PRINT February 1965

Saint Andy

IT IS YET TOO EARLY TO SPEAK OF A LITERARY MOVEMENT which corresponds to the various post-Abstract Expressionist art movements (as the Beat could be compared to Abstract Expressionism), and almost outrageous to suggest that in Pop Art we may find a feeding-in of sensibility to some of the most actively dissident elements in our society, but there are enough signs of both to perhaps give them early mention. One would suggest only this: that an accent of derision, of an irony which makes the most destructive use of the imagery of commonplace America has been provided to a restless and rebellious young er generation now at work in literature, in the film and in art by the work of the Pop artists of the last several years.

The statement which the young Los Angeles artist, Larry Bell, was moved to write upon first viewing Andy Warhol’s work is revealing of the electric influence which Warhol, as a personality and as an artist, has exerted on so many young artists, especially, perhaps, on the West Coast. The extent of Bell’s admiration could not be deduced from an examination of his work, for he does not work at all like Warhol, and this is perhaps because the nature of Warhol’s attraction is not exclusively in his work, but in that “he has taken a super-sophisticated attitude and made it the art.”

Part of what makes the attitude super-sophisticated are the ambiguities attendant upon it. It is an art that may be a mockery or may not be a mockery, that seems most a mockery when most fashionably accepted, most subversive when most a fad. It is an art that seems capable of feeding the most disruptive energies to a sardonic generation only when it is the very toast of the bourgeois world, and Warhol’s younger admirers enjoy his fashionable prominence as much as they enjoy the disdain with which he is treated by so many critics.

The installation of the “Arena of Love” exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles recently, provided a vivid example of the esteem which Warhol commands. Mounted above the exhibition, Andy in Majesty, were two large Warhol canvases, setting the tone and accent of the exhibition below. The idea, implicit in Warhol’s paintings (and explicit in many of his films) that one most effective way to get under the skin of bourgeois America is by threatening its sexual values, is the theme of the Dwan show. Ben Talbert’s painting of a pornographic playing card on a background of the American flag makes the point perhaps more explicitly than Pop Art, at its most typical, would, but Talbert is an artist apart, whose work does not partake of that ambiguity which characterizes most of the other work in the movement. (But it does take the lead in annexing a territory which much Pop-influenced art—especially literature and the film—is eyeing, that of the pornographic. The canvas in the Dwan exhibition is one of the few exhibitable paintings Talbert has produced.) For the rest, if, on the one hand, all those lips, nipple-pinchings, harems and nudies are just a kick, the dead-pan, comical subject matter of Pop, they hint, on the other hand, at a sexuality that is more open, illicit, freer than, and consequently threatening to, bourgeois sexuality. The Dwan show only flirts with what in much recent literature and film has become a fact, and for this reason tends to smirk and snicker when it should be orgiastic and dangerous, but it does illustrate the possibility that a second generation of artists are making more overt use of a vocabulary of derision, laced with hilarity, which the Pop Art movement, and Warhol in particular, have provided.

Warhol’s activities in the film treat much more openly that mockery of prescriptive values which is only implicit in his paintings (and which is prominent or subdued, depending on where and when his work is seen). Art critics who cannot find the art in Warhol, who are mystified at the virtual idolatry with which he is regarded by a younger generation of painters might have been even more astonished at the roar of approval which greeted the award given to Warhol’s three-minute “Banana Sequence” at the recent Los Angeles film festival. For this was an audience of the young disaffiliated film-makers making movies on nickels and dimes, film buffs who do not, for the most part, tend to concern themselves with doings in the art galleries, an audience seeking not the chic but the subversive, not the elegant but the destructive, not satire but nihilism. “Banana Sequence,” with its blatant and hilarious assault on that world of what Allen Ginsberg has called the “heterosexual dollar,” met all the requirements, and it is telling, indeed, of Warhol’s influence that “Film Culture,” the organ of the most radical—politically, sexually and artistically—wing of the experimental film-makers should recently have presented to him its Sixth Independent Film Award (for the films “Sleep,” “Haircut,” “Eat,” “Kiss,” and “Empire.”)

In all the areas in which the best and the most engaged youth are at work today, the accent and irony of Pop has fed a new and powerful energy. If it is yet too early to speak of a “Pop” literary movement, it is not too early to discern the influence of this energy in literature. Now, it is only in the offset-mimeo productions of obscure literary groups here and there that one can discover, for example, a manuscript like “Private Dick,” by “Lamont Cranston,” but Terry Southern’s “Candy,” whose lines could come out of Lichtenstein balloons, has already reached a more extensive audience.

In these novels, the artist as skillful manipulator of sacred techniques, delicate, “talented” vessel of sensibility is obliterated. “Lamont Cranston” eliminates “the author” as a Warhol painting eliminates “the artist.” “Candy” seeks a form which will render criticism absurd, and finds it in the pornographic novel as Roy Lichtenstein found it in the comic strip. For to eliminate “the artist” with his baggage of “esthetics as we know it,” it is also necessary to eliminate the critic with his baggage of lunatic distinctions, judgments, significant and insignificant forms, “second guesses,” killing doubts, museum mentality. Pack him off to look for “motifs” in comic strips and half the battle is won; the way is cleared for what someone has called a “criticism of enthusiasm.” What is feeding through into film, painting and literature is the possibility of an art unhampered by art, of an artist who permits nothing to stand between society and his vicious presence.

Its remarkable success among those very elements in American society against which so much of its energy was directed—the rich, industry, banks, the fashionable dilettante world of post-war affluence—has ever been a source of embarrassment to Abstract Expressionism. Because the success of Pop Art does not share this embarrassment, because so much of its irony turns on its being produced for—and against—the fashionable world of avant-garde collecting, because there is so much that is itself Pop about a cocktail opening for an exhibition of soup cans or rubber telephones, the new art was quickly labeled as the most conspicuous example of fashionable decadence. The possibility that it may be from this art, of all arts, from which a truly subversive energy has been released to a younger generation is one remarkable to consider.

“Private Dick,” by “Lamont Cranston.”

after cruising the Worth’s neighborhood, Private Dick went to the National City Dept. of parks public swimming pool. he paid the taxi driver & went in. most of the swimmers were teen-agers. Pry say in the shade & looked around. after ten minutes he walked over to a tall guy with a crew-cut. “are you College Joe?” Pry asked flashing his teeth . . .

“what if I am?”

“like to ask a few questions.” he took out a notebook and pencil.

“i don’t want to answer any.” Joe turned away. Private grabbed his arm . . . “just a minute.” Joe jumped into the pool, taking Private Dick with him. Joe was out-in-a-flash & made good his escape, while Private choked & thrashed.

“let me help you up.” Private looked up at a beautiful eurasian girl in a bikini, bending over. “give me your hand.” she took his wet hand & pulled him out of the pool. “let me dry you off,” she said, taking off the top of her suit & wiping his face.

“I’m alright,” said Pry, struggling to get away; instead bumping into her, the two of them falling in a pile of flesh and wet clothes, on the ground. Dick jumped up, to find himself in the the midst of a ring of teenagers drinking soda pop from bottles & laughing.

Punk Kid stepped forward. “better get outa here mister,” he said, waving his Coke bottle aloft.

From a statement written by Larry Bell in September, 1963, upon first seeing an exhibition of Warhol’s work:

It is quite unique to these past few years that a generation of artists should have its influence on a second generation before it has even resolved its own philosophy. Modern means of communication and Pop Art are a romance that must have been made in heaven. It is my opinion that Andy Warhol is an incredibly important artist; he has been able to take painting as we know it, and completely change the frame of reference of painting as we know it, and do it successfully in his own terms. These terms are also terms that we may not understand.

Warhol has successfully been able to remove the artist’s touch from the art. He has not tried to make a science out of it as Seurat did, but made an anti-science, anti-esthetic, anti-“artistic,” art totally devoid of all considerations that we may have thought of as necessary. He has taken a super-sophisticated attitude and made it the art, and made the paintings an expression of complete boredom for esthetics as we know it.

It has always been my opinion that the only art that is really important is the art that changes. Warhol is important and his paintings are art. In the past artists have been involved with making art as an object, alone, relating only to itself; these paintings are objects without reference and without relationship even to themselves. They even have very little to do with Andy Warhol, maybe nothing, because it is dubious whether he had anything to do with the act of painting them. It is painting in the most absolute and abstract sense; it is Pop Art and probably the first true, pure honest example of it. The paintings are visual proof that the “thought” is sincere, considered and deliberate, with absolutely no guesswork, second guessing, or naive accidents. It is absolute, it is painting, most of all, it is art. In any event, and no matter what is finally decided about it, nothing can take away from it the important changes that the work itself has made in the considerations of other artists.

Philip Leider