Return to Warhol


by Peter Frank

By its own account--notably in the catalogue Foreword remarks of Neue Nationalgalerie Director Peter-Klaus Schuster and Tate Director Nicholas Serota--the Andy Warhol retrospective takes a revisionist view of an oeuvre that until now has been regarded as the first wholly effective contradiction of purity, progression, and other (supposed) hallmarks of the great Modernist adventure. Without seeking to deny or even diminish his seminal importance to the artistic tendencies of the last three decades, the exhibition has apparently been shaped by the desire to regard Warhol as something else besides the Pop Progenitor of post-Modernism: it presents him as a Modernist. Not a Turncoat Modernist, not a Very (or Almost Too) Late Modernist, not even a Po-Mo In Mo Clothing, but a straight-ahead Modernist, capable of generating (in the words of Schuster and Serota) a “canon of masterpieces” that allows us to appreciate his work “in the same way as we celebrate the oeuvre of Henri Matisse or any other of the acknowledged deities of classical modernism as hitherto understood.”

The proof of this, of course, is in the retrospective pudding, which, like most Angelenos, I’ve not sampled at this writing. But, familiar as I’ve been with Warhol’s work for almost 40 years, and now familiar as I am with the show’s catalogue, I can buy the argument--if not to the exclusion of others’. Indeed, it’s no more possible to conceive of our mediated, ironized, self-consciously self-reflective age without the Warhol model than it is to conceive of it without People Magazine--the Big Bertha of the fame-making machine--or the Internet--the black hole into which that fame-making machine is slowly (okay, rapidly) being subsumed. (Remember when people were famous for as long as 15 minutes?)

But, if the traditional idea of the “masterpiece”--or, indeed, of mastery, inspiration, or self-sustaining vision--is nowadays a shadow of, or even a mocking reproach to its Modernist self, it was the motivating construct in Warhol’s formative days, and even in his period of emergence. At some point in his career, as the catalogue essays infer, Warhol wanted to make Great Art. And--as the show aims to demonstrate--by gum, he did so.

“Campbell’s Soup Cans (Black Bean Soup),”
1962, crayon and pencil on paper, 18 x 22”.

“16 Jackies,” silkscreen ink/acrylic
on canvas, 16 panels, 20 x 16” each.

The portrait of Warhol that emerges from the catalogue, as from most of his biographies and even his own writings, is not one of a genius grappling all alone with demons (external and internal) to achieve Olympian heights. Rather, it is of a very insecure fellow running away from such Nietzschean struggle, towards realms of communication, and social structure, in which he could anchor himself through his more facile gifts. That, of course, he did in spades. But Curator Heiner Bastian asks us to look beyond the cleverness, and towards the transcendent inspiration. It was more than mere wit, after all, that prompted Warhol not just to reflect the surface (and by extension the superficiality) of his day and age, but to reflect it with an uncanny near-perfection. The emphasis here is as much on the “near-“ as on the “perfection.” In all those images, in all those replications, Warhol calibrated the slippage between source and resulting artwork--a slippage mirroring and amplifying that occurring between original subject and mediated source. Warhol’s Po-Mo posture of passivity was just that, a posture; he was intensely deconstructing everything he saw.

Okay, Warhol’s precocious deconstruction only confirms his post-Modernist credentials. What confirms his Modernist chops is the integral power of the images and objects that resulted from his deconstructing. Even when they first appeared, those images and objects evinced a persuasive beauty beyond whatever éclat their Pop sources brought with them. I know, this is easy to say in hindsight. But there were those who caught it at the time, who got past the movie-mag and food-ad subject matter and “got” Warhol’s grid-format seriality and off-register silkscreening. Don Judd, for one, reviewing the first New York gallery show of Warhol’s Pop stuff, wrote, “It is easy to imagine Warhol’s painting without any subject matter, simply as ‘overall’ paintings of repeated elements. The best thing about Warhol’s work is the color.” Was this revelatory level of painting simply an accidental by-product of message and method? No, that level of painting is just rarely achieved accidentally.

Again, the test of Heiner Bastian’s thesis is in the viewing. It is easy to imagine from the catalogue reproductions (and essays) that the retrospective will look dynamic, surprising, fresh, and profound, and not just in the words of Those Who Gush. It has been selected with an eye, as it were, to making us see Warhol as Judd saw him--secure in the knowledge that, at the same time, unlike Judd, we won’t be able to get Campbell’s Soup or Jackie or the Mona Lisa or the Dollar Sign out of our minds. We’ll be able to have our Modernist Andy and Po-Mo him, too.

In stressing Warhol as Modern Master, however, the retrospective slights one of the most important aspects of Warhol’s career--and the one that, arguably, is most significant to identifying him as one of the principal bridges between Modernism and Post-modernism. The exhibition features an extensive program of film screenings; but it pays the barest lip service to Warhol’s other extra-painterly activities. The checklist includes no photographs, the catalogue offers scant documentation of the media empire that grew out of the infamous Factory, and you don’t need to schedule a tribute band performance to acknowledge Warhol’s role in the emergence of the Velvet Underground. Granted, as an argument for Warhol’s Modernist achievement in art--make that “Art”--photo booth shots, Interview magazine covers, or Lou Reed songs could prove dilatory. But rather than regard Warhol’s interdisciplinary reach as a prime symptom of his post-Modernism avant la lettre, Bastian, and the rest of us, should acknowledge it as a mark of his Modernism. Warhol’s involvement in, and sponsorship of activity in, other art forms, and even in other forms of communication, may have anticipated the currently porous borders between art, fashion, film, and so forth; but it descended from the multi-artistic, even intermedial interests and investigations found in the efforts of so many Modernist colossi and their movements. Music preoccupied myriad artists, theoretically and concretely, from Kandinsky and Klee to Mondrian and Pollock; publications litter the Modernist prospect (if you’re in New York before May 21, don’t miss MOMA’s phenomenal show of Russian Avant Garde Books); and, as the 20th century’s quintessential art form, cinema enthralled nearly every artist worth his or her Modernist salt. Warhol’s media empire was built on a Modernist foundation. If it pointed the way to Po-Mo artistic capitulation to the aesthotainment universe, it came from a point of view that, as far back as the late 19th century, valued all means, methods, and techniques of communication as frame and fodder for artistic inquiry.

Warhol, this show insists, was more Modernist than we reckon. He may have been more Modernist than even the retrospective reckons.