Electoral Plastic Inevitable

Andy Warhol, Vote McGovern, 1972. Photo: Domenick Ammirati.

TO PREPARE FOR THE MIDTERM ELECTIONS, I studied my NYC voter guide and spent consecutive nights watching dystopian cinema. The Purge (2013) surprised me with its clear and pointed class critique. After all, what a reasonable observer might once have imagined to be satire (see Alex Jones; “I really don’t care do u?”) is, in 2018, often bald-faced propaganda or the gleeful expression of racist and/or fascist and/or misogynist opinion. One lawless night a year when the rich can freely cleanse the nation of its underclass scum? Fuckin awesome. Even poor Pepe started out a simple slacker, remember, before the alt-right took him up. Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park (1971) makes this very point about the contingency of meaning in its core conceit. The faux-doc is ostensibly shot by a UK camera crew whose members believe themselves to be globalist ombudsmen exposing the savagery of the latest freakish and fascistic permutation of the American “justice system.” Of course, the pigs chasing the hippies and Panthers through the desert are far from ashamed—they’re happy to have their brutality on display. The cruel way they wield power is both a warning and a recruitment ad.

Election Day itself was no less nauseous than this trip back to the Nixon era. New York was pelted with rain; by 4:30 PM the world outside was midnight blue. Before I set out for the Whitney and its Warhol opening on Tuesday night, I drew a tarot card and got the Ten of Cups, reversed: disconnection, disharmony, a painful gap between ideals and reality.

And yet, entering the museum, I forgot for a while that the fate of the nation hung in the balance. The lobby was thick with the clean and the tony; house music thumped; the bartenders poured wine and Hennessy. In one corner, Silver Clouds had been exquisitely massed into an irresistibly Instagrammable backdrop. Cocktail-napkin statistical analysis, drawn from participant observation and anecdotal evidence, suggested a crowd low on art peeps—not because the Whitney had failed to seal the deal with that key constituency but because their numbers had been swamped by high turnout in other demographics, such as Italian-speaking fashionistas, people without visible dandruff, and men in tailored suits.

It wasn’t that I expected everyone to be as anxious as I was about the election, or that I expected to run into more people I knew. But the vibe was alien and decidedly not solemn. Trudging alongside all these strangers upstairs, I realized for the hundred thousandth time that I was the weirdo. Normal people associate Warhol with fun, party, disco. I associate Warhol with dread, social sickness, and death—the skulls, the Shadows, the dead celebrities, the botulism, Nixon, the exquisite demise of a young woman in Suicide (Fallen Body), 1963. Perhaps this is a bias of those too possessed by art history, who in order to find something worth studying must see in it something weighty. Or perhaps it is a habit of the mind of the depressed.

The show itself was no less crowded than the cocktail zone and was just as fabulous, with works smartly selected and expertly paced. Because Warhols are so frequently reproduced, they are in the mind’s eye detached from scale and skewed in palette. Face to face, the colors reveal themselves to be subtle and rich and the canvases often larger than expected. Elvis is six foot ten, Mao a good fourteen. One shrinks a little. The most mediated and machinic of artists seems more painterly, like a creature of the atelier. Between the scale shifts, berserk patterning, and acid tones, a room of Flowers-on-Cows was nearly seizure-inducing. A framed Plexi of two stills from the 1963 film Sleep displayed in the middle of another gallery was dreamy, erotic, and deathly. Did I mention that the producer of The Purge is the son of Irving Blum, middle name Ferus? Like a midterm general election in a nastily divided country of 325 million, the opening of a blockbuster exhibition is a choose-your-own-narrative experience, with the fine points failing to sift out for days.

DJ No Bra at Performance Space. Photo: Domenick Ammirati.

I checked the clock: Polls were closing soon in Arizona, Colorado, four counties in Kansas . . . I descended the five flights dripping with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (America), 1994, and popped into the gallery that held grim and fascinating portraits from the 1970s. Artists are mythologically understood to be creatures of fire gliding through space and time with total freedom; it’s an illusion we wage laborers need to keep toiling. But artists, they’re just like us: so often they end up doing something they care less about to fund the work they really want to do, like making B movies or painting sickles. As usual, Warhol was ahead of the curve, monetizing social relations a decade or three before anyone was talking neoliberalism.

The night outside was drier and seemed less dark as I made my way across town to Performance Space New York, which was hosting a returns-viewing event. Drinks were free with I Voted stickers; lucky me, I had three. For sure I had gone into the day with hope for a repudiation of the president. Underlying that desire, though, was something epistemological. The year 2016 had wrenched all our psyches in deep ways, to the glee of lib-owners everywhere. I wanted to go back to the liberal’s cheap status quo ante; I sought in the night’s outcome less (or not only) the maiming of a very real force for evil than (and also) the cockcrow of a return to reason. The right result would mean that once again polls could be trusted, experts could be believed. Our paradigm for how the world should function would return from eclipse, and one’s spine would need less steeling for every visit to a news site, every bleat of a news alert. That free-floating anxiety might ease. Victory even in both houses of Congress would mean nothing lasting or even great. It would be, though, like unseeing a ghost.

With implausible restraint I kept myself from checking results until I arrived at the party. I like surprises.

Whitney curator Donna DeSalvo and Debbie Harry. Photo: Matthew Carasella.

Whitney chief curator and senior deputy director Scott Rothkopf with artist Jeff Koons. Photo: Matthew Carasella.