PRINT April 1989


ANDY WARHOL’S SENSE of space was a missing element at MoMA’s recent Warhol retrospective. Anyone who has seen photographs of installations in which Warhol had a hand, or who has read the chapter called “Atmosphere” in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, knows how sensitive he was to the nuances of physical context. I want to add to those words and pictures some recollections of how he and his work occupied space in that moment when both were launched from the space of art into the more diffuse realm of celebrity.

I stepped into Warhol space through two shows that were part of that launching process: the 1965 retrospective organized by Sam Green at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, and Leo Castelli’s show of Warhol’s Mylar clouds and cow wallpaper the following year. At the time, Warhol had announced his retirement from painting and was concentrating on movies, which he hoped would take over as the Factory moneymaker. He was obsessed with the desire to upgrade the way the movies looked. He was tired of filming dumps; he wanted a look that was “really plastic.” Once, when he and I were walking near the United Nations, I pointed out a new glass skyscraper and mentioned that a friend had an office there. Warhol got really interested. Could we film there next weekend? But the truth is that if Warhol had shot in that office, he would have found some way to bring in squalor. If he couldn’t find it in the architecture, he would have focused the camera on the caked-up makeup covering some poor actor’s acne, a feature that would have upstaged the “plastic” set.

It was much the same story with the other new project Warhol was engaged in that year, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a Gesamtkunstwerk featuring the Velvet Underground, projected movies, and, not least, the presence of Warhol and friends standing about on the balcony of the Dom. The Dom was a dump: speckled brown walls, creaky floors and staircases, tarnished mirrors, hideous fluorescent lighting that turned your skin green. And its mess was a better showcase than plastic for Warhol’s resourcefulness. He used to dream about pure, clean plastic space, but when such a space was actually realized—at the Cheetah discotheque, at the Paraphernalia boutique—recognized that there was a difference between design and art. It was better to have an old dilapidated mirror carousel revolving on the floor than hundreds of flawless sheets of Mylar. Warhol space, like Warhol art, was the arena for an agon between the new and the tarnished; it had to have a rough edge. So did Warhol time. Habitually, Warhol and company would arrive an hour or more after the scheduled showtime because, he told me, “that makes it more artistic.”

To enter Warhol space was to walk into the metaphysics of display. It scarcely needs repeating that Warhol was a great showman, that he gave commercial images the impact of theater. What I want to emphasize is the extent to which his work explored the conceptual dimensions of display space. The Philadelphia ICA and Castelli shows were both occasions for this exploration. The paintings of the 1960s, of course, were heroic exercises in display’s fundamental task: to glorify objects made by others. Their frank artificiality glorified the glorification process. The technique of repetition is an old sales trick: every display queen knows that one vase might look like nothing, but the seductive rhythm of a whole row can bring a shine to all the objects in it. But the real triumph of display came on opening night at the ICA, when the paintings were taken down to protect them from the crowd. The exhibit of Warhol himself—“the art incarnate”—embodied the fantasy of the mannequin come to life, given life by the viewer. For display is as much about the viewer as about the object to be viewed. Display is made for the viewer, acknowledges the viewer, doesn’t exist without the viewer. This stance, no less than Warhol’s subject matter, made a radical break with the Abstract Expressionist ideology of the hermetic art object.

The Castelli show, in effect an installation piece, gave a more focused view into display space. At MoMA’s retrospective, the clouds and cow wallpaper were thrown together down narrow corridors, the clouds smashed against the ceiling like cheap party decor. In the original show at Castelli, the two were presented separately, like a diptych, a Pop plastic heaven juxtaposed with a garden of fallen creatures. The gallery’s two rooms presented two forms of space—the container and the contained. The “container” room offered a look at the psychically uncontained: the clouds were not just the mindless plastic Pop ideal; they were also a dream of space undifferentiated by objects, partitions, or permanence. The cloud room was about air, emptiness, disappearance, newness, passivity as a positive value, a form of freedom. At the back of the gallery, meanwhile, the wallpaper room depicted the world differentiated by choices: esthetic choices, life choices, choices of things to live with. What cows we are to pick pink and yellow over blue and green.

Display is about choices; about offering the buyer a selection from which choices are to be made. But beneath the appeal of display is the postponement of choice; the freedom to fantasize an infinite number of choices, selves, worlds, futures. To choose is to lose this freedom; to choose is to fall for something; it is to fall, period. Choice is not always so benign as Elsie the Cow. Choice is the electric chair. Choice is death by car crash, race riot, tainted tuna, suicide, or celebrity. (Salvation is a blank canvas with nothing on it.)

The Fall isn’t necessarily sexual. It can follow any choice. Pick an apple over a pear, and you are done for. I think the issue of choice arose in Andy’s mind primarily because he was inclined to pick an apple when convention demanded that he choose a pear. Or, as Proust wrote of M. de Charlus, “There where each of us carries, inscribed in those eyes through which he beholds everything in the universe, a human outline engraved on the surface of the pupil, for [him] it is that not of a nymph but of a youth.” A choice puts the chooser on display; it reveals the self to the self and to the world.

Warhol was a great walker in urban space. Back in the ’60s, he often carried a cheap plastic airline bag slung over his shoulder, elbow bent, two fingers under the strap, his head tilted at the angle you wear when you want to check yourself out in a shop window without being too obvious about it. He could go crazy if he didn’t like what he saw. “How could you let me go out looking like such trash!” he snapped at me one day, truly livid. He had put on a pair of pants that were too wide and too short and looked ridiculous with his zippered boots with Cuban heels. He had made a bad choice! Put on the wrong pants! There was nothing to do but shift the blame.

Display windows divide a world of idealized beauty from that one in which a reach for the ideal often magnifies our defects. In his best work, Warhol worked both sides of those windows, catching the reflections on the surfaces, inside and out: defects superimposed on ideals. There was nothing superficial about the art he made from his walks through those reflections. Proust transformed the sensibility of a society gossip into a tool to expose an entire society’s psychology. Warhol did much the same, with the sensibility of a staple queen. To postpone choice was to hope for a freedom that in fact could not be attained without putting the right foot before the left. Innocence and experience both had their claims. Life was driven forward by meeting both claims and making art from the tension between them.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design, New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.