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Warhol-by-Numbers 

Wednesday, May 22 2002
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Do It Yourself (Seascape), 1962

Acrylic paint, pencil and Letraset on canvas, 58 38 x 72 in.

Stiftung Sammlung Marx, Hamburger Bahnhof

Museum fur Gegenwart, Berlin

a Andy was a very funny guy, and his digs at the rules and conventions of the art world -- from the blown-up paint-by-number images of 1962 to the ruthless 1978 Oxidation Painting (made by pissing gesturally onto a painted copper surface) -- constitute an arch art education in themselves. What comes as a surprise is their uniform gorgeousness as pictures, and the more serious readings they support -- in this case the hidden classism and elitism in the dismissal of paint-by-numbers as kitsch, and Warhol’s first use of an emblematic negation of artistic originality.

Elvis Presley (Gold Boot), 1956

Ink, gold leaf and collage on paper, 20 x 14 in.

Collection Stephanie Seymore Brant

Courtesy the Brant Foundation, Greenwich, Connecticut

a In 1956, Warhol is near the top of his profession -- an acclaimed and sought-after graphic -designer whose delicate, blotchy line drawings grace book covers and record sleeves, and whose ad campaign for I. Miller shoes wins industry awards. His drawings are being published in promotional book form and shown in galleries, receiving mention (albeit negative) in Life magazine, but Andy isn‘t satisfied. He restlessly embarks on an ill-fated pleasure trip to Asia and Europe, and gets a nose job. This ornate gold-leaf drawing of a boot, labeled ”Elvis Presley,“ is typical of the almost innocent decadence that suffused Warhol’s early work, but hints at the obsession with celebrity and the use of gaze-deflecting metallic materials (verboten in the art world at the time) that recurred throughout his career.

Where Is Your Rupture?, 1960

Casein on canvas, 69 34 x 54 in.

Private collection, Germany

a Almost didn‘t see this one amidst the surrounding calls for laser vaginal rejuvenation? Warhol’s first body of work that can be creditably called ”Pop“ is concerned not with cans, bottles and boxes, but the human body. Derived from small ads in the back of pulp magazines, works like Rupture and Before and After, along with the quickly abandoned comic-strip paintings, constitute Warhol‘s first attempt to bring the vernacular visual underground of commercial print media to the forefront of visual culture. Rupture also brings to the surface Warhol’s always lurking concern about containment and the body, and seems oddly prescient about his near-fatal abdominal shooting in 1968 and death during botched gall-bladder surgery in 1987.

Woman Suicide, 1963

Silkscreen ink on canvas, 123 14 x 83 in.

Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf

a Shortly after Warhol strikes upon the idea of using photographic silkscreens to further depersonalize his painting process, MoMA contemporary curator Henry Geldzahler suggests he start painting less cheerful images. The resulting ”Death and Disaster“ paintings compose one of Warhol‘s most highly regarded bodies of work. This work, while less well-known than the Electric Chair or Car Crash series, emphasizes the visual formalism that gives the Disaster pictures their enormous impact. Warhol’s ability to encompass the darkest aspects of human experience within his serial, mechanical flatness is nowhere more clearly demonstrated.

Mao, 1973

Silkscreen ink and acrylic paint on canvas, 176 12 x 136 14 in.

Stiftung Sammlung Marx, Hamburger Bahnhof

Museum fur Gegenwart, Berlin

a Warhol‘s portraits of Chairman Mao are created at a time when both the artist and the supreme commander are losing their cultural cachet. Ugly stories about the Chinese Cultural Revolution diminish Mao’s credibility with whatever‘s left of the Left in America, and Andy’s post-shooting withdrawal into seclusion and return to painting make him last month‘s outrageous art star, as Robert Smithson and Chris Burden step up to the plate. Nevertheless, these enormous canvases, made for a museum exhibit in Paris, show the artist in top form. The ambivalence of Warhol’s politics becomes hugely provocative in the context of commie-riddled Frogland, and the series single-handedly addresses the industrially spurred, ad-like proliferation of imagery outside the capitalist world. Moreover, the Maos mark the introduction of hand-painting to the previously mechanically reductive silkscreens, abandoning the somewhat puritanical transcendentalism of the ‘60s for a postmodern hybridity that would carry Andy to the end of his career.

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