PRINT December 1986


IN PRINCIPLE, THE ARTIST as a ways been identifiable by a trademark. It took Andy Warhol to make the two identical. By calling his studio a factory Warhol blatantly identified his output with that of an assembly line. He used mechanical reproduction not only as a source of ready-made imagery but, just as important, as a means to rationalize esthetic production by adjusting. supply to demand. “Andy Warhol” has become the brand name given a certain recording device—and a means of distribution. The mechanical stare of the camera underscores all Warhol enterprises turned back on itself to photography, it’s remarkable how transfixing that gaze can be.

In a previously unseen selection of Warhol’s photographs, taken during the ’70s and ’80s, each work stitches together four prints, usually identical, to multiply the image. This design produces a modified kaleidoscope effect, a bludgeoning symmetry of unexpected if overdetermined rhymes. Thanks to the blunt repetition, random details take on heightened authority, and chance juxtapositions seem inevitable. In the obviously candid portrait of Truman Capote, twisting around on his deck chair in joyless acknowledgment of the camera, a stray foot and a beach boy slugging down a can of soda achieve the allegorical weight of two angels in a Renaissance annunciation. Repetition turns even the most casual photo opportunity into an icon—it’s as if seeing the same snapshot four times at once makes it as familiar and official as a block of postage stamps, or as one of Warhol’s silk-screen superstars.

As much as they’re about anything, these photographs are about the nature of repetition. They travesty Minimalist geometry no less than they parody the unique quality of the individual image. Warhol’s repetitions can be winsomely harmonious or violently contrapuntal. A molded plastic chair against a curtain (it might almost be the setup for an impoverished TV talk show) is transformed into a fugue of bruised and elongated oval forms, while a shelf full of canned goods becomes as thunderous a vista as any photographed by Ansel Adams. Strong patterns, like the tip of an airplane wing bisecting a cloud, hover on the brink of self-parody. There’s an overhead shot of a telephone and its sinuously unfurled wire that Warhol is said to be considering as the successor to his cow and flower wallpapers.

Many images are of trademarks or icons, which is to say they are transparently “Warhols”: a torso wearing a James Dean T-shirt, the Empire State Building, a statue of Mao Zedong, cartons of Coca-Cola labeled in Chinese, the front page of the New York Post, various celebs (Brooke Shields, her mother, Muhammad Ali, Senator Barry Goldwater). Of course, Warhol’s development lends itself to repackaging—a large traveling exhibition organized by the Pasadena Art Museum in 1970 was limited to variations on five themes (soup cans, Brillo boxes, portraits, flowers, and catasrophes). Reworking familiar Warhol iconography, some of these new photographs have the look of classics: (Austerely monochtomatic versions of his paintings and silkscreens from the id ’60s, they’ve been printed, and stitched, with such evident attention they seem a kind of artisanal throwback.) Other photographs are ostentatiously empty—just ephemeral junk on a worn piece of pavement, three birds and a shadow on a city street, or blurs that can’t be read. few are almost political—the exterior of the Ramrod Club in New York, or a Park Avenue address. Still others offer a mind-boggling art-historical plenitude, like the plates of apples that seem to cascade out of one photograph and into he next, or the radiant vortex of a flushing toilet shot from above against the Vienna Secession checkerboard of the tile floor. Decomposing language at its most inertly functional, as on a 42nd Street movie marquee or the sign for a parking lot, and at its most brazenly opaque, as in Chinese characters or convoluted graffiti, is another Warhol strategy.

It’s impossible to judge how these images would work as individual photographs—we’re talking about Warhol, after all. A few, like the portrait of Chinese bellhop glamorously poised on the brink of making a phone call, are already resonant and majestically, amplified; in most cases, hough, the original scarcely matters. No matte ow hackneyed the composition, no matter how grossly sentimental or boldly hideous the content, the grid acts as a sort of subliminal crucifix-on, ennobling.the subject But these images literaIly have no center—it’s all or nothing. There’s a photograph of a window filled with Chinese calligraphy (the artist’s reflection glimpsed on the glass) that can’t be resolved. Your eye skitters up and down, lost in the planes.

Like many epic photographic enterprises, this one has a cumulative impact, yet Warhol’s selection of images is as disconcertingly random as it s rigorously controlled. The photographs appear found rather than taken. (It would be easy to appropriate this cornucopia of people, places, and things by superimposing a theme over Warhol’s vague interests; indeed, it’s already been one, first by the Factory hands who chose which mages to print, then by the Robert Miller Gallery, hick selected the prints they’ll exhibit, and now me in this magazine. Warhol defeats the intentional fallacy.) These images give the impression that Warhol has looked at every photograph that’s ever been. There’s the old-fashioned Weegee flash, the Diane Arbus direct hit, the Modernist Paul Strand interiors (a chevron of shadows slanting across an old wooden door), the Lee Friedlander panorama the Walker Evans billboard, the ’80s appropriation, not to mention all manner of postcards and snapshots. As in his earliest films. Warhol has invented a ready-made style which can incorporate anything.

In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), Walter Benjamin remarked that the “futile” debate on whether photography could be art obscured the primary fact that photography had already and irrevocably transformed the nature of art. The impact of photography on 19th-century artists has been well documented. They were, after all, among the early victims of automation. Forced to compete with a mechanical rival, painters studied and imitated it, copying even its “mistakes” (blurs, double exposures, distortions). Photography set virtually the entire Modernist agenda. Marcel Duchamp exhibiting a urinal—that is to say, reducing the “creative act” to a combination of choice and context—is Duchamp the photographer. When Duchamp drew a mustache on a cheap print of the Mona Lisa, then recently pilfered, he wittily recapitulated art history from Leonardo (the birth of perspective, the invention of the idea of “genius”) to photography (the birth of mechanical reproduction, the license of stupidity).

Warhol’s new photographs bring photography full circle. If Duchamp is the photographer literalized, Warhol is the camera anthropomorphized. These sutured images do not simply gather the randomness of the camera’s impressions, they magnify photography’s leveling power—its ability to obliterate scale, to dispense with the labor of making art, and to estheticize every sort of subject matter, no matter how clichéd or appalling. An anonymous Chinese bellhop becomes for an instant as vivid a personality as Phyllis Diller. An actual airplane is identical with a model, the museum relic with the actual tourist site. Multiplied by four, a pile of dirty New York snow achieves the pure symmetry of a formal garden.

The post-Modern can be partially defined as the point in Western civilization at which art finds itself identified within and against mass culture. Television is the greatest equalizer, transforming everything (our attention spans not the least) into a commodity. So Warhol ups the ante, offering a new, improved, extra-strength photography that jumbles up the Eastern Bloc and the West, high culture and low, right wing and left, Top Gun and Brancusi, and, once again, painting and photography. The multiple image flaunts the photograph’s “photoness” even as it denies its spontaneity. No longer windows, snapshots are turned into (eminently collectible) objects. The desire, noted by Benjamin, to possess an object through its likeness has been superseded by the desire to possess the not-even-unique representation itself. Reproduced, these photographs look like paintings. They are, in some ways, painting’s revenge.

J. Hoberman is a staff writer for The Village Voice, New York. He is writing a book on Yiddish cinema.