Warhol’s Calisthenics, or, Reproducing Reproductions
in: Warhol. Polke. Richter. In the Power of Painting I. A Selection from the Daros Collection, Zürich/Berlin/New York 2001, S. 25-32.
Warhol has shifted the coordinates of artistic productivity, with lasting effect. Traditionally, a picture shows something which is not itself a picture, and does so by reformulating three-dimensional reality in two dimensions. Warhol’s pictures, however, depict something which is a picture already or, more generally speaking, a flat surface: advertisements, comic strips, dollar bills, and above all photographs. This shift of concept initially led to the negative assessment of Warhol’s art as tautological, that is to say repetitive in that it consisted of duplication, and his pictures were written off as visual readymades. The discourse of surfaces was misinterpreted as superficiality – a critique Warhol himself encouraged and indeed promoted with laconic comments such as: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am.” Nonetheless, no one would confuse a Warhol with the model it reproduces, which has been crucially modified in a process involving many decisions and manipulations. By the same token, Warhol heightens the presence and absence of the visible, makes what he is communicating appear uncommunicated, and repeatedly communicates what was previously uncommunicated. But however his artistic methods are described, the decisive break with the tradition of the panel painting consists less in reducing the artist’s activity to mechanical reproduction than in the fact that the reality shown in the picture is a picture itself. After the early 1960s, when Warhol developed his ideas of art, the tendency to organize communication visually and understand a work as a manifestation of the pictorial media, rather than a physical presence, became increasingly clear. In retrospect, Warhol’s “pictorial turn” appears as logical as it was visionary. The trend towards adopting the tactics of the media, the social, mental and cultural consequences of which are just beginning to emerge, has led to a steady rise in Warhol’s reputation over the years.
Warhol probably recognized more clearly than any other Pop artist that confronting such changes demands not only a new range of subjects, but above all a different way of producing a picture. With the consistent use of reproductive and serial procedures, media strategies determine both the content of the picture and the process of its production. In these new conditions, Warhol retains one fundamental aspect of art: what is depicted and its manner of depiction, the content and form which mutually determine and question each other in a work of art, are of equal value. This equivalence is evident when we look at the changes of medium in Warhol’s early work. While his first works were still painted by hand, he was copying models also based on drawings done by hand. Examples are Storm Door and Where Is Your Rupture, both of 1961, and the Do It Yourself pictures of 1962. It is no coincidence that the last-named disclose the tension between individual do-it-yourself activity and something ready-made, but do not present that tension as a source of conflict. Rather, the pictures seem to be saying that Warhol likes painting exactly what the model shows. “I’m just the opposite: I don’t want it to be essentially the same – I want it to be exactly the same,” writes Warhol in POPism, his retrospective survey of the 1960s.
It seems only logical, therefore, that he began eliminating any traces of his own artistic handwriting after 1962. First he turned to stencils, then to silk-screen prints. Seriality now enters the picture, in conformity with the medium. Warhol emphasizes this seriality through a formal device which became his trademark par excellence: multiple repetition of the same motif on a single canvas. For instance, 40 Two-Dollar Bills and 210 Coca-Cola Bottles show exactly that number of dollar bills and bottles (or rather reproduced advertisements of those bottles). The picture is the result of patiently lining up prints side by side, observing the rules of standardized production. While the dollar bills and bottles cover the whole canvas, it is also clear that we are concerned not with that precise number of objects but with a series that could potentially continue ad infinitum. In these pictures, which also include Handle with Care-Glass-Thank You, the principle of form proves to be the principle of production. The emphasis of content thus shifts from the depiction of an object to the depiction of its infinite repetition. This is appropriate to the objects shown, which can be reproduced as often as desired without losing their essential nature, since to some extent they already have a reproductive and serial identity. An individual banknote or a single branded product would be absurd – such items could not fulfil1 their purpose. “What’s great about this country,” writes Warhol in his Philosophy, “is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. [...] The President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too.” Just as the Do It Yourself pictures equate working by hand with carrying out a preset program, Warhol’s challenge in general consists in the fact that he seems to find no conflict between free choice and necessity, subjectivity and standardization.
That challenge is particularly clear in the photographic silk-screen prints which dominate his production after 1962. Unlike the Coca-Cola and Dollar pictures, they focus on singularity – whether it is good or bad: stars like Elvis Presley and Liz Taylor, great works of art like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and emblems like the Statue of Liberty, disasters on a small or a large scale, for instance the poisoning of two women in Tunafish Disaster, the suicide of the Silver Jumping Man, the explosion in the Atomic Bomb. They too are subjected to duplication, sometimes no less strikingly than in the pictures of banknotes and parcel labels. In the pictures of stars, this process begins with Double Liz and Elvis 4 Times, and ends with Marilyn x 100. But as Warhol’s works are pictures of pictures, not pictures of people, he is once again making a crucial point: a star is less a flesh-and-blood individual than a pictorial reality, an “image,” mysterious, surrounded by an aura in a way possible for pictures only when, ultimately, there is no corresponding reality behind them. In line with the iconic logic of stars, reproductive multiplication does not undermine their singularity but actually forms the basis of their fame: “more is more.” The same is true of the Mona Lisa: the painting has long ceased to be famous because it is great – today it is great because it is famous. Contrary to Benjamin’s theory that the ability of something to be technically reproduced detracts from its aura, the unique status of the Mona Lisa derives from incessant reproduction. Warhol’s productivity, which treats the picture only in the plural, demonstrates how quantity and quality can coincide: only what is endlessly repeated is of significance.
The most startling variants of his literal approach to the media, however, were developed in the so-called Disaster Pictures, Warhol’s most radical series both in subject matter and form. The photographic originals, which he often acquired at great expense, were subjected to qualitative deterioration in several stages; he might, for instance, overexaggerate contrast or increase graininess. He continued this process in printing from the screen, applying the color unevenly, cleaning the screen insufficiently between prints, making the pictures overlap or cutting them off at the edge. This careless indifference of execution places a filter in front of the shocking subject and moderates the confrontation. The word “filter” is to be taken quite literally since it is one of the meanings of the word “screen,” a term which can also have connotations of shelter and disguise. Warhol’s screen prints are camouflage prints which conceal their content as well as showing it. However, this description only half accounts for the effect. The apparently careless procedure is calculated not only to screen off the trauma of the pictures but to bring it out on the level of the picture itself. In Suicide (Silver Jumping Man) the last print in particular is so deficient and blotchy that the theme, specifically the man jumping to his death, is literally wiped out. As he mutates into a blank spot on the picture, he might be said to die a second time. Motif and medium merge in a comparable manner in Race Riot: the trousers being torn by German shepherd dogs set on black civil rights demonstrators by the police of Birmingham, Alabama, turn into increasing fragmentation of the picture itself. Serial repetition also produces an ambiguous effect. Placing the prints side by side links them in an ornamental pattern which remains outside the subject of the picture, and in terms of content produces only redundancy. The pattern stresses the surface of the picture, at the same time forcing the motif into the background. As a result the subject matter is not simply devaluated but ultimately contradict- ed. It is as if the depiction were always starting all over again, as if the indigestible motif were being pushed aside until the process of reproduction stops short or goes off course. The images may begin to crowd each other, finally collapsing into chaotic blackness, as in Red Explosion (Atomic Bomb), or the prints may be placed neatly beside and below each other until the printing process grinds to a halt, as in Suicide (Silver Jumping Man). The last picture is missing, leaving a patch of empty, speechless canvas.
The two aspects of every picture, a work which both shows something and shows itself, or to put it slightly differently, makes something visible and is visible itself, are short-circuited in the Disaster Paintings. The pictures suffer the same fate as their subjects: the disaster depicted becomes a disaster happening to the picture. Warhol places an equal sign between picture and reality, being and appearance. Herein lies the point of his pictorial tautology.
|Warhols’s Calisthenics as print version (PDF with illus. and fn. 3.160 KB)|