It has always been easy to misunderstand Andy Warhol, especially for lazy admirers who are attracted to an ostensibly facile nihilism or the dismissal of high art and the challenges of tradition. But in fact little about Warhol is what it seems: the elaborately crafted persona of his mature years was, in the original meaning of the word persona, a mask. It was partly self-defence, partly a paradoxical but implicitly critical performance; but certainly only a fool takes a mask at face value.
After Warhol’s death almost exactly 30 years ago — February 22, 1987 — there were surprising revelations, particularly in his friend John Richardson’s eulogy and a subsequent article in Vanity Fair. It emerged that from his youth and throughout his adult life Warhol had been a devout Catholic who attended mass sometimes daily, supported charities and even helped out in soup kitchens.
Equally surprising was the suggestion he quite probably remained a lifelong celibate: a homosexual who could photograph himself in drag and who apparently surrounded himself with sexual and other excess, but remained aloof, an asexual ascetic in the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Factory and of contemporary New York. How could all this be reconciled with the image of cool and amoral cynicism he had seemed to cultivate in public?
In fact the combination of nihilism and spirituality is far from unusual: in many traditions and throughout history, we encounter a radical critique of the world of the senses and the claims of reason as a preliminary demolition of the commonsense understanding of the world designed to turn our attention to the superior reality of the transcendent.
The zen cultivation of paradox has precisely such a purpose: the koan are puzzles intended to bring reason to its knees and open the mind to another kind of consciousness. In the 17th century, the brilliant French philosopher Blaise Pascal undertook to demonstrate the limits of rational thinking to his intellectual contemporaries and thereby prove to them the necessity of faith. And more recently even Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction has been associated with mystical perspectives beyond the realm of deconstructible discourse.
It is almost equally surprising to realise Warhol was one of the backers of the New York Academy, which was founded in 1980 with the aim of restoring the rigorous teaching of classical drawing, among other skills that had been increasingly lost in modern art schools. What was Warhol doing sponsoring classical drawing? To most schoolchildren or art students who admire him, and even to their teachers, his work seems to represent an excuse not to apply oneself to traditional art training. Yet clearly things are once again not what they seem. Warhol’s work was not slapdash; his collaborators at the Factory were expected to be highly skilled craftsmen, expert in their various tasks.
And the object of Warhol’s aesthetic critique was not primarily traditional art. His work has little to do with such ubiquitous and hopelessly vacuous cliches as “pushing the boundaries”. His mature work is concerned to reveal to us the new world of consumer products, brands and the objectification of people, especially of celebrities, in the mass media. Adman: Warhol before Pop Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney. Until May 28