• U.S.

Art: Man for the Machine

8 minute read
Robert Hughes

It is an immigrant’s face. In times past, thousands like it—high cheekbones, timid eyes poked like currants into a doughy Slavic mask, pale from weeks in steerage—streamed through Ellis Island. Add shades, a black jacket and dyed silver hair and you have America’s perverse Huck Finn, son of Mrs. Julia Warhola from Mikova, Czechoslovakia—a face that, after Picasso’s monkey visage, is perhaps the most instantly recognizable in art today.

The man’s popularity is bizarre; his work, in one sense, is not popular at all. You cannot go into a department store and buy a print of a Warhol. But go down a couple of floors and they proliferate among the groceries: row after row of Brillo cartons, absurd ziggurats of Mott’s apple juice and Del Monte peaches towering up under the flat strip lighting. By now nobody who has seen a Warhol can enter a supermarket without the hallucinatory and even monstrous feeling that life is imitating art and that the principle of repetition and meaningless abundance on which Warhol’s work is based has created its own landscape, as surely as Cezanne’s brush “created” the expectations with which one might drive to Mont Sainte-Victoire. But the America of mass consumption has not been changed; only signed, and in invisible ink.

Some gestures of love seem intolerable. The hardest thing to accept in Warhol’s passive and ecstatically sanitary affair with the mass product is that he really does love his subject matter. Once granted that he does, his work—in all its range, from Marilyn’s face to electric chairs—assumes a startling consistency. His landscape of the American artifact, and the event-as-artifact of the news photo, has a dense and theatrical immediacy. He has in effect christened an area of American experience that had no name in art before.

Being Someone. Painting a soup can is not in itself a radical act. But what was radical in Warhol was that he adapted the means of production of soup cans to the way he produced paintings, turning them out en masse—consumer art mimicking the process as well as the look of consumer culture. This was a startling act of confrontation. Here, Warhol was saying, is the world you inhabit but do not see. High art is your escape route from its crudities. But why escape? Why not accept it as your cultural ground, he demanded, since “pop art is liking things.” Says Andy with utter sincerity: “I want to be a machine” —which to him means never to make choices. Warhol’s machinery is that of a receiving station.

Next to Picasso and that camping St. John of the Cheque, Salvador Dali, Warhol is the supreme example of the artist-as-celebrity. “In the future,” he once remarked, “everyone will be famous for at least 15 minutes.” Warhol’s own 15 minutes has been very long. His fame is self-replicating: like a perpetual-motion machine, it grinds on amid the iridescent cavorting of his superstars and the thump of heavy, if rigged auction prices ($60,000 from a Swiss dealer for a Campbell’s soup can recently). It has reached the point where Warhol is not so much famous for doing something—he rarely turns out any paintings beyond a few commissioned portraits a year, and no longer directs his own films—as for being someone named Andy Warhol.

Inevitably, any of his shows becomes an event bordering on theater. So it is with his current “retrospective” at the Whitney Museum, which, when it opened last week, proved to be no retrospective at all but a tiny sampling of his work on canvas from 1962 to 1971, hived off from a larger, more systematic show that Critic John Coplans organized for the Pasadena Art Museum last year and has since been touring Europe to near-hysterical acclaim. The Whitney show starts with a series of the soup cans that propelled Warhol into notoriety. But earlier sequences are not present, which is unfortunate, since it denies viewers the chance to follow Warhol’s extraordinary range in his exploration of impersonality, and one gets little sense of the roots of his style. For instance, the Do It Yourself pastiches of painting-by-number-kits are excluded. These, with their sharp colors and cunning placement, are among the most formally beautiful things Warhol has made—besides providing added testaments to Warhol’s literal belief in the endless reproducibility of art.

Instead, at Warhol’s own insistence, the towering walls of the main gallery are hung, floor to ceiling, with Warhol’s fuchsia cow wallpaper, in whose garish and assertive surface the paintings all but drown. A gesture of contempt for his past work? Not quite. This is Warhol’s aesthetic of noninvolvement and repetition shoved to another extreme, to the suggestion that a hierarchy of images with a particular “masterpiece” perched on top makes no sense to him. The gross mooing of those cows in the Whitney china shop may also remind viewers of how insulated is the environment, somewhere between chapel and hothouse, in which art is normally presented.

Disappearing Act. Warhol’s historical importance is beyond question, if such things are measured by a man’s effect on other artists. The use of multiple and serial images, of mechanical reproduction, of systematic banality seen as an absolute—most of this either originates in Warhol’s paintings or passes through them en route from Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg. But to a wider public, which still measures art in terms of sensuous enjoyability and a man’s claim to be an artist by the vim with which he “expresses himself,” Warhol is a baffling creature—mainly because his message is that he has no self to express. He names, rather than evaluates. His work is thus one long strategy of self-effacement, a disappearing act behind the gaudy colors and aggressively banal subject matter. Hence the paradox of his enormous fame. He is “a personality” with no personality, transparent as air, and no artist today can be sure he is not breathing him.

To look at an image like Campbell’s Soup Can, 1965, is not to see it through Warhol’s eyes—he has eliminated all idiosyncrasies. There is no contagion of personality. What remains is the flat, mute face of an actuality presented as meaning nothing beyond itself. When Warhol’s series of cans, dollar bills, stickers and movie stars appeared in the early and middle ’60s, they were thought ironic, an indictment of consumer culture; and a Goyaesque mordancy was attributed to his silk-screen portraits. Because it was deemed improper for an artist to be so drawn to what was decadent, ephemeral or trashy, it was assumed that Warhol was being ironic. But irony is intervention, between perceiver and the perceived, and Warhol does not intervene in that way. In reality, Marilyn and Liz, with their peacock masks of off-register color, seem rather to be the products of wistful affection. They reflect the same gee-whiz obsession with glamour and stardom that led Warhol to create the legendary, shifting entourage of drag queens, raucous juvenile models and human parrot fish who, entering a room in a cloud of sequins and patchouli, take the strain of flamboyancy off the Master’s back. Warhol’s id vanishes behind his circus as his ego does behind his paintings.

At the same time, Warhol’s sense of the ripeness of a moment is exquisite: since he lives in media and feeds off publicity, it has to be. (He has, in fact, been upstaged only once, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated just two days after Valerie Solanas shot Warhol.) His activity as painter went on over a decade when American society was expending vast energies in self-scrutiny. In 1950, a photo of a dead duck on a beach was a marine still life; by 1970, the same photo was a reference to ecological ruin.

Benumbing News. This process energized Warhol’s images of disaster—the car crashes, the electric chairs, the mushroom clouds and paintings like Red Race Riot, 1963—with singular force. A distillation had been made of the benumbing repetition of bad news in order to show that one should not be numbed. Characteristically, Warhol denied any such slant. Neither approval nor disapproval: the news photographs that produced these silk screens, he claimed, “just happened to be lying around,” and he did not pick them. But why were they lying around? For all his elaborations of cool, Warhol has an apocalyptic side, a vision of interminable, inconclusive and somehow masturbatory disaster to which he adds no comment beyond ornamenting it, running the electric chair through its exotic variations of turquoise, yellow, crimson and green, printing the car crash over and over until the ink grays out like a film flapping off the reel. At such moments, Warhol’s objectivity assumes the character of defeat.

Victory is the province of culture heroes. One of the effects of Warhol’s work that painters will need to grapple with for some time yet is his amoral transparency which has made a heroic role in art look, for the moment, inflated: maybe even impossible.

Robert Hughes

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com