The Apparent Return of Representation. Ambivalence structures in Warhol’s early work
in: Andy Warhol. Paintings 1960-1986, ed. by Martin Schwander, exhibition catalogue Kunstmuseum Luzern 1995, Stuttgart 1995, S. 43-53 and 76-78.
“You see, to pretend something’s real, I’d have to fake it. Then people would think I’m doing it real.” (Andy Warhol)
It is a well-known feature of modern art that its innovative creations cancel the current view of art and at the same time extend it. This process of destruction and phoenix-like regeneration of art seems so blatant in Warhol’s case that it is impossible to agree about whether his innovations can be counted as meaningful self-renewal of art. The abrupt change from the Abstract-Expressionist painting of the New York school, with its high ideals and awareness of a historic mission, to a pictorial language that seems to exhaust itself in the endless repetition of trivialities and thus to question everything that had been achieved in the logical development of painting by Pollock, Kline, Rothko, Newman etc. seems too nihilistic. The confrontation between the two diametrically opposed views of what “painting”, “the panel picture”, “the artist” actually is becomes all the more significant because it was the first that came up inside American art and largely independently of European influences – despite the earlier existence of English Pop Art. All at once two views of painting were confronting each other that were both perceived as genuinely American.
This “querelle américaine” made a crucial difference to the way in which Pop Art was looked at, especially Warhol, who occupied the most challenging position. The consequence was a view that Warhol saw largely as a negation – a negation of the originality and uniqueness of the picture, a negation of (high) culture, a negation of the achievements of abstraction. And there was something else: suddenly the whole development scheme of modern painting was called into question. The influential critic Clement Greenberg had defined this scheme so conclusively in terms of post-war American art as the increasing essentialization that manifested itself in taking the picture back to the anti-illusionistic, self-referential “literality” of the surface. Warhol was the aggressive example of an artistic practice that could not be categorized as part of this development, but which seemed to represent a regression into an abandoned stage of art, currying favour with mass culture.
The polemic debates of the 60s merely seem a part of history today. Assessments have become more objective and more sophisticated. Detailed biographies have carefully documented his working-class origins, his training, his successful period as a graphic artist in advertising and his rise to international stardom – which in Warhol’s case always means writing a brief social history of art and its reception as well – and an abundance of important details have come to light. Analyses that concern themselves with influences, models, personality structure etc. also sometimes produced material about the development of the formal language and the background to the choice of subjects. Despite this the view stubbornly persists that Warhol is the negation of everything that defines art as such. It is the basis, spoken or unspoken, of almost all interpretations. A distinction has been made only to the extent that various suggestions came up to analyse and make understandable the “emptiness” of the works, about which as such there is no doubt. The plane of observation thus shifted from the plane of the pictures to the plane of the artist, emphasizing Warhol’s own “emptiness” (his inability to experience, his cynicism, his post-modern dandyish nature, and above all his famous wish “to be a machine”). Or they changed to the plane of the cultural and social context, in which the same “emptiness” was discovered (in the form of consumerism, decadence, loss of critical thought etc.).
Any profound analysis of the aesthetic structure of Warhol’s work is correspondingly rare. It was scarcely perceived that the change to representation, reproduction and to the trivial is more mediated, the semantics, syntax and pragmatics of the works is more ambivalent, than a polar perspective of this kind can reproduce. On closer consideration the pictorial language is seen to be a multi-layered response to the situation in the late 50s when Abstract Expressionism had run into a blind alley because of selfimposed reductionism and was about to abandon both its critical and “sublime” dimensions as decoration and academicism. The crisis of the tone-setting avant-garde produced a number of art forms that could not be accommodated in Greenberg’s development logic. As well as Pop Art these included the Happening, Minimal Art or Concept Art. Warhol’s works have to be seen in the context of this mood of radical change. They turned Abstract Expressionist painting upside down, but without falling back on an antiquated state of the artistic discourse. The point of his work is precisely that Abstract Expressionism is subjected to fundamental criticism while at the same time important aspects of its aesthetic procedure are picked up. The modernistic trait of outdoing what had happened immediately before can be detected, and not by chance, in a way that relates revealingly to the Happening, Minimal Art and Concept Art. Warhol undermines the opposition whose one pole he is supposed to occupy in such an exemplary fashion.
It is also necessary to examine the opposition scheme because Warhol does not gain his standpoint from reaction to the artistic practice of the previous generation alone. The return to representation and the use of reproductive techniques is directed neither against abstraction as such nor against art as a whole, but above all shows a shift in artistic interest. The medium’s continuing self-questioning – Greenberg’s formalism saw this as the duty of painting – is expanded by turning to events and things that do constitute our everyday experience but are excluded from art by abstraction in particular. In this Warhol appears as a seismograph of changes brought about by the establishment of mass communication. Warhol sees images of Kennedy’s death or sputnik signals from space that seem to shake the world, shrunk to a “global village”, simultaneously as key experiences of perception, rather than the decentred structures of Pollock’s canvases, which were making the art world hold its breath. Central to Warhol’s work is the question what and how communication can be made under these circumstances, and what is called “authentic perception”, something that art likes to insist on, in view of such phenomena. Warhol’s subversions become accessible only when they are understood as part of both an internal-artistic and an external-artistic change.
The design of Warhol’s work is most readily perceived by looking at the work as a whole. Above all the pictures and the films must be seen as an expression of one and the same artistic process. One peculiarity of dealing with Warhol lies in separating, consciously or unconsciously, the various media in which he worked. In exhibitions, if they are shown at all, the films are presented at the most in a subsidiary programme that only a few visitors to the exhibition are aware of. Also, shortened and therefore distorted versions are usually shown. There is no direct juxtaposition of films and pictures, so that it is left to the individual to establish the link between them. This may be something to do with technical difficulties in the exhibition, but it is significant that the same situation is found in Warhol literature. There seems to be a division of labour: art critics and art historians deal with the pictures, while the films (which generally receive less attention) are left to the appropriate specialists, who rarely bother to look at the pictures. Any consideration of the links between the two forms is thus excluded from the outset.
But it is justifiable in every respect to treat the films in the same way as the pictures. It is not just that the two media are conceptually interlinked in Warhol’s case. What seems even more important is that two of the characteristics that make the pictures seem so scandalous, the reproductive approach and the return to representation, are not conspicuous in the films and do not represent the breaking of a taboo. Films almost always copy reality, and the medium is concerned with reproduction from the beginning. But if these characteristics are removed as classifying qualities, criteria of evaluation can again come into play that seem unnecessary in the case of an artist like Warhol. All that remains to do justice to the special quality of the films is to examine their creative design. If this means a more traditional way of looking at them that can only be an advantage at the outset. Beyond the polarity of abstract and representational, original and reproductive, “high” and “low”, which is always linked with high judgements, the possibility of evaluation that is linked more closely to artistic questions begins to emerge. This may well also be why even in the early 60s Warhol the film-maker was considered an outstanding avant-garde artist and as early as 1964, a year after his first film received the “Independent Film Award” given by the New York magazine “Film Culture”, while the panel pictures were not acknowledged as an artistic achievement (and not just as subversive provocation) until much later, and much more hesitantly. For these reasons the pictures and the films are going to be analysed within common boundaries and by the same criteria; also is the usual order reversed for once, and the films are considered before the pictures.
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