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.”
At its most sublime, humor extolls the world's absurdities, and Pop, as Andy said, was primarily a way of liking things, of finding pleasures amid the aesthetic rubble of postwar consumer culture. And what could be more absurd than an assembly-line product that becomes a symbol of home cooking and motherly love? Campbell's Soup, which Warhol remembered as his family's favorite brand, provided the imagery for his first solo exhibition, held in 1962 at Los Angeles' legendary Ferus Gallery. The installation featured 32 paintings – a number determined not by aesthetic necessity, but by the number of Campbell's flavors – which wrapped around the gallery on a narrow white shelf, evoking a supermarket display. If Campbell's could be art, then was the supermarket a gallery, or the gallery a supermarket? In an era dominated by the metaphysics of advertising, couldn't a soup label be the contemporary equivalent of a religious icon? Warhol always left us hanging for a punch line that never arrived.
The world is a comedy to those who think, Horace Walpole once quipped, and a tragedy to those who feel. Warhol was definitely not in the feeling camp. In his Philosophy, he writes of being on the Bowery after someone had committed suicide by jumping out of a flophouse window. “A crowd went around the body, and then a bum staggered over and said, 'Did you see the comedy across the street?' I'm not saying you should be happy when a person dies,” Warhol concluded, “but just that it's curious to see cases that prove you don't have to be sad about it, depending on what you think it means, and what you think about what you think it means.
“A person can cry or laugh. Always when you're crying you could be laughing, you have the choice.”
That observation, which implies that emotions are manipulated rather than “natural” responses, sums up an entire program of bloodless postmodern wit. It's an outlook that allowed Warhol to transform even an assassination attempt into a comic routine. Sandwiched between the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the attempt on Warhol's life by Valerie Solanas almost seemed like another Warholian parody of a fashion trend. (As an art-world bumper sticker of the day declared, Warhol had found a new way to get back on the critical list.) Recovering in the hospital, the artist commented that the surgery left him looking “like an Yves Saint Laurent dress – I had a lot of stitches.”
One of the things this child of the Great Depression liked most about humor was that it was economical (puns and parodies operate on a two-for-the-price-of-one principle), and Warhol repeatedly linked humor to his work ethic, especially to his camp aesthetic of leftovers. “If you can take [a leftover] and make it good or at least interesting,” he wrote, “then you're not wasting as much as you would otherwise. So that's a very economical operating procedure. It's also the funniest operating procedure because . . . leftovers are inherently funny.”
Warhol felt that everything should be saved; he even envisioned the need for a Smell Museum so that certain smells wouldn't get lost forever. While he never got that project off the ground, in 1970 he guest-curated a wry exhibition of “leftovers,” playfully titled “Raid the Icebox,” at the Rhode Island School of Design museum. Raiding the museum's vaults, he exhibited the flotsam and dross of its collection: a partially cleaned anonymous portrait; bundles of old magazines still tied in string; unopened old hatboxes. For a final touch, he had a tree, still bound in twine from the nursery, dropped off at the museum's front door, leaving the director to wonder whether Warhol had curated an exhibit of art or storage. Leftovers, it seemed, were particularly funny when you didn't treat them as leftovers, because they became a joke made at the expense of “good taste” and aesthetic hierarchies.
Warhol's appreciation of leftovers was most conspicuous in his films, where, as he often remarked, he used show-business rejects, people whose eccentric talents had been deemed unmarketable. Part of the humor of using such performers was that, in a society fueled by calculated images of success, their utter failure was paradoxically perfect. “If you can't get someone who's perfectly right for a part, it's more satisfying to get someone who's perfectly wrong,” Andy declared. “Then you know you've really got something.”
On one level, Warhol's cultivation of misfit “superstars” parodied the Hollywood studio system. By repackaging audition rejects as underground film legends, he drolly suggested that charisma is not some innate “star quality” possessed only by a special few, but an effect generated by publicity machines – a factory product, in other words. His leftover humor was also infused with a certain low-key pathos: It was a way of redeeming society's marginals, characters suffering from terminal cases of rejectionitis. As he once commented, you had to love these people more because they loved themselves less.
Andy was a master at self-parody as well, and perhaps his whole public persona should be seen in that light. But then the question arises: Which persona? Much like Garbo, Warhol carefully maintained a Rorschach-like facade, and the terminal point of his wit may well be his 1984 untitled Rorschach series, which seemed to poke fun not only at the responses inspired by his persona, but at the critical overinterpretation of his work. See what you like, he seemed to imply. Laugh or cry, there's no inherent meaning in these shapes and colors other than what you provide.
Therein lies the raison d'etre of Warholian wit – to make us wonder if what we see is truly all we get. In this same vein, he was cannily adept at creating doubt about his own “seriousness” as an artist. What other cultural giant, after all, ever appeared on an episode of The Love Boat? (It was an ironic cameo for a man who defined love as what happens “when some of the chemicals inside you go bad.”) At times he even seemed to encourage people to dismiss his work as superficial, if not morally repugnant. (The critic Robert Hughes once memorably unleashed a torrent of indignation at Warhol's series “Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century,” claiming Warhol was trafficking in “Jew prints” as others might in bird, dog or hunting prints.) When, in his book Exposures, Warhol described someone as fascinating “because you absolutely couldn't tell if he was a genius or a retard,” he might well have been summing up his own aesthetic strategy.
Perhaps that's why he's still very much with us – we still haven't figured out how to pigeonhole the philosopher who held that buying was more American than thinking. Maybe that's why Andy didn't want to be a leftover when he died; in the end, he wanted to go out anonymously, as just another numbered factory product. “I'd like my tombstone to just say 'figment,'” he maintained. After his death in 1987, his memorial at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral was held, appropriately enough, on April Fool's Day, leaving us to ponder his catalog of jokes, unsure whether to laugh or cry.