PRINT January 1990


Personality Culture

NOTHING DOMINATES ART MORE THAN the name. While thousands of artists slouch toward celebrity, a few totemic Moderns cast their long shadows over the procession: Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and now Warhol. In October came the news that the Andy Warhol Museum will open in Pittsburgh, Andy’s home town, in 1992. With a seven-story, 70,000-square-foot building awaiting renovation, some 700 paintings and silk screens, all of the films, uncountable Polaroids, ephemera, sculptures, and videotapes, it will be a cult of personality with a major physical plant.

America loves its heroes, but this institutional homage marks an absurd paradox. The Andy Warhol Museum will be a grandiose tribute to the originality of an artist whose reproductions and rampant plagiarism subverted the very notion of the original, and a monument to the genius of someone who staged the disappearance of the Self behind a wig and a blank stare.

Capitalists are known for setting up vanity museums to house their collections and purchase public gratitude, but until now, the single-artist museum has been mainly a European prerogative. France is full of great-man institutions consecrated variously to Léger, Matisse, Picasso, Rodin, and Toulouse-Lautrect, not to mention museums made from the embalmed living quarters of writers like Victor Hugo. The romance of creativity tyrannizes the Gauls.

The United States, on the other hand, has only a few such shrines, like the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Queens, New York, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Museum in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years, the Dia Art Foundation helped establish a few living artists in museumlike quarters of their own, like Donald Judd on a converted army base in faraway Marfa, Texas, and Dan Flavin in Bridgehampton, New York. But these utopic playpens have been barely accessible or even public.

The Andy Warhol Museum will likely be the largest museum devoted to a single artist in the world. It brings together the large Warhol holdings of both Dia and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in a building purchased by the Carnegie Museum of Art, a few hundred yards from the school where Warhol took classes in illustration in the late 1940s.

Evidently the museum’s benefactors have not been studying contemporary critical theory, some of which would point out that the age of the heroic artist ended with Modernism. Any cursory look shows Warhol’s work to be about the wider media bath in which we all swim, but there is an anachronistic tendency to look for the explanation of cultural products in the person who makes them. A romantic and distended notion of Authorship still subtends the culture industry. To dedicate a building to Warhol suggests a nostalgia for the Byronic pose, the Hemingwayesque bravado, and the discredited belief that art is a question of biography. At its worst, the figure of the master artist for whom museums are built represents our libidinal craving for authority and paternity.

Mark Francis, the newly appointed director of the museum, disputes that his nascent institution will merely repackage the myths of creativity, best exemplified in Picasso. “In fact, Warhol’s work contradicted the idea of the individual genius with his factory processes, in which he became more a controlling director than a lone author,” says Francis, who, as an Englishman, has a certain distance on all-American Andy. “There was an enigmatic quality about him that was nothing like the ‘Picassoid’ artist of Modernism, who suffered from agonized bouts of creativity. In much of his work, Warhol was a kind of passive recording angel of the world, mirroring it rather than casting about for ways to express his identity.”

A great deal of Warhol’s output was in fact collectively produced or created by assistants. There is no escaping the contradiction between Warhol’s collaborative method of working and the “genius” mentality implied by a monumental museum. Warhol rarely touched the movie cameras that shot his films; his subjects were lifted from magazines, and helpers worked the production lines that made thousands of silk screens. Many artists have since emulated the Factory by hiring teams of semicollaborators, but cleverly kept these pseudofeudal arrangements hidden from view—for instance, David Salle or Julian Schnabel. It’s hard to believe that the Warhol Museum would “devalue” its objects (some of which may be said to have many authors) by reconstructing their labor history. Pursuing a kind of transcendental anonymity, Warhol shed the identity of artist and became instead a logo. The founders’ mandate—to create "a model single-artist museum”—would seem to indicate a desire to return him to the role of Artist. And, one might add, there is no choice, because what’s at stake is the central conceit of bourgeois culture, namely, that charisma and individual get-up-and-go—and not the impersonal but determined flows of ideology—are what make the human world spin.

As an anonymous collective, New York’s Guerrilla Girls are similar to Warhol’s studio work crews. The Guerrillas, whose broadsides pasted around town expose the gender and race biases of New York art institutions, are worried by the founding of a major museum devoted to another white male artist. “Is a museum for Warhol really necessary?” asks a Guerrilla calling herself Frieda. “Things have not improved much for women and nonwhite artists in recent years. Thousands of artists contribute to the bohemian aura of the art market that collectors find so romantic and daring, but only a few individuals have reaped its rewards.” In this period when cultural institutions are finally opening their doors to women and people of non-European ethnicity, the Andy Warhol Museum looks to some viewers like a defensive, rearguard action.

Plans for exhibitions call for long-term shows in huge spaces. “Though we will obviously concentrate on Warhol, there may be occasion to show relevant material by others,” says Francis. “I can imagine an exhibition of Hollywood movie studio photographs, for example, to explore celebrity, vanity, and the star system.” Doubtless such a show would complement Warhol’s relish of the media, death, and fame. But however conceptual, all monuments to artists bring to mind an authorless proverb: “Every century is governed by the ideas of the last.” That is, we are always ruled by the dead.

Edward Ball writes on art and cinema for The Village Voice, Afterimage, and other journals.