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Happy Birthday, Andy 

Warhol, the prince of dark comedy, at 70

Wednesday, Aug 5 1998
August 6 would have been Andy Warhol's 70th birthday, and while it's not that hard to imagine him at that age - he always seemed slightly senile - it's easy to forget that he's no longer around. Eleven years after his death, the silver-wigged wonder is as ubiquitous as ever. The subject of recent films as well as art exhibitions here and in Europe, Warhol remains the reigning king of ice-cold cool and, after Norman Rockwell, the best-known artist in America. Yet he deserves to be remembered, with all due respect, first and foremost as a deadpan comedian, a pop philosopher with a sense of humor as democratic as Will Rogers' - but instead of serving up homespun wisdom, Warhol played on doubt and uncertainty.

Art museums, of course, have a way of killing jokes, and Warhol's work has been so institutionally enshrined that it's hard to see much of its humor anymore. Now he is revered for his canny soup cans, enigmatic Marilyns and (most recently) fashion-world connections, but Warhol himself always placed a premium on the value of a good wisecrack. "If I went to a lady of the night, I'd probably pay her to tell me jokes," he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. "I'd rather laugh in bed than do it." He also maintained that "if a person isn't generally considered beautiful, they can still be a success if they have a few jokes in their pockets. And a lot of pockets."

Andy was never considered beautiful, but he knew how to pocket things he could use, even his pockmarked and homely visage, which he transformed into an international trademark. That unblinking and ghostly mask is one of the reasons it's easy to forget he's gone - ever since he started wearing a hairpiece as a 23-year-old, he'd cultivated a kind of deathless appearance. That early decision to go gray is a classic example of Warholian wit. As he noted later, looking older was strategically advantageous for several reasons: 1) He would have "old problems," which were easier to deal with than young ones; 2) everyone would be impressed by how comparatively youthful his movements and gestures seemed; and 3) if he lapsed into eccentricity or senility, no one would think anything of it.

Like Campbell's Soup, Warhol's humor came in several varieties, but a contrarian spirit underlines many of his best art-world jokes. Tired of encountering insomniac speed freaks in the early 1960s, he made Sleep, a movie that consists entirely of an actor sleeping through the night. Invited by architect Philip Johnson to decorate the facade of the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, Warhol decided that state government would be best represented by a grid of criminal mugshots. When George McGovern asked him to do a poster for his presidential campaign, Warhol responded by doing a portrait of a suspicious-looking Richard Nixon. And a little later, during the late-'70s Neo-Expressionism revival, Warhol parodied the macho brush strokes of then-fashionable artists in a series of paintings made by some friends pissing on oxidized surfaces, wielding their penises as paintbrushes.

As with a lot of good jokes that don't have punch lines, you probably had to be there to get the full impact of Warhol's wit, because it typically played off a specific context. This was particularly true with some of his early works that poked fun at the holy myths of Abstract Expressionism. With his 1962 Dance Diagrams, a follow-the-shoe-print gag originally exhibited on a horizontal platform, Warhol seemed to parody critic Harold Rosenberg's famous dictum that for Abstract Expressionists (or "action painters," as he dubbed them) the "canvas was an arena in which to act." By using illustrations for outmoded dances like the tango and fox trot, Warhol invited the viewer to dance on the grave of the art rituals Rosenberg championed. In an image-driven consumer society, the painter was no action hero, but a semi-comic figure doing an outdated shuffle.

The heart of Warhol's pop humor sprang from a realization that there was little difference between the avant-garde's "tradition of the new" and the "permanent revolution" (in Henry Luce's phrase) of American business culture. While other artists bemoaned the crassness of mass media or the intrusive pressures of the marketplace, Warhol approached the situation with comedic detachment: If art was going to be treated like any other commodity, the only humorous option was to start a Factory of one's own. With tongue only half in cheek, he went out of his way to declare his capitalist spirit. In 1966, long before the current vogue for celebrity spokespersons, he placed an ad in The Village Voice proclaiming his willingness to endorse "any of the following: clothing, AC-DC, cigarettes, small tapes, sound equipment, Rock 'N Roll records, anything, film and film equipment, Food, Helium, WHIPS, Money."

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