BE­HIND THE BRAND

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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.

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