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Top of the Pops?

Art Review by John Molyneaux, March 2002

John Molyneux reviews the new Andy Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern.

In 1963 the Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein painted 'Whaam!' It was a huge blow-up of a comic book image depicting a US fighter jet destroying an enemy plane at the press of a button. Nearly 30 years later, in the run-up to the Gulf War, 'Socialist Review' put this picture on the front cover with the caption 'Stop Bush's Mad War'. Similarly, in 1962 Andy Warhol produced his 'Marilyn Diptych', with its rows of yellow-haired Marilyns, and 36 years later the 'International Socialism Journal' referenced Warhol on its cover with rows of yellow-haired Karl Marxes. This significant art, so often greeted as outlandish or absurd in its day, seeps gradually into the culture until it becomes part of the taken for granted collective visual consciousness, like Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' or a Constable landscape.

It is therefore worth beginning a consideration of Warhol, whose exhibition has been the subject of such massive media attention, by noting just what a radical move (in historical, not political, terms) Pop Art represented at its inception. The art world in the 1950s, especially the New York art world, was dominated by the painting of the Abstract Expressionists and the criticism of their champion, Clement Greenberg. Greenberg's key theoretical statement, 'Avant Garde and Kitsch', defined 'high art' previously in opposition to the products of popular mass culture, of kitsch and 'tin pan alley' as he called it. To try to make art out of the despised imagery of Hollywood and the supermarket was a daring and risky provocation, in the same way that a century earlier it was risky for Monet to present a nude working class prostitute rather than a classical Venus or an Eastern odalisque.

It is true that it was Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton and others who were the first to take this road, but it was Warhol who took it furthest and mostly uncompromisingly with his stark, almost unembellished images of serial soup cans, Brillo boxes, Elvises and Marilyns. The word 'almost' is important here, and so is this impressive retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern.

The casual viewer of Warhol reproductions in books, magazines and newspapers could easily get the impression that these are 'simple' mechanical reproductions of already iconic images. But standing in front of the very large originals immediately makes it clear that these pictures are carefully and artfully constructed. For example, '210 Coca-Cola Bottles' (seven rows, 30 bottles each) actually presents us with 210 different bottles, each distinguished by variations in the quantity of the liquid, the highlights on the glass, the lettering on the bottle, etc, so that the pictures constitute not only an invocation of Coke and mass production but also a complex 'abstract' composition in its own right. The same applies to 'S&H Green Stamps' and to '192 One Dollar Bills', in which the bills all vary in tone and some are upside-down. It's even more important where the Marilyn pictures are concerned. All the Marilyns derive from a single source, a clipped black and white still from the 1953 film 'Niagara', but each are different, and not only in colour. 'Blue Shot Marilyn', for example, has a white circle right between Monroe's eyes, clearly suggestive of a bullet hole. The 'Marilyn Diptych' divides into 25 coloured Monroes on the left and 25 black and whites on the right, with the image passing through near total blackening and disfiguration in the seventh column to extreme faintness on the far right. The more you look at the coloured panels, the more the hair, eyeshadow and lips look like paper cutouts that have been stuck on the faces, emphasising the artificially constructed nature of the Monroe 'image'. Also the misregistration of the colour (the failure of the colour to fit exactly with the underlying black and white photograph) changes the expression on some of the faces from a smile almost to a snarl, especially where the red lipstick overlaps onto the teeth like blood.

Dark side of US life

Thus while it is obvious that these works from the 1960s are 'about' mass production and celebrity, the actual paintings clearly undermine the oft-repeated view that Warhol's art is a simple celebration of either of these phenomena--'fascinated critique' would be a more accurate designation. The images of Elvis also make this point. In the black and white 'Double Elvis' the left hand figure is so darkened as to be virtually a black Elvis, while the red-shirted Elvis against blue background has red lipstick--a camp gay Elvis!

In fact, none of the early 'celebrity' works gives us a romanticised, glamorous publicity-type picture. They are certainly 'beautiful' in the sense that Warhol has created highly charged, highly memorable images, but they all share the same flat, impersonal, distanced quality reflecting the fragile, alienated nature of the fame they represent.

This exhibition also gives prominence to the social-political works--the suicides, car crashes, race riots, electric chairs, etc--in which Warhol documented the dark side of US life in the 1960s. Some of these Warhol has called 'Disasters' in reference to Goya's 'Disasters of War', and indeed his subjects and themes are to some extent similar to Goya's. All of these large silkscreen prints make a strong visual and emotional impact--Warhol has a brilliant eye for the telling image.

Three of them I found especially powerful: the huge black and red 'Atomic Bomb', in which the awesome blackening mushroom cloud is given the horns of the devil; the chilling 'Big Electric Chair', made more so by its use of dilapidated ordinariness; and the whited out 'White Disaster I', depicting a lynching with a black man hanging from a telegraph pole and a burning car. It is, I think, neither possible nor desirable to try to infer a coherent or developed political position from these pictures, but their basic sympathies seem unambiguous. If one wants to pin down Warhol's politics his vicious portrait of Nixon above the slogan 'Vote McGovern' is a fairly straightforward clue (McGovern was an anti Vietnam War left Democrat presidential candidate).

The exhibition also brings out other aspects of Warhol's art--his humour in his 'Mona Lisa' series cheekily entitled 'Thirty are Better Than One', produced to coincide with the original's much-trumpeted trip to New York. His chaotic avant-gardist capacity to annoy the authorities is seen in his 'Thirteen Most Wanted Men' series offered as a mural to represent the US on the facade of the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World Fair. Particularly surprising to me was the extract from 'Empire', his eight-hour film of the Empire State building. Previously I had assumed this to be of only symbolic or conceptual significance, but the actual film showed that in the absence of any other motion one became sensitised to every slight atmospheric variation in the air. Warhol's 'Empire State' became Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral in a different light.

However, this exhibition unintentionally tells another story as well. It is a deep seated tendency in both bourgeois art appreciation and the mass media's coverage of art to focus more on the artist's personality than the artist's work--to treat the work as simply an effect of the artist's innate 'genius'. This produces a situation where once an artist is established as a 'master' everything from his/her hand is automatically valued highly, both aesthetically and financially. In reality there are both great and poor Picassos, wonderful and mediocre Rembrants. And this exhibition shows that there are good and bad Warhols.

At the beginning there are early paintings influenced, I guess, by Johns and Rauschenberg which do not work visually. More importantly there is a marked decline in the second half of the show featuring work from the 1970s and 1980s. Here the silkscreen portraits of Liza Minelli, Mick Jagger, Peter Ludwig and others have lost their edge, becoming 'Pop' versions of the familiar saccharine society portrait, and some of the attempts at new directions, such as 'Oxidation Painting' and 'Camouflage', are not very interesting failures. Of course Warhol has not lost all his talent, so there are exceptions such as the beautiful 'Portrait Joseph Beuys', but the general trend is downwards. Significantly in his collaborations with his protege, Basquiat, it is the younger artist's style and work that predominate. It may be that Warhol's shooting by Valerie Solanas, author of the Scum [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto, in 1968, was the turning point. Or it may be that he was the victim of his own success, his own celebrity.

Never mind. The show as a whole remains very impressive, and the first half offers the opportunity, probably unique for a generation, of a face to face engagement with some of the most surprising and telling art of the last 50 years.

Comments?

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