said, for their atmosphere: everything was ‘‘ three- dimensional physically and twodimensional emotionally’’.
Some people say he made some of his most important work in film. I am inclined to side with Warhol himself, who said the films were more interesting to talk about than to see. At any rate, you can decide for yourself, because every film Warhol made, and all his screen tests, are on show at GoMA, some part of the exhibition, others part of an ambitious though potentially mind- numbing film program in the cinemateque.
If understanding the context Warhol emerged from is crucial to grasping his importance, understanding how this context has changed may be the best way to understand why he matters less today.
It’s not that today’s social and aesthetic conditions deviate substantially from the ones Warhol pinpointed. In fact, the opposite is true: everything he turned his torch on grew and grew until it became amorphous and ubiquitous. Warhol’s fascination with glamour, his insistence on a democracy of images, and his taste for repetition, mechanisation and randomness have taken hold so firmly, in the art world and the world at large, that you can’t escape them.
But that is exactly why there is no longer much tension between his work and the heavily mediated world we all swim in. It’s why, as a consequence, so much of Warhol’s work has lost its edge.
On the occasion of a retrospective such as this, it becomes important to find that edge again and hone it. Curators need to resist the idea that Warhol’s achievement was just a general emanation from his personality and his various activities: the Factory crowd, Interview magazine, the Velvet Underground, the weirdos and superstars, the wallpaper. That way lies nostalgia, cultism and a dumbed- down, ultimately unsatisfying take on this remarkable man.
Instead, a taut, cogent show of Warhol’s most powerful images and sculptures ( and a few films) should have been chosen, and it should have been carefully paced and intelligently spaced out. ( As Warhol once told The New Yorker ’ s Calvin Tomkins: ‘‘ It doesn’t really matter if you choose one picture or 50, and it would be so much more elegant to show just one.’’)
It would have required the skills of Warhol experts capable of discriminating between his good days and his many bad days, and a resistance to the mood of bright, anything- goes, talk- it- up optimism that seems to have overtaken the Gallery of Modern Art since its opening.
Of course, such an approach would mean disavowing Warhol’s own attitude, which revelled precisely in not discriminating, in treating everything as equally important, or equally unimportant.
But Warhol was a provocateur and mischiefmaker as much as an artist. Faced with such people, it’s occasionally worth calling their bluff and chewing things over, rather than swallowing everything whole.
Reflections on a mediated world: Electric Chair ( 1967), main picture, opposite page; Debbie Harry ( 1980), above; Skull ( 1976), below, by Andy Warhol