“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” Andy Warhol
Back in the early sixties Andy made a shift. As a commercial artist Andy’s work had been hand drawn from photos in a labored, blotted “New Yorker Magazine” style – somewhere between Beardsley, Cocteau, Steinberg and high fashion illustration – which made for a comfortable living and gave him introductions to the “in-crowd.” But his ambitions, both personal and artistic, were much larger than illustration, and he knew that this type of work would never excite the new society that was just beginning to push forward. In the art world at this time artists realized that ABEX had become a form of mannered physical paint handling. The new artists were having a field day challenging the overblown rhetoric of the Action Painters. Andy was enthralled with this scene and had been trying to ingratiate himself with the new artists – particularly Rauschenberg and Johns – buying their work, going to openings and schmoozing with art dealers. He wanted to be a part of this art moment, however, he had yet to determine what his work would look like. Andy was not an historian, an intellectual like Johns or Rauschenberg. He would not, could not take on that past, not even the recent past in the same way that they had, and so his early works paid little attention to the history of painting. He knew that his work would have to be about this time, this new face of popular culture. For Andy, the great Postmodernist, painting would be different.
Let’s start with Warhol’s dictum – “I want to be a machine.” But what kind of machine? Andy would use the mechanics behind the popular culture industry, and being a part of that industry, he was intimate with its functions. The production end of popular culture is a “readymade” tool in the sense that multiple mechanisms of production exist in depth, they are cheap and efficient to apply and they are readily accessible to everyone. For Andy it made perfect sense to use those familiar tools. He did not have to invent “the machine,” the technique or the style as so many Modernist painters did – the pictorial concept was included in the lens itself. In the printing industry most machines for reproductions are inexorably tied to lenses, and it is the lens that has been responsible for the massive proliferation of Popular Culture. Lens culture, powered by electronics, quickly became not only the means to capture images, but the means to reproduce, manufacture, manipulate and project those images as well. Warhol, who spent his youth transfixed by the endless photographic iconography produced by Hollywood, understood that these lens images are transformative. The lens brought fame, fortune, glamor and power to those who could control and frame their existences through its programs. Warhol’s bid to fashion himself as Art’s transformative machine starts with his use of the Overhead Projector.
What’s groundbreaking in these early works is Andy’s insistence on isolating banal newspaper advertising and realizing it as fullblown history painting. These paintings weren’t done in the academic fashion of realist painting where the mundane world is somehow made miraculous with painterly skill. Robert Henri‘s command to paint the everyday world is not the point. Nor is he commenting directly about the everyday events of his time as the Cubists did. They displayed high and low together by including actual newsprint in their collages in an effort to obtain a poetic visual metaphor. Warhol simply focuses on the banal image used to illustrate a product then blows it up to heroic painterly proportions. There are no value judgments, no poetic inferences about the image, no elevation of the subject, only lens reproduction and mechanical assimilation. Underlying this process is the facility of the lens machine, the easy way it can instantly change the context of an image. Warhol’s machine easily reproduces any illustration that has been created for use by other machines. Graphic line drawings of water heaters or windows, cans of peaches, soda pop, wigs or comics from daily newspapers, photographs of ephemera are all simply banal documentation, schematics, rudimentary image maps of mundane products. Once projected, Andy quickly outlined these images, his paint dripped, he scrubbed in some areas with pencil or color, he left others blank, he allowed his hand to unmake the reproduction while remaking the projected image into a painting. In one fell swoop the banal becomes a new art form, a glamorized event, a lens driven action painting reduced to its physical components. This process removes any ABEX pretensions to high art (such as “action” or “emotion”) through the offhand application of the paint and the scaled portrayal of the ordinary image. He traces outlines reproducing the image without contemplating the subject. In other words, he scans rather than contemplates – he isn’t visually quantifying the rising subject. He is simply another lens machine reproducing the banal by repeating a programmed process – a process of surfaces. These first works ushered in an era where the lens would direct the act of painting in a way that it had never done before.
We might go on about Andy’s subject matter, but it’s been done much better by others. Glamor, fame, iconography, products, Hollywood, etc – these are all subjects of Popular Culture and we will take them up in another post. However, what we really want to understand is how Andy’s methods for transforming those Popular Culture subjects into “High Art” changed the way we interpret what art is, particularly in our Postmodern art world. As POMO has spread into our culture we have accepted and incorporated its most used technique – appropriation – into our everyday studio practices. Warhol was among the first to use this technique in such a deadpan way. Most all of his early images, the ones that were his subject matter, the ones that made him famous, were not produced by him, they were not lived by him. Those images were already public domain, public memories, false histories – easily reproduced, easily disseminated and instantly recognized. In Postmodern culture the found image is an accident, one receives it, stumbles upon it, but it is instantly known, because it is not distinct, it is not specific, it is generic, an avatar. We Postmoderns appropriate what we are not, we graft other public iconographies, other cultural memories into our lives. We present them as if they are our own, that we have experienced them, that we’ve lived them. As Hockney said in Secret Knowledge, “We thought we saw the 20th Century on the news, [in] film, and elsewhere, better than any previous century, although we could say we didn’t see it all – the camera did.” So it comes down to the idea that everything seen through a lens is a lived memory, that we know the the people in the image, that we can have the product, that we exist as a real component in this media. Art then is presented, contextualized through our collective experience – we appropriate and re-present the collective subjective as personal subjective – we become taste makers rather than innovators. The appropriation technique of using “found images” continues to be practiced in today’s art world. On the left is Richard Prince’s painting “Mission Nurse” from 2002. Prince executed this series of pulp fiction paperback covers as Andy did in the above examples. Today we have computers and photoshop to accomplish this task, so Prince may have used a computer and a printer instead of direct overhead overlays, but the lens reproduction and the conceptual approach is the same. His subject matter doesn’t move beyond the obvious Pop Culture associations – these illustrations detail pot boiler story lines, slightly risque media sexuality, banal and predictable figuration all wrapped up with a large gooey wad of nostalgia. Prince then resurfaces those covers customizing the reproduction. He handles the paint, he scratches the line, but ultimately, this painterly customization adds nothing to Warhol’s machine except empty painterly mannerisms. Andy’s conceptual practice in this case has been appropriated and reproduced – a Postmodern machine reproducing a Pop machine. 40 years separate these works, and yet, they both address the same conceptual issues of reproduction and lens based programming in the same way. Postmodernism and Popular Culture, are the collective mind, the false history, the always already, and what we continue to reproduce in our studios is this type of stylization and customization.
Warhol is truly a pivotal and protean figure in the history of contemporary art. With Warhol the concepts of high and low implode, there are no longer distinctions of meaning – every image can be manipulated, every image can be packaged. All the old requirements for innovating and making art are completely beside the point. We will be covering this in our next post on High and Low.