PRINT September 2002


The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné

AT SOME MOMENT between 1959 and 1961, Andy Warhol underwent an artistic change deep enough to bear comparison to a religious conversion. Before then his work had the effete charm of designer valentines: plump cherubs, posies, pink and blue butterflies, pussy cats in confectionary colors, young men with ornamental cocks, and ladies’ footwear seemingly designed with fantasists in mind. His images after the change were vernacular, familiar, and anonymous, drawn from the back pages of blue-collar newspapers, the cover pages of sensationalist tabloids, pulp comics, fan magazines, junk mail, publicity glossies, boiler plate from throwaway advertisements. It was as though he had received some commandment to lead the lowest of the pictorial low into the precincts of the highest high art. There were no disclosures or confessions concerning what remains perhaps the most mysterious transformation in the history of artistic creativity. But that is not the whole of it. Warhol went from being what one of Henry James’s characters calls a “little artist-man,” on the fringe of the fringe of the art world, to the defining artist of his era. That could not have happened had the world itself not undergone a parallel change through which the transformed Warhol emerged as the artist it had been waiting for.

A mere fifteen years into the new era, the late Thomas Ammann called for a “comprehensive, scholarly, and authoritative” catalogue raisonné of “all of Andy Warhol’s paintings, sculptures, and drawings.” This work would accordingly include, together with his juvenilia, the swish drawings for Love Is a Pink Cake, 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy, A la Recherche du Shoe Perdu, and Wild Raspberries, as well as those for I. Miller shoes that placed Warhol among the most successful commercial artists of the ’50s. But a volume containing these early efforts would be unthinkable were it not for the startlingly banal images through which Warhol began revolutionizing artistic consciousness in 1961. So it is appropriate that the first volume of The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné should start not at the very beginning but with Paintings and Sculpture, 1961–1963, in which, among other things, one can trace the ascent of commonplace images from the bas-fonds of everyday visual culture to the walls of great museums.

Warhol’s first exhibition after the conversion was in a space that belonged by rights to the commercial artist of shoes and pussycats: the Fifty-seventh Street windows of the Bonwit Teller department store in New York. But the paintings on display for one week in mid-April 1961 belong to his new phase. There are five in all. Advertisement is based on a montage of black-and-white newspaper ads: for hair tinting: for acquiring strong arms and broad shoulders: for nose reshaping; for prosthetic aids; and for (“No Finer Drink”) Pepsi-Cola. Bonwit’s window also included Before and After, advertising the beaky job you were born with transformed into the cute nose of your dreams. The remaining paintings are of Superman, the Little King (on an easel), and Popeye. The ads reflect Warhol’s personal preoccupations—impending baldness, an unattractive nose, a loose unprepossessing body. But the placement of such ads—in back-page ad sections of the National Enquirer and comparable publications of mass consumption—testifies to the universality of nagging self-dissatisfactions and the inextinguishable human hope that there are easy ways to health, happiness, and “Mak[ing] Him Want You.” The paintings comment, almost philosophically, on the summer frocks displayed on mannequins in front of them. But the message is lightened by images of comic-book personages with whom everyone was familiar. Who, pausing to look at the display, would have predicted that Advertisement, with which the catalogue raisonné begins, would find a place in Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, by way of the museum at Mönchengladbach and the capital city’s Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart?

Warhol at first attempted to turn banality into art by means of radical enlargement and by modulating his images with the drips and scumbles of Abstract Expressionist painting: “You can’t do a painting without a drip,” he told Ivan Karp, among the first of his champions. Both of these mannerisms appear in the Bonwit Before and After and indeed in the prophetic Coca-Cola bottle painting that I had known about only by hearsay when I discussed it as “The Abstract Expressionist Coca-Cola Bottle” in Metamorphoses de la Bouteille de Coca in 1990. The first Campbell’s Soup Can painting, of late 1961 still bears the attributes of artistic “authenticity”—red and yellow drips as well as some urgent crayon strokes. But all this protective coloration from the ’50s art world disappears in the thirty-two Campbell’s Soup Cans legendarily exhibited at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, in July and August 1962—perfect examples of handpainted pop images masquerading under the appropriated format of mechanical reproduction.

Two “handpainted” Coca-Cola bottles, one in black-and-white, are reproduced here side by side as #038 and #039. They are evidently based on different ads, which is the kind of thing one learns browsing catalogues raisonnés, but one wonders if these are the two paintings Warhol showed filmmaker Emile de Antonio, according to a widely published anecdote. De Antonio told him that the black-and-white one was “our society, it’s who we are, it’s absolutely beautiful and naked, and you ought to destroy the first [i.e., the brushy] one.” Various Warhol friends take credit for having helped him see that all the Abstract Expressionist mannerisms were not merely unnecessary but inconsistent with his aims. The first Coca-Cola bottle without drips appears to be #082, based on the same ad as #039; and it may be the result of the artist’s heeding de Antonio’s advice. But in any case, the use of heavy mechanical outlines was of short duration. Warhol discovered photo silk-screening by what he called “accident,” without being precise about what he meant. This happened in mid- to late 1962 and tended to inflect the way his images looked from that point forward. It was the perfect medium for the paintings of disasters and catastrophes, subjects that became so central to his endeavors in the early years of the decade. The mesh of the screen along with dots of transmitted photographs gave his images the urgency and authenticity of wire-service news shots. But the casual, smeary, smudgy effects of the way he used the medium evoked the kind of uncertainty and irregularity that went with a lingering Abstract Expressionist aesthetic.

It also went with what one might think of as Warhol’s personal philosophy. “I think it would be so great if more people took up silk screens so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else’s,” he said in 1963. The editors, Georg Frei and Neil Printz, cite this in their introduction: “Not only did [Warhol] deflect those who would attempt to know his work or to discern his hand in it, he disputed the role of the artist as the author of a work of art.” Moreover, “Warhol also challenged art connoisseurship as a way of knowing objects through their visual characteristics.” In their view, the two principles of artist as author and connoisseurship as artistic cognition “lie at the bedrock of a catalogue raisonne.” For what is a catalogue raisonné that does not provide answers to the question of “what can be known and determined to be from his hand [and] the threshold question of what is and is not Warhol”? In view of the staggering prices Warhol’s works have brought at auction since his death, in 1987, it is easy to appreciate the significance of establishing authenticity from the perspective of protecting investment. But from the perspective of his philosophy, one can sympathize with Warhol’s own countervailing project of negating the evidence of what Duchamp decried as “the touch.” It would seem scarcely to matter, for example, which of the Brillo Boxes if any were actually stenciled by Warhol himself. Or whether it was he who filled a given “Time Capsule.”

My own sense, for what it’s worth, is that Warhol did not trust his hand not to lapse into the graphic trivialities of the ’50s. How else are we to account for the fact that the curators of a 1998 Basel show of his drawings suggested that he literally stopped drawing from 1963 until 1972? The curators of that exhibition included a silk screen known to be “by him” of Marilyn Monroe, though the attribution could not have rested on any authenticating autographic distinctiveness. I have often wondered what was wrong with his paintings of mutilated soup cans, crushed and bent, with their labels torn away. The drawing is utterly unconvincing. Had he already hit upon photo silk-screening by then, he could have photographed these still-life “disasters” as if they were wrecked automobiles or airplanes. As it is, the insipidity of the facture is incompatible with the metaphor of violence they imply.

Physically, the book pays tribute to the spirit of Pop with its industrial-grade corrugated cardboard binding and slipcase decorated with THIS SIDE UP indications, dotted lines, and bar codes. The typography is perhaps excessively designy, but who actually reads, as opposed to consults, catalogues raisonnés? Everything is illustrated, and I was grateful for he “just the facts, please” approach requisite to the genre. It enables us to follow the material record of what came from Warhol’s mind in his first three years as a major artist, even if the actual “touch” grew fainter and fainter as photograph and silk screen replaced crayon, brush, and pencil. The book goes as far as it is perhaps possible in making objective the inner life of the artist, while we follow, with helpless fascination, his intuitive leaps from one body of images to the next, mapping the consciousness of his times as he goes.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University in New York.


Georg Frei and Neil Printz (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné. Volume 1: Paintings and Sculpture, 1961–1963 (London: Phaidon, 2002), 512 pages.