Un­crit­i­cal re­flec­tions on Andy Warhol ob­scure what is last­ing in his work, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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

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