The Andy Warhol retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art is the perfect show for time-pressed Manhattanites. They can breeze through it at the clip of a fast walk, take it in through the corners of their eyes without ever breaking stride, and be able to talk about it afterward entirely in terms of what they got out of it. Indeed, you can honorably discuss the show without attending it at all, if you’ve ever seen a Brillo box, a Campbell’s soup can, a photograph of Marilyn Monroe, and a silver balloon. Here they are again, the dear old Warhol icons, full of empty content, or contented emptiness. Their vacuity gains through muchness, since if you miss one wall of silkscreened cans or Marilyns or dollar bills, another wall will deliver the same massage, and we can absorb this art as we absorb reality—while trying to ignore it. Not only does, say, a duplicated and garishly paint-smeared image of Liza Minnelli or Truman Capote not invite close attention, it sends it skidding the other way. Busy power people should love this show; it repels lingering, and can be cruised for its high spots, which are all but indistinguishable from its low spots.
This isot denigration, but an attempt at description. Warhol’s art has the powerftil effect of making nothing seem important. He was a considerable philosopher, and in his testament, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, as extracted by Pat Hackett, we read: “Some critic called me the Nothingness Himself and that didn’t help my sense of existence any. Then I realized that existence itself is nothing and I felt better.” His great unfulfilled ambition (he couldn’t have had too many) was a regular TV show; he was going to call it “Nothing Special.” He came to maturity in the postwar, early cold war era of existentialism and angst, and found himself greatly soothed by the spread of television and the tape recorder.
In his Philosophy, he speaks this parable: “A whole day of life is like a whole day of television. TV never goes off the air once it starts for the day, and I don’t either. At the end of the day the whole day will be a movie. A movie made for TV.” The tape recorder completed his deliverance from direct, emotional involvement in his own life: “The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had. But I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape, and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape its not a problem any more.” Like the pidgin pronouncements of Gertrude Stein, Warhol’s harbor amid their deadpan tumble of egocentric prattle an intermittent clairvoyance, a shameless gift for seeing what is there and saying it. The political turbulences and colorful noise of the 1960s did not bide from him the decade’s essential revolution: “During the ‘60s, I think, people forgot what emotions were supposed to be. And I don’t think they’ve ever remembered. I think that once you see emotions from a certain angle you can never think of them as real again.”
What remains real, it would seem, is the semiotic shell, the mass of images with which a society economically bent on keeping us stirred up appeals to our oversolicited, overanalyzed, overdramatized, overliberated, and over-the-hill emotions. Warhol on sex, our great social lubricant and sales incentive, is especially withering: “After being alive, the next hardest work is having sex.” Sex is not only work: “Sex is nostalgia for when you used to want it, sometimes. Sex is nostalgia tor sex.” Or: “Frigid people really make out.” His obsessive silk-screening of Marilyn Monroe (of one partictilar face that she presented the camera, her eyelids half-lowered and her lips parted in a smile somewhat like a growl, a ‘50s drive-in waitress’s tired sizing-up of one more coarse but not totally uninteresting come-on) turns her into a Day-Glo-tinted, tarted-up mask, the gaudy sad skull left when she is viewed without desire.
The repetition that was one of Warhoi’s key devices—two Liza Minnellis, ten Elizabetli Taylors, 36 Elvises, 102 Troy Donahues—has a mocking effect. In one of the many essays that introduce the tribute-laden, 478-page catalog, John Gage is quoted as saying, “Andy has fought by repetition to show us that there is no repetition really, that everything we look at is worthy of our attention.” To me the message seems the exact opposite: that everything is repeated, that everything is emptied and rendered meaningless by repetition. Warhol himself stated: “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.”
Born Andrew Warhola in 1928, the son of an immigrani Czech coal miner, he came from Pittsburgh to New York in 1949, freshly graduated from Carnegie Tech. In Pre-Pop Warhol, an album of his commercial art published last year by Panache Press at Random House, Tina S. Fredericks, who gave Warhol his professional start at Glamour magazine, writes, “I greeted a pale, blotchy boy, diffident almost to tbe point of disappearance but somehow immediately and iminensely appealing. He seemed all one color: pale chinos, pale wispy hair, pale eyes, a strange beige birthmark over the side of his face (almost like a Helen Frankenthaler wash).” He was not only appealing and blothcy but persistent and resourceful; by the mid-’50s, he had become a very successful commercial artist. His drawings of shoes for I. Miller, done in the Ben Shahn-like blotted-line look that he had debeloped, were especially celebrated in the advertising world.
He was industrious and quick, and never overdid his assignments, providing a light, artist-effacing touch. In Pre-Pop Warhol can be found a number of devices directly transferred to the “serious” art he began to produce in 1960: repetition, gold-leal, a wallpaper flatness, monochrome washes across the outlines, and appropriation of readymade elements like embossed paper decorations. These early years also saw, in the hiring of his first assislani, Nathan Gluck, in 1955, the beginning of his famous “Factory” and (to quote Rupert Jasen Smith) “his art-by-committee philosophy.”
Warhol’s first art sales were of shoe drawings rejected by I. Miller, displayed on the walls of the Serendipity restaurant in 1954. His first exhibit, containing paintings of Superman and a Pepsi-Cola advertisement and a before-and-after nosejob all present in MOMA’s retrospective, appealed behind mannequins in a window of Bonwit Teller in 1961. As late as 1963 he was still accepting more commercial commissions than he rejected. He saw, however, that the gallery and the museum were the path to true wealth and fame. He went, in his words, from the art business to business art. “I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. . . . I wanted to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.”
“American money is very well-designed, really,” Warhol said in one ol the few aesthetic judgments offered in his Philosophy. “I like it better than any other kind of money.” He drew dollar bills freehand, he silkscreened sheets of them, he became rich. He had an untroubled tabloid mentality: his eye naturally went to what interests most of us: money, advertisements, packages, lurid headlines, pictures of movie stars, photographs of electric chairs and gory automobile accidents. His early-60’s pencilled and painted copies of screaming front pages from the News, the Post, and the Mirror, with Sinatra and Princess Margaret, Liz and Eddie carefully but not mechanically reproduced, make us smile, because these are familiar images we thought too lowly to be passed through the eye and hand and mind of an artist. They, and the soup cans and Coke bottles, are Pop comedy, our world brought home to us with that kiss of surprise that realism bestows.
We like to think of art as lying on the frontier between reality and our awareness. The multiple silk screens possess, in the inevitable irregularities of the process and the overlay of colors, qualities we can call painterly, and this reassures us. But when we arrive, on the lower floor of his exhibition, at the blown-up and monochromed photos of car wrecks and electric chairs and race riots, a whiff of ‘60s sulphur offends our nostrils in these odorless ‘80s. Something too extreme and bleak is afoot. We wonder how much of our interest can be credited to Warhol, and how much to the inherent fascination of the original photographs. Where is the artist in all this? Is he working hard enough, or just peddling gruesome photos? We find ourselves getting indignant and hostile. Warhol in his lifetime inspired a great deal of hostile criticism, even in times when almost anything went, and the hostility relates, I think, to the truly radical notion his works embody: the erasure of the artist from modern life, his total surrender to mechanism and accident. Such a notion makes art critics uneasy, for if artists self-erase, art critics must be next in line, and it distresses the art viewer with the suspicion that he is being swindled—being sold, as it were, a silk screen of the Brooklyn Bridge.
No sweat, the saying goes, and Warhol perfected sweatless art: movies without cutting, books without editing, painting without brushing. Up from blue-collar origins, he became the manager of the Factory. His lightest touch on the prayer wheel there produced a new billowing of replicated images, of Maos and cows and Mick Jaggers, of dollar signs and shoes, of mock ads and packages, of helium filled silver pillows. When each idea had its scandalous and impudent little run, he came up with another, and although some, like the oxidization paintings produced by urinating on canvases covered with copper metallic paint, will never replace Pollock in the hearts of museum curators, it must be said that for all the ‘60s and much of the ‘70s Warhol maintained quality controls. Almost everything produced was perfect in its way, with a commercial artist’s clean precision and automatic tact. In the anarchic realm of the disappearing artist, the artist’s ghost—wispy and powdery, Warhol came to look more and more ghostlike—exercised taste. Not until the last rooms of this show do any of the canvases seem too much, like the visually noisy camouflage series, or too little, like the epochal religious paintings of Raphael and Leonardo reduced to color-hook outlines and disfigured with manufacturers’ logos.
In the realm of social hehavlor, too, a certain control kept Warhol productive and inventive. Though lesser members of his Factory descended into stoned orgies and ruinous addictions, he remained wrapped in a prophylactic innocence, going home every night (until 1971) to his mother--that same mother who, he remembered in his brief memoir of his childhood, used to read Dick Tracy to him in “her thick Czechoslovakian accent” and who would reward him with a Hershey bar “every time I finished a page in my coloring book.” How much, really, of his mature work can be described as “coloring”! In one of his first self-abnegations he induced her to sign his works, and write his captions, in her own clumsy but clear handwriting. Julia Warhola presents a perspective on her son quite different from that of the critic who called him Nothingness Himself: Fredericks quotes her as saying, “He represents at the same time the American and European fused together and he’s very keen and sensitive to everything that goes on everyday and he registered it like . . . you know . . . a photographic plate. . . . He has this terrific energy and he goes out and he registers everything and he does that everything and he becomes everything. The everything man.”
Everything and nothing, Warhol might have pointed out, are close to identical. He evidently did not quite discard the Roman Catholicism in which he was raised, paying daily visits to the church of St. Vincent Ferrer on 66th Street and anonymously performing good works for the homeless. The closing paragraphs of the catalog essay by Robert Rosenblum persuasively link Warhol’s Catholicism with his sense of the iconic, his altarpiece-like diptychs, his fondness for gilt and memento mori. But surely, also, the profound hollowness we feel behind the canvases is a Catholic negativity, the abyss of lost faith. Protestantism, when it fades, leaves behind a fuzzy idealism; Catholicism, a crystalline cynicism.
In the Philosophy, some of his remarks bave the penetrating desolation we associate with maximists like La Rochefoucauld and Chamfort. “I think that just being alive is so much work at something you don’t always want to do. Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.” The equation of being born with being kidnapped takes one’s breath away, and the Warhol “works” on display in New York assume a new light when seen as the fruits of a kind of cosmic slavery. Work he did, while pretending to do nothing. If the show in its early rooms has the gaiety of a department store, it takes on downstairs the somber, claustral mood of a catacomb. Negatived skulls and Mona Lisas suggest the inversions of a black mass. The glamorized women, we notice, are almost all of them dead or grazed by death—Marilyn, Jackie, Natalie, Liz. And Warhol himself, unexpectedly dead in a hospital when not yet 60, a victim perhaps of the distracted medical attention that celebrities risk receiving from the awed staff, has joined tbe Pop martyrs, the mummified media saints.
There was an efficient churchly atmosphere to his show, of duty discharged and superstition placated. Visitors, I noticed, kept glancing slyly at one another, as if to ask, “How foolish do you feel?” One woman, with a seemly irreverence, combed her hair in front of a Warhol self-portrait whose framing glass reflected back from that dead opaque face. It might have been an act of oblation. Andy has become—what he must have wanted all along—an icon.
John Updike’s memoir Self-Consciousness has just been published by Knopf.
By John Updike