There has been a lot of interest in Andy Warhol these last few months. His work lit up the Contemporary sales in New York and several biographies have come out further cementing his position as the most important artist of the late 20th Century and the market leader of the 21st Century. Just because the market valorizes the work, doesn’t guarantee its historical importance. There’s a lot of work that goes into cementing an artist’s importance with curators, collectors and cultural historians. Despite the rote praise for Warhol’s work, not everyone believes Warhol’s work is of lasting importance. Jackie Wullschlager, reviewing several new books about Warhol, tries to explain why Warhol matters in the Financial Times:
When Warhol displayed facsimiles of Brillo cartons in an art gallery – piled high, in neat stacks, as in the stockroom of a supermarket – he was rephrasing an ancient question: “Given two objects that look exactly alike, how far is it possible for one of them to be a work of art and the other just an ordinary object?” With his urinal, “Fountain”, Duchamp had playfully asked this question half a century before; Danto argues that Warhol was a more political and also a religious artist. […]
With priestly genius, this theological Warhol mesmerised his non-intellectual congregation by using images that transfigured the commonplace. His Campbell soup cans and Coke bottles speak a vernacular language anyone can understand; like Joseph Beuys’ fat and felt, they resonated too with widespread memories of cold and hunger for a postwar generation. Their repetition, and Warhol’s obsession with working in series, are not just formal devices – though they were a slap against the individualism of abstract expressionism – but emblems of political equality. As a child, face pressed to the windows of downtown stores packed with desirable, unaffordable products, Warhol had known real want: here were his dreams of assembly-line plenty and security.
All religion is based on suffering and its radical relief; Warhol’s art evolved on two levels, “the level of fears and agonies, and the level of beauties”: car accidents, plane crashes, suicides, executions – and Liz, Jackie, Elvis, Marilyn in gold, glimmering like the Byzantine icons at the Orthodox church where Warhol’s Ruthenian family had worshipped. Danto concludes with a powerful picture of the coherence of Warhol’s work: “a dark world with radiant beings, whose presence among us is redemptive, and into whose company Warhol sought to insinuate his own ungainly presence, and to make stars of us all”.
The Whitney Museum’s 1979 exhibition of his portraits was critically mauled: the exchange of Brillo-box austerity for flattering likenesses in psychedelic colours suggested a sell-out. Robert Rosenblum hailed Warhol as “court painter to the 1970s international aristocracy”. Warhol replied that the canvases were the same size “so they’ll all fit together and make one big painting called Portraits of Society. Maybe the Metropolitan Museum would want it someday.”
The Met hasn’t so far but when the group was shown at Paris’s Grand Palais this spring, it looked stunning. And if Warhol’s late fright-wig self-portraits, based on Polaroid snaps with his hair swept up, Basquiat-Rasta style, are not comparable to Rembrandt and Picasso’s final self-depictions, to which Ketner compares them, they are nevertheless among his greatest works: at once stage performances and hollowed-out death-masks.
David Wallace-Wells is one of the few Warhol doubters. Most mark the end of Warhol’s originality with the near-fatal shooting in 1968. But Wallace Wells is having none of it in Newsweek. Whatever makes Warhol significant, Wallace Wells argues, is the poor precedent of empty, ironic art:
Andy was no great iconoclast. What was good in his work was derivative of precedent pop and its precedent, dada. What seemed innovative was not just bad but insidiously so—his work at the Factory, with Interview, and in his voyeuristic films, which simply replaced the macho-Romantic cult of the New York school with a substitute cult of antinomian downtown entitlement. And to laud Warhol as a prophet of the saturated media culture we inhabit today is to apportion praise according to the perverse logic of our own era, by which we lionize the first person to do anything, even a bad thing. […]
While Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were inventing pop, and Oldenburg and Lichtenstein refining it, Warhol had been conquering the world of advertising as an illustrator—”the Leonardo da Vinci of Madison Avenue,” Women’s Wear Daily called him. His 1962 paintings were—as even his deferential biographers Tony Scherman and David Dalton admit in Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol—”a last-minute leap onto a bandwagon that was threatening to leave without him.” […]
Warhol wasn’t just a latecomer to pop; he was a lightweight. The paintings of the abstract expressionists were personal, arcane, confrontational, and, it was said, shamanistic. Pop made that Romanticism look silly, self-serious; its most radical feature was its whimsical accessibility. The pop artist had no inner secrets; he addressed himself not to the esoteric Western tradition but to the ecumenical contemporary world.
Finally, the question of Warhol’s authenticity as a great artist doesn’t help with the more immediate complication addressed by Richard Dorment some time ago in the New York Review of Books where he explored the question of the “red Self Portraits” that have been denied authenticity by Warhol’s estate. Dorment skillfully brings both issues back together:
A silk-screened image is flat, and without depth or volume. This perfectly suited Warhol because in painting Marilyn Monroe he wasn’t painting a woman of flesh, blood, and psychological complexity but a publicity photograph of a commodity created in a Hollywood studio. […] you can’t look at Warhol’s Marilyn in the same way that you look at a painting by Rembrandt or Titian because Warhol isn’t interested in any of the things those artists were—the representation of material reality, the exploration of character, or the creation of pictorial illusion. […] Everything that passed before Warhol’s basilisk gaze—celebrities, socialites, speed freaks, rock bands, film, and fashion—he imprinted with his deadpan mixture of glamour and humor, then cast them back into the world as narcissistic reflections of his own personality. This is what makes him one of the most complex and elusive figures in the history of art. […]
Few artists in the twentieth century were as restlessly experimental as Warhol. This ruling by the board represents a complete misunderstanding of the very nature of what he achieved, and how his approach to making his work changed Western art. Innovation has to start somewhere, and it is precisely because the 1965 Red Self Portraits were made without Warhol’s on-the-spot supervision that they are so critically important. They are the kind of transitional works museums and collectors particularly value because they show Warhol groping toward the working method he would adopt in the following decade, when his participation in the creation of his own paintings was often limited to choosing the image and signing the picture.
Triumph of the Ordinary (Financial Times)
Andy Warhol: Factory Man (Newsweek)
What Is An Andy Warhol? (New York Review of Books)