Silver Clouds

ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 11, I WAS standing next to the Brooklyn Bridge when the first tower fell, close enough to feel the shockwave, to absorb the burnt-plastic reek that had already begun to make its way across the river, to hear the terrible, distant roar. Twenty-five minutes later, I saw the second tower collapse. As far as I know, it was the first disaster in human history to appear in signed multiples; a tragedy in the age of mechanical reproduction.

A week later, when I reached the other side of the George Washington Bridge, my truck practically drove itself toward downtown Pittsburgh and the Warhol Museum, a museum dedicated to the artist most likely to have been able to make sense out of what I had just seen.

I have never really been a particular fan of Andy Warhol, from the Brillo boxes to the Day-Glo ephemera to the hideous paint-by-numbers portraits of wealthy socialites. At the time I began seriously to care about art, the work of my heroes -- Chris Burden, Eva Hesse, Vito Acconci -- seemed almost violently opposed to the Warhol aesthetic of art as commodity, studio as mass-production factory. And I found it dismaying that Warhol had been able to install the Mick-Liza-Halston celebrity-worship thing at the center of popular culture as casually as another artist might have hung a painting.

But Warhol understood celebrity as nobody else ever has, understood that flattened out, colorized and whomped upon a magazine page or a television screen, Mao equaled JFK, Ronald Reagan was the same as Liz Taylor, and a peony was as compelling as an auto accident was as compelling as a can of soup: all pure, glowing image.

A few days earlier in New York City, the World Trade Center tragedy had been made of smoke and dust and shattered bodies, but only a few miles into New Jersey it already seemed like a Warholian construct, a single searing image of a safety-orange fireball outlined against a bright, cloudless sky, an image broadcast so relentlessly as to have practically superseded the event itself.

The Warhol Museum was exactly the right place to escape -- the gentleness of the Silver Clouds room filled with floating Mylar balloons, the witty drawings of shoes, the baronial portraits of movie stars and bankers' wives, the videotapes starring Viva and Joe Dallesandro. There was a big room full of Warhol's "Time Capsules," cardboard boxes of newspaper clippings and fan letters and invitations to parties at the Mud Club that Warhol saved for inspiration. There was even a hall dedicated to Warhol's cow wallpaper, vivid puce Elsies floating in a sea of pulsing yellow. Especially compared to the chilly, overintellectualized paintings of current culture hero Gerhard Richter, whose work is exactly what you might think of if somebody asked you to postulate a German Warhol -- a Warhol without the fun -- the Warhol Museum was a gas, just the sort of thing the wan, unathletic teenage Andrew Warhola might have dreamed of springing on his jock-worshiping, ketchup-intensive hometown.

But as I drove away along Pennsylvania back roads, past Civil War­era graveyards newly bright with bunting and knee-high lines of flags extending for miles through fields, listening to thumping patriotic messages sandwiched between radio sets of Limp Bizkit and Judas Priest, I kept imagining that image of the World Trade Center transformed by Warhol into canvas and paint, exploding magenta and lime-green covering a gallery wall. At the beginning of this century, we all see through Warholian eyes.

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