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The Wildly Overrated Andy Warhol

You can always count on the anti-traditionalists to come up with their own cockamamie traditions. And The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol—which I caught at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles just before it closed the other day—is about as nutty as they come. Of course Warhol’s apotheosis as the savior of abstract painting has been coming for years now, ever since sundry dealers, curators, critics, and historians decided that his Shadows, Oxidations, Camouflages, and Rorschachs were in the great tradition of Kazimir Malevich, Jackson Pollock, and Barnett Newman.

I wouldn’t even bother to comment on “The Painting Factory,” except that it was dreamed up by none other than Jeffrey Deitch, the embattled director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Much attention has focused on Deitch’s plans for a show devoted to disco culture. For that he’s been roundly criticized. But I am more troubled by “The Painting Factory,” a show dedicated to the utterly preposterous idea that Andy Warhol has been good for abstract art. Of course many fewer people want to question Deitch’s apotheosis of Warhol—for the simple reason that so much money now rides on Warhol’s lofty position in the marketplace.

Cockamamie traditions are always riddled with clichés. And this one is a doozy. Deitch begins by referring to abstraction as “a painting tradition that was once seen as essentially reductive” and “monolithic and doctrinaire”—but has “now become expansive.” In what sense were seminal abstract artists such as Kandinsky or de Kooning ever reductive? And what is more reductive than Warhol’s silly attempt at an all-over abstract painting included in this show, the bewilderingly boring 35-foot expanse of army surplus patterning entitled Camouflage?

Deitch would have us believe that Warhol had something to do with incorporating collage into abstract painting, although the truth is that Picasso and Braque were already doing that a century ago. There is nothing in this show—neither the labyrinthine spatial visions of Julie Mehretu nor the impacted collage surfaces of Mark Bradford—that doesn’t have its origins in abstract painting long before Warhol got to work with his silkscreens.

So why do Deitch and his collaborators want to Andy-ize abstraction? I think the explanation is very simple. The genealogy is congenial in a world where Warhol reigns supreme. And his highness is receiving the royal treatment here, although when Pop Art is treated with this kind of gravitas the exegesis can suggest high camp. The exhibition catalogue includes a roundtable discussion, in the course of which the art historian and curator James Meyer, thinking of Warhol’s Factory, explains that “factor comes from the Latin factore—the doer, the maker. So the maker is always at the center of a practice, in one way or another.” Will Andy very soon have his very own Erwin Panofsky? Is Viva Superstar really a Roman goddess? Are we ready for Et in Arcadia Andy?

There’s something comedic about Warhol’s lofty reputation, with art historians giving him the sort of attention once reserved for Poussin. But the comedy feels deracinated, because the intellectual showmanship turns tradition into a connect-the-dots game. First the rich history of abstract art is reduced to a less-is-more cliché. Then Warhol is brought in to mix things up, transforming abstract painting into what Deitch calls “one of the most dynamic platforms in contemporary art.” (“Platforms!” As if abstract painters worked in much the same way as computer programmers. Maybe Deitch thinks they do.)

There’s a chill about nearly everything in “The Painting Factory.” The paintings are all strategy. The risk, the dare, the play of the imagination has been replaced by cool calculation. This cockamamie tradition turns out to be nothing but a newfangled academic tradition. And that’s the real problem with Jeffrey Deitch. He has a connect-the-dots imagination, and all the dots lead back to pop culture—or Pop Art. I can live with a show about disco culture. What I can’t bear is seeing Warhol presented as one of the towering figures in the history of abstract painting. That’s obscene.