Return to Warhol


by Suvan Geer

Interviewer: "But to become a famous artist you had to do something that was 'different.' And if it was 'different,' then it means you took a risk, because the critics could have said that it was bad instead of good."

Warhol on the Interview: "In the first place, I said, they usually did say it was bad. And in the second place, if you say that artists take 'risks' it's insulting to the men who landed on D-Day, to stuntmen, to baby-sitters, to Evel Knievel, to stepdaughters, to coal miners, and to hitch-hikers, because they're the ones who really know what 'risks' are. She didn't even hear me, she was still thinking about what glamorous 'risks' artists take."

--from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

What is the truth about Andy Warhol? Was he the "idiot savant" of commercial banality Barbara Rose is reported to have named him, or did Arthur Danto get it right when he called Warhol an artist with a "philosophical intelligence of an intoxicatingly high order"? Warhol's work makes so many shifts and his cultivated persona pumped out such tantalizing and bizarre pieces of contradictory information, it's difficult to know just who he was and how premeditated he was in his approach to art. A new century, revisionist art history and a huge traveling retrospective only seem to add grease to the heady sizzle surrounding the artist and his work.

As an artist I feel both exhilarated and troubled by all the hype and conjecture surrounding Warhol. Exhilarated because in a society that's generally so apathetic to art, it's exciting to see widespread enthusiasm for a contemporary American artist. Yet troubled, because the current critical and popular discussion tends to paint Warhol in stereotypical terms of 'genius' or wily provocateur.

“Self-Portrait,” 1986, silkscreen
ink/acrylic on canvas, 80 x 90”.

“Self-Portrait,” 1964, silkscreen
ink/acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16”.

Either Warhol was an inspired intellect that, as one newspaper reviewer claimed, "seemed to know what was happening to the country long before anyone else did," or he was a master game player full of artifice and guile who plotted out completely the trajectory his art and celebrity would take.

Such characterizations strip Warhol of his real struggles and hard earned insights. Instead of an artist turning the difficult reality, enthusiasms and conflicts of his life into an art the world has globally identified with, we are left with bloodless images of abstract cultural analysis or notorious spectacle, hype and profit. How can artists or the public seriously consider art as more than visual entertainment or esoteric social theory if an artist like Warhol has his outpourings viewed mainly as mysterious social prediction or super astute trend spotting? Such insistence that art is rare, isolated inspiration or a detached intellectual gambit rather than a dogged exploration of personal perspective makes art and artists otherworldly. . . or trivial. Warhol turned the world on its ear not by being more than human, but precisely by being completely that.

From his own writings and the reminiscences of those who knew him it's clear Warhol was a smart but painfully shy boy, raised Catholic and working class. He was a homosexual young artist who, early on, felt bad about his W.C. Field's nose, blotchy, pale skin, dyslexia and speech problems. The son of immigrants, raised in a coal mining town in Philadelphia, he'd had a rough childhood of poverty, repeated illness, an intimidating, overworked father and a mother who spun wild, self-aggrandizing fantasies at every turn. Though some may say his art was a life-long effort to escape all those things, that kind of dismissal puts too simple a slant on his work and adds to the unreality surrounding him. Rather than trying to escape his past it might be more accurate to say his struggles deeply sensitized him.

Take beauty for instance. It's too easy to say Warhol was smitten with glamour. While we can see in his portraits of Marilyn, Elvis and others a blatant admiration of the beautiful people cranked out by the Hollywood dream factory, it’s important to remember Marilyn's image was selected after her drug overdose, and Elvis' after the "King" had begun his decline. As the perpetual "outsider" to all things attractive, Warhol's perspective was not that of the masses who simply long for the glamour of the movies. Rather his view was as the unbeautiful. As one who eventually embraced his own feelings of looking "bad" or "plain" as a clarifying viewpoint, he was free to articulate the seductive fascination we all have with beauty while being mindful of its inherent exclusion. How else to understand the apparent contradiction of some of his works with the disarming simplicity in statements like, "I've never met a person I couldn't call a beauty." Or, "If everyone is not a beauty, then nobody is."[1]

Warhol's advertising background is important too. It's easy to recognize that his techniques as an illustrator deeply altered traditional painting. His identifiable Pop style can certainly be traced to his old "comp" habits of tracing, direct product presentation, repetition and color shifts. But he was attached to the commercial field for another reason. Advertising was a comfortable field for a kid from the working class who understood labor in terms of group effort rather than independent thought. The client dictated the subject, the boss guided the presentation and the agency was responsible for getting the ad reproduced. Warhol really believed art "is just another job."[2] His Factory maintained the production agency model. He formed group coloring sessions on his drawings, let others not only make the work, decide how to frame and display it, but even sign his canvases. All without crediting the participants--just like any agency. It was Warhol's working class "comfort zone" merger of industry's methods to art's accepted practices that turned out to be an important spotlight for illuminating the art world's elitist assumptions of originality and sole production.

Warhol also prodded friends for suggestions on subject matter. Then, like any art director after a market survey, cheerfully subsumed their suggestions. One friend, Muriel Latow, responded to the artist's demanding inquiries about what kind of ubiquitous, graphically un-artistic subjects (like his already finished Coca Cola bottle and cross word puzzle) he should paint next said, "You should paint pictures of money, something that everybody sees every day, that everybody recognizes like a can of soup."[3] Years later another friend, tired of the Death and Disasters series responded to Warhol's nagging inquiries about a new subject by picking a magazine off the floor, flipping to a color advertisement showing a field of flowers and telling the artist he should paint flowers.[4]

Warhol's dependence on others for his ideas (while undoubtedly related to the insecurity he openly acknowledged), was also part of his determined ambition to view art as simply and pragmatically as possible. "I tried to simplify the movie-making procedure, so I made movies where we used every foot of film we shot, because it was cheaper, and easier and funnier." [5] While some see Warhol's simplicity as a pose and his art works as theoretical orchestration, it is probably more accurate to say that he was exactly as direct as he declared himself to be. Jack Wilson, a friend from his college years at Carnegie Tech said of the artist, he "sees the world through the eyes of a six-year-old child, yet [with] all the skills of a well-trained artist. And he puts them all together with totally no inhibitions."[6] It is precisely that equalizing, appreciative enthusiasm for the banal, the beautiful, the meaningful and the (supposedly) meaningless that make Warhol's work so resonant in a culture obsessed with appearances and discriminating taste.

However, to declare that the artist knew from the onset what his celebration of the popular and the mundane would mean in his day and later is misleading. Rather than an artist out to upend the mystique of fine art or pin-the-tail on the inconsistencies in the American psyche, Warhol was just following his fascinations. He genuinely loved the constructed perfection of the airbrushed movie stars, the egalitarian goodies of the American consumer culture, the stunning inventiveness of the obsessively narcissistic crowd that flocked to be in his reflected limelight and films. Out of curiosity he once followed one such individual around with a tape recorder for a whole day telling himself, "These people are so imaginative. I just want to know what they do, why they're so imaginative and creative, talking all the time, always busy, full of energy."

Warhol's subjects were his fascination and, true to his Byzantine Catholic roots, his art makes icons of them. But in keeping with his own working class upbringing and the discomfort he experienced with celebrity, he refused to see art or fame as different from business or any other "nothing" ways people entertain themselves. In fact "nothing" was special to the artist. All the ways meaning was repeatedly found in the 'nothing special' images he recycled amused and informed him. He found that as he focused attention on the "leftover" outtakes from regular films, new stories and new stars emerged. Packaging, underwear, all the little “nothings” that comprise the daily world of commerce and exchange were loaded with social meaning (left open for discussion by others) once his work made them the focus of attention.

Warhol did what all artists do: paid attention. It's just that as the perpetual misfit he paid attention to all the bits and pieces that no one before had considered important. Hard to know if that contribution to art's current rapture with popular culture makes him an instigator, a philosophical genius or just an artist in the right place when the walls began to crumble around the fine art temple. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol the artist wrote, "You have to treat the nothing as if it were something. Make something out of nothing."

1 Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, From A to B and
Back Again, New York 1975, p. 61.
2 Ibid, p. 178.
3 Heiner Bastian, "Rituals of Unfulfillable Individuality--The Whereabouts of Emotions", in the catalog for Andy Warhol: Retrospective, Tate Publishing, London, 2002, pgs. 25-6.
4 Henry Gedzahler, "Andy Warhol: A Memoir", Making It New, Turtle Point Press, 1994, pg. 43.
5 Warhol and Hackett, pgs. 93-4.
6 Patrick S. Smith, Warhol Conversations About the Artist, UMI Research Press, Michigan 1988, pg. 8.