PRINT January 1998



WHEN THE PRESS RELEASE for the Whitney Museum’s autumn exhibition “The Warhol Look: Fashion Glamour Style” crossed my desk last summer, I let go a groan. Not a major one, more a been-there-done-that sigh of exasperation. The art/fashion turn—in these pages no less so than in general—has been from the start a kind of magnet for misapprehension. Journalistic overprocessing turned a modest blip on the art screen into a full-blown bugaboo. Somehow what one might have thought a less-than-earthshaking notion—that the specter of glamour and the attendant mechanisms of fascination had become (pace Warhol) the express concern of a handful of artists—got twisted into the confused idea that the systems of fashion and art operated by the same rules, that a work of art was the same thing as a dress and vice versa. At a time when much of the art world was nervous to scuttle the whole deal and retrench to dependable high ground, the prospects for “The Warhol Look” seemed pretty bleak. Collegial bad faith made me expect the worst: navigating the hype and confusion seemed a tall curatorial order, and my sense was that Artforum would do best to wash its hands of the show and let the whole beleaguered conversation rest in peace.

Despite my initial impulse to jump ship, a mini-premonition suggested there might yet be more at stake than how right or wrong the organizers got it in the Whitney galleries. The presentiment involved a familiar scenario: you pick up your venerable local daily, open to the culture section, and with a few peremptory paragraphs and a plea to common sense (all too common, it is usually the case), a finger-wagging reviewer sets the discussion of art back twenty years. The substance of this augured dressing-down was a certain promiscuous mercantilism supposedly driving the rumored art/fashion flirtation (of which this show was the crowning symptom) as well as the museum’s shameful complicity in the scam. My ESP? Accurate (cf. Holland Cotter, “Fluffing Up Warhol,” The New York Times, November 7), though none too impressive, once you think about it.

What was, in fact, utterly predictable about this bad-review-come-true was the oldfangled protest that the show had violated Warhol by occluding the “artwork” with all manner of extra-artistic jetsam. After all, goes the shopworn call to reason, it's the art that counts—as if the discreet appreciation of the inviolate soup can would deliver up the fullness of Warhol's “achievement.”

Which is not to say that Warhol’s visual instinct isn’t impeccable, his touch (and, more important, timing) magisterial. My plea is simply that Warhol’s oeuvre be seen not just as a series of objects but as a whole theater of performative intensities—Interview as important as the disasters, the celebrity portraits as decisive as the early films. This is where “The Warhol Look” got it right even in getting it wrong. If the galleries housing Warhol’s relics felt stale and archival (the catalogue stole the show), this misstep is a lesser offense than the parochial purification called for in the papers. In a panel discussion organized in conjunction with the show, designer and Paraphernalia denizen Betsey Johnson’s bittersweet mantra—“I'm so glad to have my silver miniskirt in the Whitney and to have been a part of the moment with Andy at its center, but somehow. . .”—sums up the impossible bind in which the curators found themselves. Given the enormity of the Warhol trick, Johnson’s stutter is understandable. Warhol’s maverick achievement is to get the whole interconnected deal, his entire multileveled world of art and commerce, to play under the sign of art—a genius that can seem as much a mirage as the artist, in his status as everyone’s mirror, at times felt himself to be. This reflective absence, an absence that includes everything and makes the whole world strange, is what I believe Wayne Koestenbaum had in mind when he said on the panel (and in his article appearing on page 70) that Warhol “has extended ... a gift certificate for an hour or two of embodiment,” adding that “the penalties for abusing [it] are dire.” This exquisite equipoise, one that Warhol somehow lets us inhabit, is the real art of the matter and must not be abused in pruning his achievement to satisfy the culture of the museum.

One of the side effects of Warhol’s superadequacy to our moment is that the mirror he holds up seems to accommodate everything in its proximity; indeed, the power of his reflectiveness turned this number of Artforum into an unintended theme issue of sorts. The ripples of his art are felt in the curious encounter between the artwork and the commodity, the question of the disappearance of the one into the other, of resistance and the inversions of the way we think resistance, that links Commodify Your Dissent, the title and central trope of Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland’s collection of pieces from The Baffler (reviewed by James Surowiecki), and the conversation between Diedrich Diederichsen and Red Krayola cofounder Mayo Thompson charting the vicissitudes of self-commodification at the interface of art and popular culture. And it’s the idiom of Pop, its contemporary ubiquity, with which Warhol seems synonymous that makes the connection between Bruce Hainley’s discussion of Charles Ray’s brand-new car wreck, Frederic Tuten’s moving memorial to that mirror of our contemporaneity Roy Lichtenstein, who died of pneumonia on September 29, and Lisa Liebmann’s review of Sigmar Polke’s European retrospective, the piece that inspired our cover. A painting that seems almost at odds with the near-romantic abundance of the German artist’s Pop, Parfümbild (Perfume painting) addresses the exchange value of the ineffable as embodied in the brand names of Warhol’s favorite product and most fitting trope.

Jack Bankowsky