Return to Warhol


by Richard Meyer

In May 1985 Andy Warhol was interviewed by the modernist art historian Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. Throughout the interview, Buchloh tried to situate Warhol’s work in relation to that of earlier avant-garde artists, to Duchamp, Man Ray, Matisse, Yves Klein, and Francis Picabia, among several others. Warhol eludes every such attempt on Buchloh’s part to create a modernist pedigree for his art. “No, well I don’t know,” Warhol would say, or “No, well, I didn’t think that way.” When asked specifically about the artistic impact of meeting Duchamp in the 1960s, Warhol responds “No, I didn’t know him that well.” And, in a moment of terrifically unambiguous rejection, Warhol answers a question about the influence of Picabia on his drawings of the 1950s by telling Buchloh that “I didn’t even know who that person was” at the time (Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “An Interview with Andy Warhol” [1985], in Andy Warhol, edited by Annette Michelson, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001, pp. 119-128).

“Brillo Boxes,” 1969, 45 boxes/silk-
screen on plywood, 20 x 20 x 17” each.

In considering the Warhol retrospective we would do well to remember (as the curator and catalogue contributors clearly have not) Warhol’s resistance to art-historical claims about individual influence and heroic innovation. The exhibition catalogue positions Warhol as “one of the great artists of Classic Modernism,” a term whose meaning (not to mention its pompous capitalization) it never explains or justifies. In lieu of any detailed discussion of either modernism or classicism, the contributors to the catalogue invoke an array of Important Artists whom they ask us to see as Warhol’s progenitors.

Curator Heiner Bastian, for example, nominates Picasso and Matisse as significant influences on and reference points for Warhol’s early drawings (The fact that many of Warhol’s drawings offer nude men in homoerotic poses is dispensed with in a single, and largely nonsensical, sentence). Essayist Peter-Klaus Schuster argues that Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings of the early 1960s (e.g., the electric chairs, most wanted men, car crashes) constitute a machine-age counterpart to Goya’s grisly war pictures of the late 18th century. And the introduction to the catalogue states that “European roots of [Warhol’s] multifaceted artistic project are plain to see. They include. . .Klee and Matisse and also Duchamp. . .as well as the socially critical collages and montages of Grosz and Schwitters.” Would that Warhol were still around to respond, as he did to Buchloh back in 1985, to this failure of imagination on the part of art historians and curators. Would that Warhol could once again respond with a “No, well, I don’t know,” or a “No, I didn’t know him that well.”

Rather than reinventing Warhol under the sign of this or that avant-garde artist, why not take his fascination with mass culture seriously? Why not look closely at the subjects and surfaces which Warhol actually worked--and worked over--rather than refer his art, yet again, to some earlier source within the history of modernism? Why not, for example, think seriously about Warhol’s roots as a commercial illustrator and graphic designer, about his expertise in the language of advertising and the solicitation of consumerist desire? Surely, Warhol’s commercial illustrations of the 1950s are no less relevant to his Pop art of the 1960s than are a set of Goya etchings or Schwitters collages.

In positioning Warhol as a “classic modernist,” the retrospective not only suppresses his commercial expertise but also his identity as a queer artist. Questions of same-sex desire, effeminacy, and cross-dressing, not to mention the complex links between gay subculture and the mass media, deserve to be taken seriously within any full-scale retrospective of Warhol’s career. Such questions are, all but ignored in the current show. It is a shame that Warhol’s own voice is not heard more often within the pages of the exhibition catalogue, an exhibition which, after all, claims to review the artist’s entire career. On this score, as on many others, the 1989 catalogue to the Museum of Modern Art’s Warhol retrospective is far superior to its Neue Nationalgalerie counterpart. The MoMA catalogue includes a terrific compendium of Warhol quotations under the title “Warhol in his Own Words.”

This exhibition gets Warhol wrong in part, at least, because it refuses to listen to what he himself had to say about his work: Take, for example, one of Warhol’s multiple descriptions of Pop art in Popism: The Warhol 60s:

“The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second--comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles--all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.”

“Ambulance Disaster,” 1963, silkscreen
ink/acrylic on canvas, 124 x 80”.
What is important for Warhol is not only the “great modern things” that inhabit the commercial landscape of contemporary life--the comics and shower curtains, the celebrities and Coke bottles--but also the way in which a leading group of avant-garde artists, the New York school of abstract expressionist painters, sought to separate their art from (and elevate it above) such things. The curators of the retrospective exhibition aim to align Warhol with Goya and Matisse while distancing him ever further from the “great modern things” he adored, from pin-ups and green stamps to refrigerators and men’s trousers. I, for one, think they deserve a good kick in the pants for the effort.