Monday, June 8, 2020

Andy Warhol

has come to mind because of a long article about him in this week's New Yorker. Ostensibly a review of a new biography, it's one of those which is more an opportunity for the reviewer to pontificate on the book's topic. So that in turn makes this my opportunity.

I never paid much attention to Warhol while he lived, nor knew much about him until I visited the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh some years ago. Warhol had left Pittsburgh for New York as soon as he possibly could, and never returned, not even for his mother's funeral. He tended to fictionalize his own life, and sometimes even claimed he was from somewhere else. That being so, it's impressive how effectively Pittsburgh has been able to reclaim him posthumously as a distinguished native son.

The article says that the reigning abstract expressionist school of art despised Warhol. Willem de Kooning once said to him, "You're a killer of art, you're a killer of beauty, you're even a killer of laughter." That seems to me a highly misplaced charge. First, I don't think abstract expressionists have any standing to call somebody else a killer of beauty. And a killer of laughter is the last thing Warhol is.

What I most learned from immersing myself in Warholia at the museum is that his work is primarily goofy. It's intended to be fun, to arouse laughter. I got the same impression when I was sent to review a concert celebrating Fluxus, the performance art movement that flourished at the same time. A description makes it sound like pretentious nonsense. In fact I found it funny, and it seemed to me the whole audience was there to have a good time. It wasn't music, though it was framed as that; similarly, I find it hard to parse Warhol's most characteristic work as visual art in the conventional sense. It's something else, something that he invented.

His commercial illustrations, mostly for women's clothing catalogs, from the 1950s, were art if not high art (I suspect this background is what most irritated the abstract expressionists about Warhol). What struck me about these, when I saw them at the museum, is the similarity of his delicate and rather offbeat line to the early art of Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer, both of whom were almost exactly the same age as Warhol and got started at the same time. Sendak, like Warhol, then went off and did something else, while Feiffer delved deeper into the wandering style and created something new that way. Is there a school or period style here I'm otherwise unaware of?

At the museum, I bought - but it may have disappeared when my travel bag was stolen a couple years ago - a button with a photo of Warhol's distinctive face surrounded by the words, "Your 15 Minutes Are Up." Perhaps Warhol needs cultural revival, because I find most people don't get the reference.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is a very good call. I remember seeing a Warhol piece at the LA County Art Museum, must be almost 50 years ago, that was basically a line of showerheads raining water over plastic painted to look like trees that I instantly fell in love with. I don't know what it "meant," but it was delightful.