Notes on Gesture

Cover of the May–June 1971 issue of Art in America.


THE CRITIC Harold Rosenberg thought painting provided a place to act. Writing in Artnews in 1952 he called midcentury painters—one thinks of Pollock and de Kooning, though Rosenberg didn’t mention names—action painters. In fact, American Action Painters. The phrase has the ring of politics to it. Painters taking action. A political action committee. A painting action committee. They were irascible after all.

Contained within this notion of action was the idea that painting served as an arena where artists displayed gesture—it was the place to twist and turn, flick and fling. “The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation,” Rosenberg claimed, “from Value—political, esthetic, moral.”1 It became a place to practice the idiosyncrasies of the self. While gesture and action are not unrelated, gesture figures the body in different ways; it’s less definitive, perhaps less determined and intentional. You take action in the public sphere, but you gesture across a table. All the same it is thought to communicate—to express—something of an inner self. When Irving Sandler published The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism in 1970, he divided the movement into gestural painters and those committed to color field, big blemishes of chroma, in which the trace of the brush was seldom seen. Those were the two camps. Action receded. The political moment had changed.

A year later, in May 1971, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened an Andy Warhol retrospective on Madison Avenue; he’d had another, related retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London earlier that year, but this was his first full-dress showing in a New York museum. The ’60s were over, Warhol had been shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968, and while the Whitney show was a midcareer survey (Warhol was forty-two), it also marked the end of an era. His exhibition “Flowers,” at Sonnabend Gallery in Paris in 1965, presented versions of the same floral image, its rubric grabbed from a magazine and screen-printed with different colors. That itself might have been enough of an assault on tradition (even if he did say it with flowers), and Warhol claimed he was stepping away from painting. Then, in April 1966, he pulled painting apart in an exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, fixing Cow Wallpaper to the gallery walls and floating silver balloons in the air, some of which escaped out the window. Figure and ground each went their own way, and gesture seemed to disappear, at least the kind that had previously gone into painting. (Warhol had been driving it out ever since he started the silkscreens in 1962.) The Castelli show was supposed to mark the end of paint and canvas. Warhol had been getting more involved in filmmaking, though he was threatening to retire from that, too. In 1969 he started Interview magazine. He was getting into all sorts of industries, and as he did so he was also rethinking gesture.

Cow Wallpaper returned in the Whitney show (apparently Warhol wanted the exhibition to be just that), and though it was ultimately set off by big paintings of flowers gridded together and, of course, Marilyn and deaths and disasters, it was also clear that painting, or even Pop art, was now only one thing Warhol did. Being an artist no longer meant producing paintings or sculptures or even artistic environments: it meant cutting a certain figure in the world.

Vilém Flusser claims that “a gesture is a movement of the body or of a tool connected to the body for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation.”2 It’s characterized by a certain amount of excess—a bodily excess that exceeds explanation. Flusser continues: “If I raise my arm, and someone tells me the movement is the result of physical, physiological, psychological, social, economic, cultural, and whatever other causes, I would accept his explanation. But I would not be satisfied with it. For I am sure that I raise my arm because I want to, and that despite all the indubitably real causes, I would not raise it if I didn’t want to. This is why raising my arm is a gesture.”3 In other words, a gesture is not reducible to X, Y, or Z forces. It is not simply symptomatic. It is an active representation of a state of mind, which can take any number of forms. If gesture in the realm of art connected to bodily movement, it soon began to have more to do with a state of consciousness: it was no longer constricted to the way one put paint on canvas but extended to the very way one might move through life. (One might say that gesture became a starting point, that it became performative, that its goal was to elicit a response.)


THIS IS ALL TO say that we have to understand Warhol’s self-presentation, or persona, as yet another object to be plumbed for meaning. The idea that Warhol had many different selves has been long acknowledged. In the May 1987 issue of Art in America, Thomas Crow wrote of the “self-created” Warhol, which was “the product of the artist’s famous pronouncements and of the authorized representations of his life and milieu,”4 but he does this primarily to set it aside. More and more it seems difficult to pry this apart from Warhol’s other creations, though this does not mean one need fall into clichés about “passivity” or “impersonality.” Too often, Crow argues, Warhol controlled the interpretation of his work while famously ceding control over the actual production of objects, but perhaps we also need to expand our understanding of what his work comprised.

A.i.A. dedicated its May–June 1971 issue to Warhol, putting a close-up of the artist’s face on the cover. Warhol receives the Warhol treatment. His face appears silkscreened, dissolved, almost eaten away. The pupils of his eyes stand out like black holes; his lips are invisible, his mouth only a dark crease in the middle. His eyes look just to the side, slightly bewildered, his hair parted and combed over. As one contributor to the issue, Mary Josephson, noted, “in a peculiar act of genius Warhol has made his own face the pane of glass and mirror, the ‘medium’ for his medium—the context through which he maintains his absolute psychic neutrality, moral, emotional, esthetic.”5

Inside, Leo Castelli ran a half-page ad showing Cow Wallpaper covering his gallery in April 1966, reminding readers of Warhol’s last radical move, one that also suggested that certain anxieties about the fate of modern art had come true: Rosenberg worried over the fact that Abstract Expressionism had been reduced to “apocalyptic wallpaper” and he had ended his essay on the action painters lamenting the fact that collectors now purchased an artist’s essence rather than a work of art. Certain writers approached the problem of painting by veering in other directions. David Bourdon contributed an article on Warhol as filmmaker, looking at his oeuvre from the early black-and-whites like 1963’s Sleep (more talked about than seen, Bourdon says) to the later narrative films made with Paul Morrissey. Joseph Masheck wrote about Warhol as illustrator, examining the line drawings he made for Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Cookbook, a recipe manual by an etiquette maven, published in 1961, noting the omission of fingernails on the female hands shucking oysters and comparing a drawing of four cake tins to work by Cézanne.

Carolyn Betsch, who was credited as a researcher on the magazine’s masthead, contributed a one-page article (a timeline, an early listicle) called “A catalogue raisonné of Warhol’s gestures.”6 Catalogues raisonnés are typically the most traditional kind of art historical exercise, locating every painting, sculpture, and drawing for posterity and study. “Gestures” are not typically given such treatment.

But what is a gesture? What did it mean at this moment? And how are we to understand it in art outside of painting? How are we to understand it from the examples on Betsch’s list?

1949: Warhol, having arrived in New York, soon changes his name from Warhola to Warhol.

So a gesture might be something one does to oneself, self-care or self-grooming. It modifies appearance. It cleans up, crops, shortens. It assimilates, Americanizes. It makes something into two syllables instead of three. It makes things memorable. It catches on.

1950s–60: Warhol involved with commercial design: stationery for Bergdorf-Goodman, Christmas cards for Tiffany and Tiber Press, record jackets for Columbia Records, television weather charts. These can be considered gestures if making a living, or living itself, is a gesture for Warhol.


Living as gesture. Gesture as life. To be without gesture is to be without life. But life here is not breath or spirit, but business full blast.

1962: Warhol assumes costume of black leather jacket and silver sprayed hair.

Gesture as style.

1965: At Paris exhibition of “Flowers,” Warhol makes the statement “I’m retiring from painting.”


Making a statement is a gesture whether or not it turns out to be true.

1966: At a press conference in San Francisco on KQED, Gerard Malanga and Nico answer questions directed to Warhol, who remains silent. This seems to be the first event of a continuing style of allowing other people to speak and act for him.

This might be the beginning of Warhol’s inversion of gesture, or anti-gesture. By becoming still you let others gesture for you, or you bring out and highlight the gestures in others. You allow gestures to become visible. Warhol’s great passivity, then, was not a coldness, but a light. It brought out the personality of others. “There is complete unanimity in the Warhol company that performers should be capable of making up their own lines,” Bourdon writes in his article. “‘How can people read other people’s words?’ Warhol asks. ‘It sounds so phony.’”7 Giorgio Agamben claims that “in the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures tries at once to reclaim what it has lost and to record its loss.”8 So perhaps Warhol’s early films in particular are dense archives of images—they capture what is no longer available in the world outside. 

1971: Warhol creates new Bertillon system. “One of my friends usually accompanies me around New York where we take ink-pad impression of the male or female breast. You can make a book about it. The impressions are like a person’s signature. We are hardly ever rejected, because you can slip the ink pad under a shirt or blouse.”
(Cosmopolitan, February 1971)

Alphonse Bertillon (1853–1914) was the French police photographer who innovated biometrics and the mugshot; he wanted to keep tabs on the population by measuring the distances between the features of a person’s face. Warhol as cop? Warhol had assembled large-scale portraits of the New York Police Department’s thirteen most wanted men at the New York world’s fair in 1964 before officials ordered them painted over, but here another kind of forensics is taking place. Breasts are somewhat ludicrous to print, though I’m not sure how they stack up against fingerprints. There’s an indexical logic to all Warhol: film, photograph, and print show up on a surface. Warhol was always looking out for other forms of identification besides those issued by the state. (But perhaps only to say, “That’s not me.”) He was also ripping off Brigid Berlin, who was famous for her “cock books” and compendiums of scars. Record, record, record. Be a blank so others can fill in. Perhaps that was another gesture.

1967: At a lecture at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, accompanied by five uninvited friends, Warhol marches onstage and declares, “I really wasn’t prepared to speak this evening, you know,” then lapses into silence, letting his friends answer questions for him.

1968: Warhol appears at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm for his show there. “I was going to send someone that looked like me. It worked before.” His plan was aborted when he realized that he has known the director of the Moderna Museet since the early sixties. This can be construed as an aborted gesture.

That an artist’s work might take the form of gestures echoed in the issue’s lead article, “Warhol: The medium as cultural artifact,” the aforementioned piece by Mary Josephson, which turns out to be an alias of Brian O’Doherty, A.i.A.’s editor and an artist in his own right. The question of medium was at the forefront at this moment—the ’60s had seen the emergence of mixed media and new media, as well as Marshall McLuhan’s theses—and O’Doherty considers the concept in various ways. (The high modernist medium-specificity of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried hovers somewhere in the background as well, though it never gets stated directly.) Some of his argument verges on the metaphysical: “What I am really saying is that the medium does not exist except in potential; it is always about to become, it never is—for the very action or work that describes it in turn prevents its definition.”9 It is not so much that the medium is behind us, but in front of us, always ready to be put to work. It is not so much that we are in a post-medium condition, in other words, but rather that the medium itself has changed, shifting from material to artists themselves. The medium acts as an intermediary much like a psychic does. Energies pass through it in order to become visible. “The perfect medium appropriates events, people, ideas, and other media,” O’Doherty writes. “We realize that anything can be done through him, but nothing defines him.”10 Ultimately, O’Doherty claims Warhol’s “consciousness as medium.” This also expanded the parameters of art. “Is not the move away from the gallery an attempt to prolong it by making the world a gallery?,”11 O’Doherty asked in an editorial at the front of the issue, penned in his own name, suggestively titled “What is Post-Modernism?”

O’Doherty worked through similar ideas in his own art and writings. Something about his shuttling between personae—from O’Doherty to Josephson to his artist alter ego Patrick Ireland, a name he took in 1972 to protest the killings on Bloody Sunday—suggests that different consciousnesses had different effects. But, of course, there’s a history here, too. The Surrealists also figured themselves as transmitting devices: Max Ernst rubbed the floorboards of his hotel room and André Breton encouraged all his disciples to put themselves in “as passive a position as possible,” as he put it in his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, in order to write automatically and bring all their buried thoughts to the surface. Perhaps passivity is mediumistic. Perhaps Warhol is more of a Surrealist than we had imagined.

In an article in the May 1980 issue of A.i.A., published to coincide with a second Warhol exhibition at the Whitney, dominated by his society portraits of the ’70s, critic Peter Schjeldahl observes that “Warhol’s moral magic has drastically diminished.” While it’s arguable whether morality was ever one of Warhol’s qualities, Schjeldahl’s point is that Warhol’s gestures were becoming harder to discern. “His world has caught up to (and on to) him; now his passionate avarice, fame-love and workaholism merely reflect his surround.” Warhol wasn’t just channeling the impulses of his time, he was getting lost in them, just like everyone else: “In the ’80s it seems the thing for everyone to have a job, or at least to look busy.”12 

1968: On June 3, Warhol and Mario Amaya were shot by Valerie Solanas at the Factory on Union Square. This can be considered a reverse gesture.

Gestures beget more gestures. They vector out and across in constellations. They deflect. They land in strange places.

Let me conclude by adding one more date to the timeline, a date that comes a little less than ten years after the last on Betsch’s list. Jeffrey Deitch writes an article titled “The Warhol Product” for A.i.A.’s May 1980 issue. The bio is worth noting: “Jeffrey Deitch is an investment advisor who received a 1979 NEA art critic’s fellowship.” Deitch situates Warhol within what he calls the “art experience economy” and talks about how Warhol worked the floor at Studio 54 “just like Roy M. Cohn” in the “post-counterculture, post-Vietnam era.”13 Deitch is canny about transformations in the art market and how they go on to affect what artists do. Art is now seen as three things, Deitch writes: “art as an investment, art as corporate public relations, and art as an arena of advanced consumerism.” All three angles tilt toward the market. To say that art’s utopian potential was on the wane at this moment would be an understatement. But what strikes Deitch as important is Warhol’s ability to operate shrewdly in this field. (He strikingly likens Warhol to Christo and Hans Haacke as artists who conceive their work in terms of economic realities.) But the fact of art’s monetization does not lead Warhol to simply churn out more product, though he was happy to paint a portrait for anyone who could pay the commission. As Deitch points out, “every public gesture he makes can be interpreted as an art gesture,” whether that meant doing a spot for Pioneer Electronics or putting a friend’s face on the cover of Interview. Warhol’s gestures, however, didn’t simply aestheticize life; he pushed art into life until they permeated each other completely, then he financialized the mix in turn. It was a new figure an artist could cut through the world. I think we’re still struggling to understand what to do with it today.