andy warhol campbell soup cans, 1962
Watched twice the PBS series American Masters documentary of Andy Warhol. Four hours and not one dull second. Warhol's world didn't have a dull second in it either. I've heard four hours of art critic talk about Warhol, in-the-present, in-your-face. I heard one critic say the first half of the 20th century was Picasso's, the 2nd half Warhol's. When he was happening, it was like he was the greatest thing since Matisse, dismissed by some of the art world, praised by some of it. I and several of my friends watched Warhol like a gossip columnist follows a movie star. He was the star he set out to be. His works of art had profound and complex meaning. He, himself, claimed to have none. And I think he was right. He was a sponge. He gathered people around him to give him ideas. He had a circle going of people giving him ideas and him giving them ideas. He kept a fertility going in his work, always new, always powerful meaning, always the claim there's no more to it, and himself, than a silver screen.
In his time, my belief was that he was doing incredible work that made powerful social statements. I felt the same about Bob Dylan. In both cases, I was happy they occurred in my lifetime. I've been able to watch Bob Dylan's music grow from 1963, when I first heard him, until now. He's one year older than me. He was a driven genius. Andy Warhol was a driven genius. These are the people of my time I've been happy to have for contemporaries. I feel like Dylan and Harold Pinter are the Shakespeares of our time. Dylan even the Mozart, as he's both writer and composer. He is the original poet who sang his poems. Chinese poems in the old days were written to traditional tunes and sung. This is the time for the anti-traditional, which Dylan is all the way, Pinter too, and Warhol. They are so against the tradition, they are the foundational beginnings of a new tradition.
Up to WW1 we looked back to the Classical Age in Greece and Rome as the foundation of the tradition; afterward, the 20th century carved out the new tradition that will be the Classical Age for the future. The renascence in Greece and Rome, and the Renaissance in Italy, which went into London and Paris and all around as well, we looked back to as the authority until the 20th Century, when it happened again. These times are times of high energy energizing humanity to new heights in all fields of human endeavor. We're now in the reformation following the most recent renascence, the greatest the world has seen, because it had more to work with. Andy Warhol, himself, saw his fame fade out and away, depicted in his 8'x8' silkscreen, Myths, 1981. He saw himself a temporary pop sensation like Howdy Doody and Mickey Mouse. I never knew how to assess the scope of his fame. I was seeing his work when it was almost new and hearing reactions of all varieties, from the totally uninformed, "it's not art," to the greatest ever. I don't know the art world and don't want to know it, but Warhol got a very great deal said in pictures important to our society and civilization as a whole, in beautiful images.
In the late 60s the Warhol hangers-on made headlines that defined cool for the time. They showed up at the same club every night, a big gang of them, junkies, drag queens, nut cases, all of them wannabes, American jabberers on amphetymenes, too deep into every kind of drug to be anything but stupid. Warhol's persona without a personality was a cool pose for the time. In the time of corporate cool, cocaine, he acted like he was high on it all the time, and never was. The people that drifted into his circle were high all the time, and he just copied their far away gaze. They dressed in exaggerated clothes of other times from thrift stores and strutted about New York like children playing dressup, going out in public to show their creations. He catches criticism now for allowing several of the people to destroy themselves as he watched. That's nonsense. He was in self-destruct mode too. Warhol was a great enigma for artists of the time, too. I think many got what he was doing, some sympathetically, some not, and found him hard to be influenced by, his style being so much his own. It would be like painting like vanGogh or Georgia OKeefe. It's already been done.
Art history goes through Warhol, not around him. In the film, early on when talking about the abstract expressionists of the 1950s like they believed they'd found the pinnacle of pure art, at an early Warhol show, some man spoke with self-important authority that this is "anti-art." Duh. Anti-art has been the nature of avant-garde art since the impressionists. Anti-art is the only tradition of the 20th century. The man told more about himself than he told about Warhol. The soup cans do it for me. One time in New York, I went into the Leo Castelli gallery and saw some Warhols I'd guestimate 6'x3' of soup cans in dayglo colors, 4 of them, each one different. It was stunning. That would have been late 60s. I saw what he was doing, what Pop was doing, taking abstraction the next step, from soft-edged unfamiliar to hard-edged familiar. While the people whose careers were invested in abstract expressionism made a lot of noise about Pop not being art, an artist I knew at the time called Robert Indiana's canvases "propaganda." I thought that was stretching it quite a bit looking for objection.
Since I saw it, standing before those Warhols in Castelli's, I've seen minimalism that came on with Pop as abstract as abstract expressionism too. Minimalism and Pop took out the painterliness, which for the abstractionists was a kind of anti-industrial statement. Minimalists and Popists accepted the industrial, the manufactured, made smooth lines and colors without brush strokes. They took the action out of action painting. Warhol went for the mass produced. He painted every one of the cans pictured at the top by hand, one at a time, all the same, except the name of the soup in each can. He later made repeating images with silk screen, but in his first years made repeating images by hand, like a page of postage stamps, dollar bills, S&H green stamps. Until the soup cans, nothing he did caught much attention, but the soup cans put him on the international art map over night. At the same time, post-abstract expressionism exploded into several directions. Frank Stella's straight lines, Richard Serra's steel panels, Roy Lichtenstein's comic book images, Jasper Johns' flags and targets, Robert Rauschenberg's "combines," abstractions using paint and found objects. It sort of exploded into post-modernism.
At the time, I thought Warhol was the apex of contemporary art. The junkies and drag queens and "underground superstars," were childishly glamorous for a few years. The drugs started taking their toll, stranger and stranger people came into the circle, which became something of a free-for-all party scene for people falling through their own bottom. Andy was using these people for ideas, watching them, imitating them, seeing them the self-image he wanted to project onto the world. It worked for him. And they all did it for nothing, for the fun of being an Andy Warhol Superstar, in the scene of the day. Everything seemed to be going great until he was shot. He had to re-invent himself, do what's next. First thing he did was change the people he kept around him. One of the guys from the office in the time of the magazine Interview, Bob Colacello, told of a time Andy said in the office, You guys are boring. Colacello said, You don't have to worry about us shooting you. Colacello later wrote, Holy Terror, Andy Warhol Close Up. It was an inside look at Warhol in the time after the shooting. Warhol fell into doing portraits of the rich and famous all the same size, 40"x40". He told dealer Irving Blum he envisioned in the future a show of all of them. He wanted them to hang touching side by side on the walls around the museum like in his montage images.