THE WARHOL OF OUR MINDS BY ELEANOR HEARTNEY
Sotheby’s sale in November of Andy Warhol’s 1962 painting 200 One Dollar Bills, for $43.7 million, was a signal not only that the art market is roaring back but that fascination with Warhol has never gone away. In the 50 years since his debut on the art scene and the 23 since his untimely death following gallbladder surgery, Warhol, more than any other postwar artist, has been the troubled and troubling symbol of our esthetic culture. Three new books attest to his continuing allure: Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol by Tony Scherman and David Dalton, Andy Warhol and the Can That Sold the World by Gary Indiana, and Andy Warhol by Arthur C. Danto.
Each volume recounts the now familiar story of Warhol’s rise from Pittsburgh poverty to art-world superstardom, muses over the human casualties that accompanied his ascent and affirms the general judgment of artistic decline following his 1968 shooting by a disaffected hanger-on. Where the books diverge is in their assessment of the meaning, and even the nature, of Warhol’s accomplishments and continuing impact on the contemporary art world. The basic facts are by now more or less established, though disputes continue over certain details, such as who first suggested the soup can motif and whether Warhol actually liked Campbell’s soup. However, the thrust of each narrative is very different. As has been clear now for decades, Warhol’s persona is a kind of Rorschach test whose ambiguous shapes resolve into a cunning opportunist, an inspired naïf, a tragic hero or an accidental superstar, depending on who is interpreting the ink blots. Readings of his influence are equally contradictory: he is the father of contemporary art or an evil Svengali; he democratized the art world, or he destroyed it; he mirrored a culture of materialism and consumption, or he imposed that culture on art’s once idealistic domain.
The three volumes proceed in very dissimilar ways. Scherman, a music and arts writer, and Dalton, a founding editor of Rolling Stone, offer a straightforward journalistic account. They supplement the existing archives and already voluminous literature on Warhol with a prodigious number of new interviews with surviving participants in the Warhol scene. These interviews were conducted by Scherman (Dalton was brought in at a much later stage in the writing process) between November 2000 and April 2004. They are woven into a lively survey of Warhol’s activities on a year-by-year basis, from his first efforts to move from commercial to fine art in 1961 to his June 3, 1968, shooting by Valerie Solanas. The book draws vivid portraits of the dissipated characters who circled around Warhol, and offers detailed descriptions of the evolution and outcome of various projects, ranging from the early soup cans and Brillo boxes through the chaotic film productions and Warhol’s short association with the Velvet Underground. It is full of unexpected information—I was surprised, for instance, to learn that Up Your Ass With a Meathook, the Solanas script whose unexplained disappearance fueled her murderous rage toward Warhol, finally turned up in 1988, nearly 20 years after being put in storage, in a trunk used by Factory denizen Billy Name. Nevertheless, the new information does not materially alter standard accounts of Warhol’s life.
Following well-trodden paths, the authors present the artist as a nonintellectual, insecure, status-conscious striver who got his best ideas from others, and whose “choices” were often in fact happy accidents. Only a brief epilogue deals with the post-Solanas years, during which, in the authors’ view, Warhol traded artistic audacity for celebrity and financial security, becoming a court painter to the international jet set.
Focused so tightly on the doings of Warhol and his entourage, Pop does not particularly illuminate such issues as why Warhol emerged as the postwar art world’s most ubiquitous icon and why, like his fellow mind-gamer Marcel Duchamp, he continues to be cited as one of the 20th century’s most influential artists. Those are the issues that preoccupy Indiana and Danto, though their conclusions differ widely.
Gary Indiana, who was an art critic for the Village Voice from 1985 to 1988, brings a distinctly ’80s flavor to his interpretation of Warhol’s art and influence. He fleshes out a basic chronicle of the artist’s life with excursions into areas like Orson Welles’s “Campbell Playhouse” (radio productions that a 10-year-old Warhol may have heard while convalescing from various childhood ailments), alleged CIA support for international exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War, and America’s postwar preoccupation with Communism, material prosperity and social conformism. Such digressions are designed to draw a picture of the larger cultural context in which Warhol materialized.
Drawing on both psychoanalytic and post-structural theory, Indiana depicts a Warhol whose pathologies emerged from a sickly childhood in which deprivation mingled with excesses of attention. Reinscribing his family’s dysfunction into the structure of the Factory, Warhol created a body of work whose primary subject was his own psychic void. Indiana’s subtitle enshrines Warhol’s soup can paintings as the ur-works of a new artistic order, since “Warhol’s cans demonstrate that modern reality is mediated through the symbolic.” For Indiana, the themes of the post-structural critique of contemporary society—its mechanized stimulation of desire, its repudiation of subjectivity and the apparent naturalization of social constructs—can all be found in Warhol’s soup can paintings. In this retelling, Warhol’s works, and his life, can be construed as a series of masks beneath which any semblance of a real self has vanished.
Indiana, though never a part of the Warhol circle, admits to an early admiration for his work as at once an expression of and ironic counter to the banality and sameness of postwar society. But the celebrity posturing of the later, crassly commercial Warhol altered that assessment. Citing the “ugliness” and “imperial presumptions” of contemporary culture, Indiana points to Warhol as “the weather vane of its condition, the prophet of its inevitable endgame.”
Arthur Danto, professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University and for 25 years (1984-2009) the art critic for the Nation, offers a much more sympathetic account of Warhol’s life and legacy. Danto has written frequently about the epiphany he experienced upon his first sighting of Warhol’s Brillo boxes, which posed for him the philosophical question: “What is the difference between two things, exactly alike, one of which is art and one of which is not?” The answer, for Danto, is that the essence of an artwork lies not in its outward appearance but in its context and its function within a system of meaning.
In this book, written as part of Yale University Press’s Icons of America series, Danto views the whole of Warhol’s career, while emphasizing, in a way he has not before, a religious aspect to Warhol’s work. He is careful to distinguish literal efforts to attach religious meaning to the iconography of specific works (for instance, efforts to read in the late paintings based on Leonardo’s Last Supper an expression of Warhol’s Catholicism) from his own philosophical approach. Going back to the Brillo boxes, he suggests that his question about the distinction between art and nonart applies as well to religious objects, whose tremendous significance also may not be apparent on the surface. For Danto, Warhol’s obsession with the objects of common experience stemmed from a quasi-religious understanding of how material things—the cup Christ held at the Last
Supper, for example—can be transfigured in meaning while remaining unchanged in appearance. In his narrative of Warhol’s life, Danto begins and ends with his subject’s 1961 display in the window of New York’s Bonwit Teller department store. Just beginning his transformation from commercial to fine artist, Warhol placed a number of his new advertising-based paintings behind the store mannequins. Danto notes that the appropriated images in these works, based on ads for physical self-improvements such as nose jobs, baldness cures and muscle building, offer remedies for the imperfections and deficiencies of the real people to whom they are addressed. Danto argues: “All religion is based on suffering and its radical relief. It was as if the message of saviors had been translated into the universal language of cheap American advertisements.” For Danto,
Warhol’s fixation on image is not, as Indiana argues, a symptom of psychic emptiness, but a revelation of our common frailty. Taken together, these books suggest why Warhol simply won’t go away. His life and work hold up a mirror to the complexities inherent in modern experience, especially the vexed issue of personal identity. The wildly incongruent takes offered by the authors suggest that Andy Warhol exists in the eye of the beholder, and that any interpretation may tell us more about the observer than about the object. The three distinct Warhols evoked here will surely not be the last.
ELEANOR HEARTNEY is a freelance critic based in New York.