Andy Warhol the Painter: His Achievement Was to Make an Art Out of Folklore

ANDY WARHOL WAS an enormous personality during his life, and since his death, in 1987, at fiftyeight, he has become an even larger figure. His place in American art and culture is so enormous and fuzzy— there are so many claims made for what he did, or failed to do, or symbolized—that he’s like a din in your head.

Yet it you see the large retrospective of his work that was put together at the Museum of Modern Art last spring and that is now at the Art Institute of Chicago, and can block out what you know about Warhol the celebrity, personality, and problem, I think you’ll be amused and touched by his paintings and, even more, come away admiring his sheer artistic—his formal — intelligence. Warhol wasn’t a titan; he didn’t go from one kind of picture to another, absorbing new styles and transforming them as he went. But he was consistently open to new techniques, and his lack of caution makes him seem like more than a minor master. Seeing a lot of his best work is an expansive experience. His pictures don’t draw you into the sensibility of a particular individual; they’re mostly about style itself, and they prompt unexpected connections with the art of his contemporaries and of other periods.

The quality of Warhol’s work hasn’t been a secret; his Pop Art pictures— the movie stars, labels of products, and grisly tabloid shots—have hung in museums and distinguished collections for years, and there are plenty of publications devoted to this or that aspect of his work. Yet the scope, and particular nature, of his achievement may be a revelation for many. The show goes from Warhol’s work as a commercial illustrator in the fifties—he arrived in New York in 1949, when he was in his early twenties—to the paintings he did the year he died. The majority of the pictures, though, are from 1962 through 1964, and they’re far and away his finest. Warhol said that if he died by 1970 his reputation would be secure, and he was right. Warhol wasn’t a passionate or warm artist; he was a virtuoso of precise placements done at top speed. His finest pictures give something of the same immediate and intense pleasure that watching an Olympic competition does.

When Warhol’s images are taken together, they present a sort of ho-hum, everyday American world. We seem to be only a step away from Depression America. We go from pictures of dollar bills and S&H Green Stamps to Campbell’s soup cans, from pictures of Elvis Presley and Natalie Wood to newspaper images of an electric chair and freakish disasters. It’s like being in a supermarket. We might be at the checkout counter, flipping through a National Enquirer while folks at the head of the line fumble with their coupons. What’s compelling about Warhol’s work, though, is the distinctive soft presence of his canvases, and the obvious speed, assurance, and high spirits with which he worked.

Warhol’s best works are his “serial” paintings, in which the same image is repeated on a single canvas. (He didn’t invent serial painting, but he used it to an extent that nobody else has.) We see, sitting right next to one another, or sometimes overlapping one another, two or five or a dozen or an uncountable number of something. It might be Coke bottles, Marilyn Monroe’s face (or lips), or Jackie Kennedy at the President’s funeral. In reproduction these paintings can appear facetious, even brutal. But the actual pictures have a powdery and breathing surface; you want to get close to the canvas itself. Warhol took his images from photos in magazines and newspapers. He had a silk-screen print made of the image, and then he ran colors through the screen directly on the canvas. When he wasn’t printing in black on colorless canvas, he’d paint the canvas a single color first and then print on it in black, and he produced a large number of surprising color harmonies. He still seems audacious in his use of silver and turquoise, lavender, orange, and brown.

If Warhol wanted to print with different colors—if he wanted, say, to make Monroe’s lips red—he’d use the same silk screen, but he’d cover every part except the lips and then go over that exposed section with red paint. The result is an echo of nineteenthcentury folk art. The colored Marilyn Monroes are like theorems, or mourning pictures—scenes with urns and weeping willows, where the stenciled application of one colored section next to another is so stiffly mechanical and awkward that it conveys more of a sense of the hand that made the work than an average watercolor does.

Essentially, Warhol was a printer on canvas who appears to have done everything in a hurry. He clearly didn’t care about smudges, dribbles, or inconsistencies in color and intensity, yet he didn’t strive for sloppiness, either. The smudges and dribbles don’t seem willed, and that’s a key element in his success. Looking at a Warhol, your eyes search out—you savor—the mistakes. In a picture made up of many images of the electric chair, the animating detail is the way, when Warhol was printing his silk screen again and again, he didn’t quite cover the entire canvas. (If he had printed his electric chairs, or any of his images, neatly, or “correctly,” it wouldn’t have been a Warhol.)

GOING FROM WORK to work at the exhibition, you watch someone playing with a picture-making device. You’re also made aware, in each case, of the canvas itself, which is as much the “picture” as the various images that are silk-screened onto it. I kept thinking of the abstract painters who were at work at the same time as Warhol; they were sometimes called stain painters, because their pictures were made by staining acrylic colors directly into unprimed canvases. The figure who most came to mind was Morris Louis. Pouring acrylic medium onto big pieces of raw white canvas and then bunching and shifting the canvas (his working methods are something of a mystery), Louis produced images of, as it were, paint on the move. In a typical Louis Veil painting (there is a large series of Veils) a mass of overlapping colors whooshes up from the bottom of the canvas—you might be standing before the mouth of a cave.

Warhol’s Pop pictures and Louis’s Veils have nothing in common simply as images, and the two artists are rarely mentioned in the same breath. In the way they’ve been written about (and shown and collected), they might come from different planets. Louis’s art is invariably described in purely aesthetic and technical ways—he’s presented as an anonymous genius at an art-school think tank—and Warhol’s work is described in terms of, among many other things, his transformation of Liz, Elvis, and Campbell’s soup cans into icons. Yet their best pictures have an amazingly similar presence: it is of a bolt of canvas suddenly stamped, or suffused, with an identity. Although their individual paintings are very much framed things—you’re conscious of the four edges—their pictures, in spirit, are more like banners than paintings. Ideally, they’d hang outside a big public building, flapping in the wind.

And in the way they worked and in their ambition, Warhol and Louis might have been brothers. Warhol’s pictures were, in part, developments of Jasper Johns’s and Robert Rauschenberg’s use of pop images, and Louis’s pictures were, in part, developments of Jackson Pollock’s “dripping” and pouring techniques. And both Warhol and Louis seemed to be saying to their predecessors, “Speed it up! You’ve made art too fussy!” Louis was some sixteen years older than Warhol, but he took a relatively long time to find a right path, and he didn’t come into his own until the late fifties, when Warhol was getting under way. Louis died of cancer in 1962, and that was the year that Warhol took off. They were the sons of immigrants (they both changed their names, from Andrew Warhola and from Morris Louis Bernstein), and although it’s a cliché to say it, they worked with a mighty need to prove themselves Americans. They were single-minded. Louis dedicated himself to the history of abstract painting; he wanted to make a picture that would mark the necessary next step in the evolution of modern art. Warhol’s dream was fame in itself.

The most absorbing photos in the documentary section of the Moderns gigantic Warhol catalogue are pictures of Warhol in his early twenties, posing the way Greta Garbo posed in Steichen’s portrait, with her hands cradling her face, and the way Truman Capote posed in a picture where he lounges on a sofa. Fame, and its representations, were Warhol’s meat. It’s fascinating to think of him as a young man, both doting on fame and thinking of how to use it professionally. He’s simultaneously in the grip of something larger than himself—he’s the quintessential raving fan—and the astute delineator and entrepreneur of fandom. Other documentary photos show that his preoccupation with appearance was personal and long-standing. He was troubled by what he believed was his unromantically lank hair and large nose, and he doctored photographs (and he eventually had himself doctored) to alter the situation.

Warhol and Louis had exalted and monumentally simplified goals, and they perfected picture-making methods that mirrored those all-or-nothing goals. Each was able to make a new kind of picture because of fairly recent technical developments: the silkscreen process and, in Louis’s case, fast-drying acrylic paints. Each man created a sort of one-note painting, in which there was little room for fixing or improving. The chief option in their respective techniques was editing, or cropping, the canvas. Once each man found his method, he went into mass production. That both artists produced so many similar works doesn’t mean that it’s enough to see only a handful. Warhol and Louis look best when you’re surrounded by their paintings. Half the thrill is in registering the many variations on a theme.

WARFIOL’S FINEST pictures are funny, grotesque, sentimental, grand, beautiful, and blasè all at once. Many of his images are of frightening or sad events or people or things. In addition to electric chairs and the Kennedy assassination, there are suicides, car crashes, race riots, atom bombs. And when these pictures are seen along with the Hollywood stars, a viewer can believe that Warhol was eulogizing the stars. You may want to think of him as an elegiac artist, a chronicler of national violence and loss—it makes him easier to like, less aggressive, more serious, nobler. You may also think that he was licking his lips over the national nightmare.

Warhol was a mourner; he did the Marilyns right after she died, and he said he started on Liz “when she was so sick.”He had to have been a bit of a Weegee, too. Mostly, though, he was indifferent to subject matter in itself. His point, it seems, was that the less likely, or acceptable, the image he slapped down on canvas, the greater his chance of aesthetic success. His dancelike and seemingly spontaneous way of placing his silk screens is felt to the degree that he’s taking a liberty in using the image in a flip way. And image alone doesn’t guarantee that the painting will be good. When he silk-screens a single photo onto a canvas there’s no snap; the work is dormant. Warhol is better when his canvas sizes are bigger too; when his paintings are too small, they’re often souvenirlike.

After 1964 Warhol’s finest work has to do with size itself. In 1966 he covered the walls of a gallery with wallpaper of a repeating image of a photo of a cow’s head, done in amusingly tart and tacky color combinations, and when the wallpaper covers, say, a long corridor, it recalls some of Christo’s cloth “wrappings.” It has the same sheathlike and cutting-through-space quality, and the same passive but riveting power, as Christo’s Running Fence, where a seemingly endless white sheet ran over hill after hill, down to the Pacific.

Warhol’s other superlative decorative work concerns his use of the official photo of Chairman Mao. In this “piece" different-sized Warhol paintings of Mao (and, as the Modern showed it, drawings, too) are hung on wallpaper Warhol designed that’s made up of repeating images of the same photo of Mao. The eye takes in various framed Maos and the Mao wallpaper simultaneously, and the effect is of one big, pulsing, very optical picture. Your second response is probably that the paintings are being toyed with; aren’t paintings more important than wallpaper? Yet are Warhol’s Mao “paintings” any more his own, or more serious, than his wallpaper? It’s as though he were enlarging the scope of his indifference to rigid categories.

But in most of Warhol’s later work the indifference—the lovely superficiality—is gone. The effect of his Mick Jagger portraits (and other pictures from the late sixties on) is that he’s artifying photographs. He put jazzy lines and sloshed units of paint on top of photos, and it’s airless; there’s no feeling of an underlying canvas breathing through. What we see is a photo trapped in a lot of artistry.

He certainly continued to experiment. There are recyclings, in attractively pale or disco-hot colors, of his Marilyns, Maos, and other borrowings, and he did striking graphic rearrangements of work by Raphael, da Vinci, Munch, and de Chirico. It could be said that Warhol pursued kinds of touchlessness—that he kept making “Warhols” from images that weren’t his own—and in time his works from the seventies and eighties may become resonant. But now they’re merely dexterous and pleasant. They suffer from being seen alongside his work from the early sixties. Nothing is rash or tense.

THINKING ABOUT ALL of Warhol’s work, and Warhol the person, or character, you’re taken into an intricately layered—and intangible, hall-of-mirrors—world. Warhol is one of the most un-pin-downable figures in American art. The strands of irony and naiveté in him are inseparable. When Warhol talked about making his pictures on an assembly line, and called his studio “the Factory,” it was hard to know if he was a con man or if he genuinely saw himself as an aspiring captain of industry in the art line. One of his goals apparently was to make his very person an instrument for selling; he seemed to want to turn “Andy Warhol” into an all-purpose brand label, like “Walt Disney.” It’s possible to see him as a commercial artist all his life. He moved easily back and forth between paintings created for art galleries and works commissioned by this or that bank or corporation, between a thriving business of making portraits of the famous and pure commercial work— ad campaigns for companies.

For some, Warhol’s journeying between the art and business worlds had to be one big arch joke. But for artists coming into their own in the eighties, in a period when art, as never before, seemed to be a sheer commodity, Warhol could be seen as someone who had prophesied this situation, and kidded about it, for years.

You could believe, too, that Warhol wanted most to question, or reinvent, the idea of art. Making a career out of consistently borrowing his material, of never “inventing” anything, he helped create the idea that reproductions in themselves, like the press photos he used, could be a subject, or a takeoff point, for an artist. In the eighties artists have used reproductions (or ads, or posters) the way nineteenth-century painters used waterfalls and mountains—as both a subject of great moment and a mere given. And certainly Warhol was a forerunner of the idea, which has had much currency lately, of the artist as gesture-maker, where the artist’s overall intent is what we’re concerned with. Warhol’s lifelong gesture might be called the making of a sham body of work. Since his paintings were literally pieces of canvas with a photo of something dashed onto them, a “Warhol” could be seen as an ultimate fake, like the “masterpiece” you’d win at Coney Island.

In another light, though, Warhol wasn’t an isolated phenomenon; he was, on the contrary, one of many related voices of his period. His bestknown statements concern the shallowness and superficiality of his tastes and his work. He said that if you wanted to understand what he was doing, all you needed to do was look at the surfaces of his pictures—that there was nothing behind the surfaces. These sayings have been taken as brilliant, gnomic, subversive utterances. But Warhol’s emphasis on shallowness and sheer surface is no different from what contemporaries and near-contemporaries of his such as Johns and Christo and Alex Katz, and Minimalist sculptors such as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, and stain painters such as Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Poons, and Louis (and others) might have said.

The generation that came to maturity in the fifties and early sixties was romantic about a formal, physical flatness and an emotional blankness. Coming in the wake of the myth-bearing Abstract Expressionists, their challenge was to see how many associations could be pulled out of art. Johns takes images we know are flat and, in a let’stry-this-but-it-could-be-somethingelse spirit, gives them a sumptuous—a brooding or an ecstatic—texture. Katz revisits every convention in art—the portrait, the still life, the landscape, the group scene—and, with a tense blandness, refuses to put in the expected emotion. Warhol in his person may have been the hippest of the hip, but when his pictures are seen along with the works of his contemporaries, he’s one of a number of talented hipsters.

WARHOL WAS VERY much in harness all his life. Beginning in the middle sixties, he made (or participated in the making of) countless movies, and he had a rock band, the Velvet Underground. Around 1972 he became involved with painting again, and in addition to exhibiting regular new series of pictures from then on, he did between fifty and a hundred commissioned portraits a year. He began the magazine Interview, and he put out different compilations of his photographs. He published a novel, a hefty collection of savings, and, with Pat Hackett, an account of the sixties Pop scene. After his death it was learned that he had assembled an awesomely large collection of art and objects. Yet the biggest impression was made by the man himself. His obsession with his face and his fame could be seen as a freakish passion play of a martyrdom to consumer culture; at times it seemed a spooky, perhaps helpless display of vanity.

There is very little of the personality or the cultural figure “Andy Warhol” to think about when you stand before his best work, though. The finest serial pictures are like pieces of magically airy cake. In the catalogue, in a section of notes on Warhol by artists and friends, he’s referred to in the same breath as Picasso, but for me he’s more like our Chagall or our Raoul Dufy. Like Chagall, he found a way to make an exquisitely physical and lyrical art out of folklore. (What are Chagall’s scenes of Eastern European village life but another culture’s pop imagery?) And like Dufy, Warhol was stimulated by the thought of effortlessness. Like the Frenchman, he gave new life to the idea of a light touch.