Not being one for bandwagons, I debated whether to write about ”Andy Warhol Retrospective“ opening this weekend at MOCA. Staged with massive corporate underwriting from Merrill Lynch and American Express, proactive support from the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, and a quarter million dollars in L.A. taxpayers‘ money (at a time when the artist-friendly Cultural Affairs Department is undergoing fiscal menace from the Mayor’s Office), the Warhol show is a collective calculated bid for the kind of success garnered by LACMA‘s 1999 foray into Blockbusterism with ”Van Gogh’s Van Goghs,“ and a naked stab at revitalizing the moribund post-911 tourist industry. Altogether creepy. But the bottom line is access. Whatever machinations and cultural bloat were involved in bringing this exhibit (reconfigured from one curated by Heiner Bastian for the New National Gallery in Berlin) to L.A. for the summer, it is worth it if only to give Angelenos a chance to spend time face to face with this work.
The temptation to take Andy Warhol at face value is almost irresistible. It‘s all he ever wanted (as he stated and restated throughout his career), and the work itself is perhaps the most elaborate and winning exploration of superficiality this side of the collected oeuvre of Sherwood (Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch) Schwartz. For those willing to pursue this line of thought to its extreme, entire new vistas of shallowness may open before them. But most are satisfied with one pat story or another:
1. Andy the crass but subtle market manipulator hitching his wagon to the already careering visual juggernaut of the multimillion-dollar advertising industry from which he emerged. Advertising is essentially the application of art technique to the imprinting of specific visual cues (i.e., a trademark or other brand identity) with positive emotional connotations and a desire to possess. Andy‘s work (and, to a lesser degree, the rest of Pop Art) tapped into this previously hard-wired neural programming, and the resulting media obeisance made Jackson Pollock’s Life magazine success look like small potatoes. Andy courted the limelight until Valerie Solanis nailed his celebrity status and set Andy free to consolidate his market share, diversify into magazine publishing, and retire to a life of gilded nightclubbing and occasional court portraiture.
2. Andy the closet revolutionary, using his well-honed ”passing“ skills to skewer one late-capitalist cliche about art and artists after another. Reclaiming Art for the Pink Team (and the tolerance for which it stands) after those dirty GI bills with their drunken homophobic splosher parties had rarified it into an inert propaganda tool of Western ”freedom,“ and something for second-generation billionaire industrialists still afflicted with Paris envy to blow their inheritance on. The ultimate success of Warhol‘s assault on the capitalist citadel was in his very acceptance on this level: disdainfully feeding the parasitical ruling class the lowest byproduct of their own thought-policing machinery, and convincing them it was caviar.
For those who need a cud to chew while trancing out in front of the pretty pictures, God bless them, one of these cliches is usually more than enough. Both turn on the first-generation self-reflexive plausible deniability of the ”put-on“ — irony so ironic that it is indistinguishable from the non-ironic (there was a time, Before Andy, when this was not a given in any cultural exchange). Both are convincing arguments, and, for all anyone knows, true. Both also shortchange Andy as a philosopher of applied ambivalence on a par with Lao-tzu, as well as a visual artist engaging intimately with both the history of image making and its place in contemporary society.
”Andy Warhol Retrospective“ is a self-proclaimed attempt to solidify Warhol’s position as an embodiment of Modernism, rather than as a thorn in its side. Although Warhol‘s art-historical references and parallels are the stuff of innumerable graduate theses, the exhibition’s argument is made primarily in the form of art — a careful selection of Warhol‘s most powerful pieces from his early Ben Shahnisms to his final flurry of work derived from Leonardo’s Last Supper. In spite of the unfortunate absence of the seminal Campbell‘s Soup Cans of 1962 — Warhol’s most important link to Los Angeles (where they first showed) and probably the most important work of Pop Art — the impression is, indeed, that Warhol was enormously gifted as a formal visual artist, producing staggeringly effective paintings in terms of scale, composition and color while taking the flatness of the picture plane to its ultrathin, filmic extreme. The recognition of his seemingly offhand formalist virtuosity is an important cornerstone to Warhol‘s acceptance in the canon, and delivered up here with skill and force. But it isn’t the whole story by a long shot.
One of Andy‘s central themes was Originality; in practical terms, how much of the process of art making could be removed from that category of phenomena and still result in Works of Art? By first taking images from the lowest of mass media, then taking any three-quarters-baked suggestion that came his way (Hey Andy, paint soup cans! Okay. Paint money! Okay. Paint flowers! Okay. Paint death! Okay), then having other artists take responsibility for the actual physical and even conceptual realization of his work, then ultimately having physical stand-ins represent him (in a signature blond wig) at academic speaking engagements, Andy appeared to have negated any input from the artist as actual sentient being, shifting the onus of originality onto the work’s reception, its perception by the public and its portrayal in the media. In this sense, the Warhol show at MOCA (along with any other concerted public endorsement of the validity of Warhol‘s ”de-skilled“ objects) can be seen as an actual living artwork, a collaborative posthumous social sculpture on the theme of how something is declared to be an original work of art.
Nevertheless, the exhibit’s emphasis on traditional fine-art objects gives short shrift to the central role Andy played in the dematerialization of such artifacts as repositories of cultural meaning, to the removal of authorial intent from the creation of artworks (more often attributed to John Cage), and to the inversion of cultural center and margin that resulted from the popularity of camp. If Warhol was, in fact, solely concerned with creating attractive wall decorations and obtaining and protecting conventional economic advantage, it actually strengthens the argument for him as a brilliantly far-sighted original. Even today, recently established artists are loath to give up a successfully marketed signature style in their work. Going from apartment-size acrylics on canvas of shiny consumer objects to static eight-hour films of the Empire State Building (not to mention the helium-filled Mylar cushions hovering in Castelli‘s cow-wallpaper-lined gallery) wasn’t exactly the self-evident Machiavellian career move it seems in hindsight. To have taken on the Art World on its own labyrinthine socioeconomic terms and sussed out a plan of conquest involving playing den mother to a gaggle of bulimic transvestites on speed, making films like Taylor Mead‘s Ass and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and spending years doing garish assembly-line portraits of anyone with 10,000 bucks is in itself an amazing feat of visionary aesthetic prescience.
One of the signs of Warhol‘s importance beyond his deserved slot as one of the pantheon of sure-fire box-office Modernist celebrities is the fact that nobody agrees on his significance. His deadpan acquiescence to any and all interpretations of his work (while steadfastly maintaining its superficiality) continues to ensure that a conclusive reading of his work remains beyond the horizon. The ability to accommodate these extremes within such an overarching neutrality is central to Warhol’s importance. It isn‘t Andy No. 1 or Andy No. 2 that is remarkable, but all the possible Andys, simultaneous and superimposed — without affect and utterly flat. But none of this would have had the least impact if the work had not been rich and accomplished, cool and unflinching, beautiful and funny. Take advantage of the hype and enjoy this art on as many superficial levels you can.