BEHIND THE BRAND
It is a world in which mass-produced objects such as soup cans, for example, become as real a part of our environment as natural or living things, perhaps more real for many people, since their daily sustenance comes to them mass-produced and processed, and from supermarket shelves, not from the earth. It is no coincidence that Warhol’s most characteristic images of this new world of mass manufacturing came at the climax of two postwar decades of expanding material prosperity and concomitant alienation from nature, and just before the hippie and countercultural revolt of the late 1960s and the 70s.
Warhol’s world is also one in which the increasing blandness and sameness of mass existence are compensated by the fantasies of stardom, in which celebrities are turned into instantly recognisable but empty images on to which existentially starved masses can project their dreams and longings. Warhol seems first to have fully understood this after the suicide of Marilyn Monroe in 1962.
The famous images he produced immediately afterwards, based on a studio promotional photograph for the film Niagara (1953) printed in lurid colours, memorably evoke the way the real woman was hollowed out in the process of being turned into a mass consumer fetish. The Marilyn Diptych (1962) in particular, which set rows of gratuitously coloured heads against rows of black and white ones, more or less darkened into illegibility, poignantly captured the dual fate of stardom: public hyper-visibility and inward, private extinction.
Warhol later repeated the formula far too often. The true sequel and in a sense corollary to the Marilyn portraits is to be found in the Screen Test series he began soon afterwards. There is a clue to the continuity in the fact he liked to call his subjects, though sometimes little known, “superstars”, a term he is said to have invented.
Between 1964 and 1966, Warhol made about 472 short films of actors, artists, models and other friends, mostly sitting motionless and looking straight into the camera. The series was filmed using a 16mm film camera and a single 30m spool of film, shot at 24 frames a second (standard for sound films) but projected at 16 frames a second, producing a slow-motion effect that is only barely visible because of the stillness of the subjects, but which does add a slightly uncanny quality to unavoidable movements such as blinking.
One of the most striking of the series is the three-minute film of Edie Sedgwick (1965), a young and beautiful heiress from an old American family who became a close associate of the artist, but who suffered from psychological disturbances as well as drug and alcohol addiction, and ended up dying at only 28, six years or so after this film. One can’t help feeling Warhol looks at Edie, although virtually unknown, as another Marilyn in whom he can observe and record the emptying out of the superstar in a process of cinematic vivisection.
For all the critical meanings we can read into Warhol’s work, however, there is never any hint of overt ideological intent. He was the antithesis of the angry politicised artists who would soon arise in the 70s, denouncing the evils of capitalism, the consumer society, patriarchy and so on. On the contrary, Warhol would insist his work meant nothing, was commercial, had no ulterior ideas or intentions, and that the very definition of pop was “liking it”.
This too can be seen as a kind of defensive mask, akin to Jeffrey Smart’s refusal to admit his paintings of highways, trucks and anonymous apartment blocks were meant as images of the alienation of the modern world. When pressed, Smart like Warhol replied that he simply liked these motifs, even found them beautiful. The truth is more exactly that he made them beautiful, but the point is he knew an artist’s opinions are irrelevant: what matters is only what is revealed in the work.
So Warhol’s seemingly radical detachment and lack of feeling were at once a self-defensive, indeed dandyish persona and a way of letting his work speak for itself rather than encumbering it with extraneous ideological baggage. It must be admitted however, that his posture of sustained irony and apparent cynicism could also have a negative effect on less discriminating admirers.