PRINT April 1987



ON THE MORNING OF SUNDAY, February 22, with the news that Andy Warhol was dead, I ran to the window expecting to hear seismic noises coming from the city outside, and to witness a transfiguration, I don’t know of what: of the back of the building facing me, of the air quality, of appearances in general—but of something. The shock of so enormous an absence would surely register, it seemed, on reality itself.

What one wonders now is what will happen to our unruly inventory of images, without their editor in chief, their framer, makeup man, and gift wrapper, in the wake of this utterly disorienting work stoppage. While art is almost always bound to its historical moment, Andy Warhol’s work–at the time it was made, and ever since–can be said to function as the signature of its era, whether the ’60s, the ’70s, or the ’80s. While his “style” became a legend in its artistic consistency, it has also proven to be a virtual paradigm for adaptability to changing content. In other words, Andy Warhol accomplished the theoretically impossible: he made incontrovertible icons out of a continuous present—living history—in which there is not, nor can there be, any consensus.

Who he was, how he was, and what he was made it such that we did not think he was mortal. We had already seen him, in the photograph taken by Richard Avedon, appear as a contemporary and oddly bloodless Saint Sebastian after his recovery from bullet wounds in 1968. But Andy Warhol’s Everyman death, from a heart attack, has put the blood back into the picture, and there is no machine to replace the artist who meant to be a recording machine.

Andy Warhol was an icon of currency (which is why it seems especially foreign to write “was”), he was the passive on-switch for electricity around him. I know of only two other grand icon-makers in the contemporary visual arts, one German, one Russian, very different from America’s Andy Warhol, yet both about his age, both also with iconic personal presences, both also dead within the last year: Joseph Beuys, and the director Andrei Tarkovsky, whose greatest movie, Andrei Rublev, 1966, is the epic story of a great medieval Russian icon-maker.

“Icons at Large”—the concept and the title for this column given to quick glances at reverberant matter, insistent occurrences of images from culture or from nature—can serve as an instant description of Andy Warhol’s work, all of it, as a whole and in virtually any of its parts: his paintings, his prints, his photographs, his movies, his sculpture, his magazine, his ads. . . . Who knows if one would even think that icons might be “at large” had Andy Warhol not shown us so many. The quick glance was Andy Warhol’s usual method; and matter—perhaps the theology of presence and absence—was his primary subject.

Andy Warhol was the furthest thing from a visionary. He was a high-fidelity system. What turned his famously mechanical repeat images into icons had to do with his unfailing, unrivaled, uncanny receptivity to all charged parties and stray particles in the encroaching atmosphere; he has been described as the Statue of Liberty of art.

On the Sunday morning a month ago, I heard no unusual sounds, of course, and everything outside the window looked almost the same. When I turned back into the room, however, a projection occurred, unwilled by me. It was not those icons struck by his genius—Marilyn, Elvis, Liz, Mao, Jackie, the soup can, the Brillo box, the dollar bill, the electric chair—but him. Multiples of Andy Warhol–in the wig, wearing glasses, carrying a backpack, as a torso, wearing his camera, holding the tape recorder—were all over the walls and in midair, as if on automatic release.

Lisa Liebmann is a writer and critic who lives in New York. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.