Daniel A. Siedell
The Other Warhol
In Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) recently closed a monumental retrospective of the work of Andy Warhol, which consisted of over 250 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints. Organized by the New National Gallery in Berlin, it traveled to the Tate Modern in London before coming to Los Angeles. The exhibition also produced a catalogue that nicely complements its thesis and will itself contribute to a deeper understanding of the artist and his importance in the history and development of 20th-century art.1
But even to say that Warhol's art requires a "deeper understanding" and that he has "importance" for 20th-century art is to pick a fight. More than any other contemporary, Warhol is an artist we love to hate—perhaps the most famous and least understood artist of his time. It is by no means possible to define Warhol's friends as the art élites and his enemies as the unwashed masses. When he is lionized, whether by the art world or by the popular media, it is his aura that is buzzing, an aura compounded of high-art snobbery and gay camp, Hollywood glitz and shameless kitsch, and an insatiable desire to be hip.
The response from Christians tends to fall along party lines. For liberal Catholics and for Protestants still tending Tillich's flame, Warhol is the savior of art's spirituality. Much attention is paid to his Byzantine Catholic upbringing and his faithful attendance at Mass nearly every day of his life. For conservative Christians, Warhol the homosexual, whose "Factory" came to embody the libertine creed of the Sixties, delivered the coup de grace that finally separated fine art from the church once and for all.
There's more than just a grain of truth to these rival versions of Warhol: the celebrity, the crypto-saint, the decadent. But the Warhol on display in the MoCA exhibition and its catalogue is something different. The power of this "other" Warhol was undeniable, even in Los Angeles, where the setting and the milling, restless crowds at the gigantic show favored the icon of fame. It seems time, now that both the trumpeting of the Sixties and the appalled counterreaction alike are beginning to seem rather quaint, to take a look at Warhol the artist.
Whatever he was, Warhol was a quintessentially American artist, right? Yet the retrospective was initiated by German curator Heiner Bastian, for a museum in Berlin, and much of the work in the exhibition was loaned by German collectors and public institutions. (Fortunately, and especially for those who missed the MoCA show, there's a splendid collection at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the artist's hometown.) Did Warhol represent something "American" for these collectors and curators, or was something else going on in his work, something that we Americans hadn't noticed?
Bastian's exhibition is an attempt at "de-contextualization." He is eager to present Warhol's oeuvre as worthy of aesthetic experience and critical analysis on its own terms, not simply as an example or illustration of something else. For Bastian, Warhol has been "over-contextualized." His art is "explained" by his homosexuality, his Catholicism, his interest in commercial art, his love of American popular culture, and so on.
What happens if we set all that aside and attend to the work? No, we can't attain a state of pure contemplation in which the "real" Warhol will emerge. But it is possible to look with a fresh eye and an openness to what is there to be seen. And what is there, sometimes on the surface of Warhol's work, often lurking behind it, is death.
After graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Warhol came to New York in 1949 in search of work as a commercial artist. Not only did he find work, he became one of the most sought-after and influential commercial artists of the Fifties. But as the decade waned, Warhol increasingly turned to large-scale paintings of popular imagery, abandoning the world of haute couture for the "crudely anonymous, out-of-date tasteless trash" found in low-end newspapers and magazines.
Perhaps the clearest example of this reorientation can be found in his notorious Campbell's Soup Cans, exhibited at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962. Painting by hand from a retailer's catalogue, Warhol attempted to reproduce individually the labels for each of the company's 32 flavors, creating what Kirk Varnedoe calls an "uneven quirkiness."
At the time, Campbell's Soup was an extraordinary model of stability. Its label design and price had not changed for over 50 years. In the eyes of many interpreters of Warhol's work, it stood for the stifling banality of mainstream America. But Warhol was not making fun of Campbell's Soup, or the culture that produced it (his mother fed it to him every day at lunch as he was growing up in a working-class neighborhood). Ultimately, Varnedoe, the former director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), where these paintings are located, concludes:
No summation or paraphrase anyone will ever write of it, nor any theoretical web to be spun around it, is ever even remotely likely to be anything like the panoply of things it effortlessly is all at once: hot, cold, heartless, funny, lively, boring, sad, outrageous, economical, memorable, vicious, stupid, sophisticated, crass and more.
While Campbell's Soup Cans (which unfortunately did not travel to Los Angeles for the exhibition) provides a link from his career as a commercial artist to his early work as a fine artist, the MoCA exhibition shows the important role that Warhol's so-called disaster paintings and prints played in his oeuvre after the Ferus Gallery exhibition of soup cans in 1962. In fact, these "disaster" pieces, beginning in 1963 with his monumental 129 Die in Jet and including recurring images of suicides, electric chairs, guns, knives, car crashes, and skulls, give Warhol's entire body of work a tragic vision of which I was not completely aware before this exhibition but which I cannot now deny. Even his iconic images of Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, often read as clichés of beauty and fashion, are marked by death: Jackie was mourning her husband's death when Warhol depicted her serene beauty, and he made the Marilyn prints after she had committed suicide. There is a profound tension between the beautiful surfaces of Warhol's (often gigantic) works and the underlying tragedy of death.
Peter-Klaus Schuster's essay in the catalogue makes that tension explicit. In "Warhol and Goya," he compares the Spaniard's famous "Disasters of War" etchings to Warhol's "disasters of peace." Schuster argues that "Death holds court at the very heart of the consumer paradise; consumerism is the modern Vanitas, with the sanction of the market economy." If readers find this comparison aesthetically sacrilegious, consider that Goya advertised his "Disasters of War" etchings in a local newspaper and sold them at a perfume-and-liquor store in Madrid.
Warhol's most powerful and haunting disaster images are those of the anonymous souls, captured by photojournalists, who perished in car accidents or suicides. About them Warhol observed that he thought it important to memorialize these nameless people, whom he found combing through newspapers and photo archives. These images are infused with a somber humanity strikingly at odds with the celebrity culture that adores Warhol (and which, it must be said, he helped to create). Warhol's disasters, Schuster says, are best understood "not as a critique of a callous, unjust society but as a critique of the media message, and of the attendant desensitization and dehumanization of public consciousness"—a point not without specific application in the media frenzies of the evangelical subculture.
We have been encouraged to suppose that Warhol's most famous statement—"in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes"—was somehow the artist's celebration of such a state. But in reality, Warhol was bemoaning the loss of individuality under the impact of the mass media. Elsewhere, Warhol observed, "Some day everybody will think just what they want to think, and then everybody will probably be thinking alike; that seems to be what is happening."
I found Varnedoe's conclusion about Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans applicable to the artist's entire body of work: "art does not need to be deep to be profound." Warhol's work also shows how art can have spiritual value without being explicitly religious. As George Steiner has written, to experience art is a risk, for we offer art—the embodied "other"—the run of our house, challenging us in ways we cannot even conceive by gaining access to the "freedom of our inner city." In a trendy contemporary art space in the most self-consciously hip city in the world, the works on the walls, in their overwhelming totality, had their way with my "inner city." I look forward to learning what this other Warhol will do to me as an art historian, museum curator, and evangelical.
Daniel A. Siedell is curator of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden at the University of Nebraska.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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