PRINT April 1989


GALLED BY ANDY WARHOL’S sycophantic courtship of the rich and powerful, Robert Hughes published a smug 1982 rebuke in the New York Review of Books that aimed to depose the “King of Pop” in the name of high culture and common sense. Disputing Warhol’s general cultural relevance, and particularly the credentials bestowed upon him by left sympathizers, Hughes’ article gave voice to a welter of widely held parochialisms and exerted a substantial measure of undeserved influence. At the same time, precisely because his intent was defamatory, Hughes cut through the pieties that frequently occlude more congenial appraisals. In dubbing Warhol’s solicitous à deux with the Reagan presidency “the age of supply-side aesthetics,” Hughes singled out as evidence of Warhol’s artistic fraudulence precisely those inversions—the conflation of business and art, and the confusion of expedient conformity and subversive intent—that lend Warhol’s sociocultural prestidigitations a singular adequacy as a mirror on our contemporary condition.

In the half-dozen years since Hughes penned his protests, Warhol’s stature has grown more secure. The seemingly endless litany of Warhol quirks and collectibles that glutted the press since his untimely death two years ago has only given way to a new wave of coverage occasioned by Warhol’s current MoMA retrospective. The museum has mounted one of the most ambitious tributes to a single contemporary artist in recent memory, replete with a 500-page catalogue, setting the tone for a generally feverish validation of Warhol’s controversial production. By seeming consensus, the biggest obstacle impeding Warhol’s canonization is the confusion of the famous personality and his artistic achievement.

A near cousin of the futile efforts to retrieve the autonomy of the art object from Warhol’s extra-artistic enterprises is the equally farcical mania to separate the “valid” early work from the presumably vapid late repetitions. This impulse is neatly encapsulated in the catalogue in Ivan Karp’s call to arms:

It is incumbent upon those members of the fine-arts community who possess the requisite perceptual ability to sort out and identify what part of . . . [Warhol’s] production should enter the visual-arts culture.

If Karp’s comically pious dedication to defending the culture of Warhol’s Soup Cans from the incursions of his latter, presumably “decadent” Vesuviuses or Renaissance remakes reflects the intrinsically self-validating motivations of institutional connoisseurship, it also points to the contradictions inherent in the application of conventional modes of valuation to the work of an artist credited with challenging our very understanding of art and its place in the larger world. When Warhol remarked that “Pop art is a way of liking things,” and, by extension, a stance in relationship to the world as opposed to an artistic style, he opened his project, in a single affirmative embrace, on all those extraartistic contents that an essentially proto-Romantic American Modernist tradition repressed.

If diligent attempts to ferret out the “art” oppose the Hughes-style impulse to call the “Warhol bluff,” they have an equally deforming effect on the understanding of his project. The standard guises these domesticating efforts take seem as endemic to the untutored museum-goer as to the art professional; they are common to Warhol defenders and detractors alike. The symptoms range from wanton ahistorical comparisons (Manet’s The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, 1867, is a favorite, but the analogies can get as farfetched as curator and catalogue essayist Kynaston McShine’s likening of a late Warhol camouflage painting to Monet’s “Water Lilies”) to the overemphasis of formal qualities at the expense of iconographic particulars (again McShine states that “for their exhibition in Paris in 1974, Warhol installed a large number of [Maos] on a specially created Mao wallpaper,which added a boldness and dramatic tension . . . startling in its symphonic complexity”). As equally strained is the attribution of psychological insight to society portraits, in which the glossy affectless unreality a sitter gets back for a price is more to the point. Finally, the overvaluation of the role played by technical innovation in the work thickens the fog. After all, Warhol employed silkscreen to tell us of the ubiquitous effects of photomechanical reproduction, not to dazzle us with new technology.

As an artist who spent his career enthralled by the power of the mass media, Warhol would undoubtedly have greeted his own contradiction-laden apotheosis—as it reflects history’s inevitable inequities—with his famous pop equanimity. Indeed, Warhol anticipated this ultimate spectacle in his 1979 Big Retrospective Painting (Reversal Series), a single canvas screened with a selection of his signature icons.

Though Warhol complained that he would rather have worked on films, publishing projects, anything but painting, he knew better than anyone, as Benjamin Buchloh suggests in his catalogue essay, that both the strictures of pictorialism and the institution of the museum were his closest allies. Intuiting the fact that even his status as an outsider depended on this institutional “contract,” though he announced his retirement from painting in 1965, Warhol redeemed the gesture on a grand scale when he retook up the brush. The “institution of art” was his lifeline, not only because his artwork literally brought home the bacon, but because his place in the pantheon of culture depended on his maintaining proximity to the pictorial. Buchloh quotes Duchamp very suggestively on this count: “What interests us is the concept that wants to put fifty Campbell’s Soup cans on a canvas.” Buchloh explains that what Duchamp is proposing here is that by adhering to the support of the canvas, Warhol’s gesture differs from, and in a way exceeds, his own absolute departure from the frame. After all, Warhol was playing the culture game—even as he examined the reciprocity of art and the mechanisms of publicity and business that had previously constituted its unspeakable underside. Perhaps it is not all that ironic that Warhol trusted Karp—the same Karp with the quaint anxiety about dating the “important” period of Warhol’s production—as one of those insiders who knew what would “play” in the highbrow art world. It was Karp, we remember, along with Emile De Antonio, who advised Warhol in the early ’60s to leave behind the expressionist brushwork and go with the plain graphic Coke bottle that ushered Pop into full swing.

Warhol inhabits a very particular place in the history of the avant-garde. Though it is tempting to suggest, as McShine does at the conclusion of his catalogue essay, that “Warhol eliminated, almost by himself, the venerable distinctions between the ‘avant-garde’ artist and the general public, between the commercial graphic world and the world of fine art,” nothing could be further from the truth. In the first place, your everyman will still find Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street and the white collar version of the American dream on which it depends more in sync with his sense of the zeitgeist than the schizophrenic extremes represented by a Warholian jaunt from Mortimer’s to the latest demimonde hot spot. In the second place, the legacy of the avant-garde that Warhol inherited is one that already understood “art” as an “institution,” and then proposed the immolation of that institution. Warhol, in fact, violated this legacy in an exemplary way when he revealed the tautology inherent in the fact that those privileged avant-garde tropes—the “end of the institution of art” or the denigration of the boundaries between art and life—become meaningless once the designation “art” is abolished or subsumed by “life.” Warhol made it plain that the utopian conflation of art and life is just that—a utopia. There are better chess players than Duchamp, but we’re not tempted to make room for them in the pantheon of modern masters; by the same token, the Trumps dwarf Warhol both as business people and publicity mongers, yet still MoMA demurs. When Warhol said that the best kind of art was business art he meant it, but his “genius” rests in his realization that the business/art equation only works when both signs are operative. If Warhol had permanently abandoned the painting that he claimed he found so drudgerous, we would not be remembering him with a retrospective at the Modern, and indeed his career might have suffered, as Buchloh suggests again, the same kind of radical marginalization that has rendered the Fluxus experiments virtually invisible. If, on the other hand, Warhol had bequeathed us only his canvases—if it were possible or desirable, as McShine believes, to separate Warhol’s extra-pictorial endeavors from the artifacts he left behind (McShine proposes that “without his own dramatic and stylish presence, Andy Warhol’s work remains great art, a monument impossible to ignore”)—Warhol would not tug on our imaginations so persistently. The real Warhol “trick” was that he was able to maintain under the sign of art a whole sphere of activity that traditionally defied that designation. So, while his famous Marilyns and Jackies will inhabit pride of place in art history as iconic registers of the tyranny of the mass media, a tyranny Warhol subjected to the disarming gaze of Pop, the phenomenon of Interview magazine, to pick an extreme example, remains its ephemeral but equally significant counterpart, the ultimate monitor of the regime he cagily marketed as art. If, as Ivan Karp suggests, we have a “responsibility,” it is not, as he proposes, “to sort out and identify what part of [Warhol’s] production should enter the visual-arts culture.” That will take care of itself. Rather it is to write into history those parts of his endeavor—all the instruments and strategies of his self-promotional enterprise—that museum culture inevitably obscures.

Jack Bankowsky is a writer who lives in New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.