Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can’t tell them apart at all
– David Bowie
He was one of the stupidest people I’d ever met in my life. He had nothing to say.
– Robert Hughes
Walking around Transmitting Andy Warhol at Tate Liverpool, I realised I haven’t got much time for Warhol. Oh, I get what he was saying, and I know about his impact on the art world. But looking around this small but well-chosen selection of his work I cannot find one work that really moves or inspires me, nothing that reflects the beauty or the mystery in the world, or speaks to the realities of daily life as experienced by most people now, in our time of austerity.
Robert Hughes, who had no time for Warhol either, pinpointed in The Shock of the New what it was that Warhol had understood and which made him famous: that as we surf the torrent of images by which we are bombarded daily in the media, we recall only those that stand out. That is the nature of celebrity: as Daniel Boorstin said in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1961), the celebrity is famous for being famous.
I sometimes think the day will come when all the modern nations will adore a sort of American god, a god who will have been a man that lived on earth and about whom much will have been written in the popular press; and images of this god will be set up in the churches, not as the imagination of each painter may fancy him, but established, fixed once and for all by photography. On that day civilization will have reached its peak and there will be steam-propelled gondolas in Venice.
– Edmond de Goncourt, Journal, November 1861
Lovely thought (quoted in Hughes’ The Shock of the New), and a century before its time. In the same way, I suppose, that Warhol pre-dated by around a half-century the present obsession with the celebrity – famous only for being famous, having no other reason for their fame, and therefore being easily disposable.
Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962
Many of Warhol’s most celebrated works that comment on celebrity are here: the Marilyns, Elvises, along with the icons of conjoined consumerism (the soup cans, Brillo pads, and Coca-Cola bottles). Particularly when these works were created it was all very clever. As Robert Hughes explained, writing long before the daily tsunami of images that sweeps over us from Facebook, Instagram and more mainstream media:
From television, film and photography we receive a stream of images every day. There is no way of paying equal attention to all that surplus, so we skim. The image we remember is the one that most resembles a sign: simple, clear, repetitious. Everything that the camera gives us is slightly interesting. Not for long; just for now. The extension, on the human level, of this glut of images is celebrity.
The celebrity is gratuitous, disposable. Warhol was ‘the artist who understood this best’. And he became a celebrity as a consequence. But are these works worth looking at for more than a few minutes?
Can you imagine what it would be like getting up in the morning and the first thing you see is the by now unspeakably tedious cliche of Marilyn’s face staring at you?
– Robert Hughes
Andy Warhol, Eight Elvises, 1963
It’s strange to think that Warhol was almost a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire like Joseph Roth, whose Radetzky March I had written about here a couple of days before seeing this exhibition. Warhol’s parents were working-class emigrants from Miková, in north-eastern Slovakia, part of the old Dual Monarchy. Warhol’s father migrated to the United States in 1914, and his mother joined him in 1921. Warhol’s father worked in a coal mine. The family settled in Pittsburgh, and Warhol, the fourth child, was born in 1928. Often bedridden as a child, he became a hypochondriac, where he drew, listened to the radio and collected pictures of film stars.
Andy Warhol, Do it Yourself (Seascape), 1962
It was, states the exhibition blurb, Warhol’s democratic belief that ‘art should be for everyone’. The exhibition demonstrates clearly how Warhol embraced all the mass media of his time – commercial art, print-making, film, and music with the aim of transmitting his ideas and imagery to as many people as possible. In the process, Warhol challenged traditional distinctions between high and low culture.
One illustration of this would be, I guess, his ‘Do It Yourself’ paintings made in the early 1960s. There is one exhibited here – Seascape, from 1962 – which certainly provoked nostalgic childhood memories of the paint-by-numbers sets that were ubiquitous at the time. I remember completing a few myself – the only time I ever handled a paint brush, though no artistic skills ensued as a result. Which would be Warhol’s point, I guess: cocking a snook at the art critics who were dismayed by the phenomenon. Perfect subject matter for Pop Art in Warhol’s eyes. To produce these pictures, Warhol projected the line art from a paint-by-numbers kit onto a large canvas before painting over the guide numbers (he could stay within the lines – I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried; but I still wouldn’t want his on my wall).
Andy Warhol, Love is a Pie, dust jacket, 1953
The most interesting section of the exhibition for me was the room which presented examples from his work as a commercial artist – drawings and illustrations for magazines and books, and designs for book dust jackets and record sleeves. It was also during this time that Warhol designed book covers for publishers such as New Directions, Doubleday, and Simon & Schuster, using innovative methods such as the blotted line technique which involved drawing in ink on non-absorbent paper, hinging a second piece of paper to the drawing, and then re-inking and blotting the first drawing to transfer its contents to the finer-quality sheet. The blotted line gave the work a commercial, printed look, while retaining the feel of freehand drawing.
Andy Warhol, Monk, Prestige, 1956
I knew that Warhol designed some milestone rock album covers in the 1960s and 1970s, including The Velvet Underground & Nico, with the image of the banana that you could peel. What I didn’t know was that, long before he became celebrated as the pioneer of Pop Art, Warhol designed more than 50 album covers for albums of classical music, opera and jazz.
Andy Warhol, The Story of Moondog, Prestige, 1957
Warhol was employed as a freelance designer at the Prestige jazz label where he produced some distinctive album covers, including these two which, interestingly, feature beautiful calligraphy by his mother. She won several awards for her lettering, including one from the American Institute of Graphic Arts for the cover for The Story Moondog.
Her son was soon snapped up by Blue Note, where Reid Miles, the designer who shaped the look of Blue Note from 1956, favoured Warhol’s drawing-based designs. One of the earliest was his expressive design for a Kenny Burrell album – the first of three by the jazz guitarist to be designed by Warhol.
Andy Warhol, Kenny Burrell, Vol. 2, Blue Note, 1957
Andy Warhol, Kenny Burrell, Blue Lights Volume 1, 1958
This is the only time when, at an art exhibition, I have encountered a work by the artist that I once owned – the Rolling Stones LP, Sticky Fingers, of course with the provocative zipper that you could unzip. Stupidly, when I got rid of my vinyl I sold it to Hairy Records on Bold Street for a measly £1.50.
Andy Warhol, Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers, 1971
The Tate exhibition includes a recreation of The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a series of multimedia events organized by Warhol between 1966 and 1967, and featuring musical performances by The Velvet Underground and Nico, screenings of Warhol’s films, and dancing and performances by regulars at Warhol’s Factory in New York. Seeing that reminded me of Warhols Screen Tests – a series of silent film portraits consisting of shots of Factory regulars that lasted for several-minutes. The Screen Tests featured superstars, celebrities, guests, friends, or anyone he thought had star potential. In 1965 one Screen Test recorded an antagonistic encounter between Warhol and Bob Dylan.
Warhol and Dylan: Screen Test, 1965
Dylan turned up at the Factory with his friend, Bob Neuwirth. Dylan was determined to demonstrate his superior cool, while Warhol, star-struck, was determined to get Dylan to appear in a Screen Test. Dylan had a thing going at the time with Warhol’s Factory superstar Edie Sedgwick, and by all accounts took exception to the way she was treated by the artist and his various sycophants (a scenario later documented in ‘Like a Rolling Stone’). So Dylan only played ball reluctantly, the resulting Screen Test being a highly sullen one.
After the filming, Dylan walked over to a large screen-print of Elvis Presley and, according to one eye-witness, said ‘I think I’ll just take this for payment, man.’ Dylan and Neuwirth then carried the seven-foot painting out of the studio and down to the street, where they strapped it onto the roof of their car and drove off. Dylan never liked the painting, Double Elvis, so he exchanged it with his manager, Albert Grossman, for a sofa. It’s now in the Museum of Modern Art.
Andy Warhol’s Screen Test of Bob Dylan (1965)
In 1982, in an article – ‘The Rise of Andy Warhol’ – for the New York Review of Books, Robert Hughes wrote:
Warhol’s output for the last decade has been concerned more with the smooth development of product than with any discernible insights. As Harold Rosenberg remarked, ‘In demonstrating that art today is a commodity of the art market, comparable to the commodities of other specialized markets, Warhol has liquidated the century-old tension between the serious artist and the majority culture.’ It scarcely matters what Warhol paints; for his clientele, only the signature is fully visible. The factory runs, its stream of products is not interrupted, the market dictates its logic. What the clients want is a Warhol, a recognizable product bearing his stamp. Hence any marked deviation from the norm, such as an imaginative connection with the world might produce, would in fact seem freakish and unpleasant: a renunciation of earlier products.
The Art Critics vs Andy Warhol
Really entertaining video mash-up featuring Robert Hughes, Kenneth Clark and Matthew Collings.