Christopher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.