“Andy Warhol: Drawings, 1942-87”

Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart

A recording angel, charged to inscribe everything that happens as it happens, would produce a complete but unsatisfactory account of things, unless it somehow managed to include all that did not happen. As Sherlock Holmes demonstrated, nothing was more important than the fact that the dog did not bark. The significance of nonevents extends to narrative exhibitions of artwork as well, which is confirmed every time a curator pointedly explains, as if providing a missing link, why a work crucial to the visual narrative of an artist or a movement is not on view. But suppose there are genuine gaps in the reality one sets out to narrate—stretches of time in which nothing happened, holes not in the exhibition so much as in the work itself, emptinesses filled by nothing because nothing was done? The question of narrating the nothingnesses with which a reality is punctuated has not, so far as I know, ever been resolved, least of all for narrative exhibitions. Until it is, there can be no satisfactory exhibition of Andy Warhol’s drawings.

The hyphen between 1942 and 1987 in the show’s subtitle implies continuous visual narrative, starting with a self-portrait of “Andrew Warhola” at the age of fourteen and ending with whatever Andy Warhol happened to be drawing the year he died. The name change—a powerful, symbolic gesture always connected with a perceived change of identity—occurred in 1949, around the time Warhol illustrated “Success Is a Job in New York” for Glamour. Warhol’s first big success in New York, that spread includes a typically frivolous drawing of a woman climbing a spindly ladder, and neither from that sketch, nor from any of Warhol’s drawings from the 1950s, could one have foreseen what he was to become in the next decade. In the decade of his momentous metamorphosis from 1963 to 1972—Warhol, with doubtful exceptions, did no drawings at all! Mark Francis, chief curator of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and cocurator of this show (with Dieter Koepplin), characterizes this gap as a “long hiatus” in the career of an artist who drew regularly his entire life, but I would argue that Warhol’s period of not drawing is crucially significant, that his not drawing in fact holds the answer to what drawing meant for him when he did draw. And it must equally hold the answer to what Warhol was up to in the decade so Wed with astonishing art but so astonishingly empty of drawing.

Even the most narratively intuitive curator would be hard pressed to exhibit a decade of nearly nothing, but the installation should somehow spark in the viewer a sense of arcing a gap between Cars of 1962 and the two 1973 drawings of Mao. A single work from that interregnum is shown, a de Kooning-like Marilyn Monroe, of 1967; it is Pop in content but Abstract Expressionist in style, as if Warhol were interested in a rapprochement. But since the work is not a drawing—it is a silk screen, included in the show only because Warhol is known to have done it himself—its presence confuses the narrative: something does not become a drawing just because it is done by the artist’s own hand. And it certainly licenses no conjecture as to how Warhol might have drawn in the period to which it belongs. Marilyn Monroe does have an energy lacking entirely from the largely effete designs of the 1950s (of which there are disproportionately many in the show), and it may be that Warhol recognized this disparity, but was as yet unable to find a style of drawing suited to his subject. So perhaps the Marilyn is a symptom of being torn, of having not really found a way of reconciling two philosophies of art—or two philosophies of being—exemplified in the tension between the expressivity of urgent scribbles and the deadpan, photo-mechanical look that had become his signature style.

The earliest drawing here in which this tension can be felt is the 199 TV of 1961, with heavy uninflected ink lines (which mimic the cheap advertisement Warhol is turning into art) cohabiting the same space as clusters of nervous drawing lines. In the black cartouche which contains the price, $199, the white numbers look mechanical, while the dollar sign is merely scribble. By the time the dollar sign, fusing sharply defined shapes with fuzzily designated shadows, comes into its own in 1981, the tension, together with the nervousness of indecision, has dissipated. Warhol has come to terms with the implied duality and handles the two styles, as well as the relationship between page and image, with perfect mastery.

We know that, sometime in the early ’60s, Warhol showed Emile de Antonio an uninflected painting of a Coca-Cola bottle alongside a very brushy painting of the same subject, asking which path he should follow. De Antonio fatefully advised him that the former was “where we are,” and Warhol treated this as he would, in his earlier career, the choice between drawings submitted to an art director. Even as late as 1975, when Warhol was a “real” (as opposed to “commercial”) artist, as Dieter Koepplin notes, quoting from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), he looked for “A boss, who would tell [him] what to do, because that makes everything easy when you’re working.” His originality lay in presenting choices, leaving it to whatever “boss” to point him in the preferred direction.

My own sense is that neither of the two drawing styles reflected in the paired Coca- Cola bottle paintings was going to serve Warhol in the great oeuvre produced in the years of nondrawing, which are, perhaps, explained by that fact. Consider two drawings—one, from 1960, of an advertisement for some now forgotten treatment for baldness; and one from 1961, of a front page of the Daily News, with the headline PIRATES SIEZE SHIP WITH 900 000. The former is very pencily, but it leaves a question of whether this is consistent with the subject, since Warhol’s drawing wasn’t a sketch for an advertisement, but a sketch of one. The front page images-a woman smiling and a man holding his hand to his head, are extremely pencily, but the woman is caricatural, with cartoon teeth and goggle eyes. I sense that Warhol solved the problem of drawing by recognizing that it had no place in work whose power depended on appropriating—or modifying—the effects of newspaper graphics as they appear on the stands. Consider the silk screen Suicide of 1963, which is in effect a transfer of a news photo from which both his drawing styles are absent, and whose effects are so distant from what drawing could express that his turning his back on it becomes altogether intelligible. Which is to say, Suicide does not belong in the show (it was included for the same dubious reasons that explain the 1967 silk screen of Marilyn Monroe).

It is striking that when Warhol returns to drawing in 1973, the two styles he needed de Antonio to help him decide between return in the two large drawings of Mao. One of them gives the impression of having been traced, almost certainly from a photograph. With the intuitiveness of a graphic artist, Warhol outlines the defining features of the head and even draws lines around what I suppose are highlights in Mao’s hair, as if they were real forms. In the second Mao, Warhol has internalized Chairman Mao’s image and no longer needs to trace—or no longer needs to convey whatever traced lines convey. The penciling takes on a life of its own. There is a marvelous scribble that runs upward from the right side of the mouth alongside the nose, nearly to the eyebrow. It may be granted that scribbling, which implies the artist’s hand, is not a gesture we associate with Warhol, who is credited with having systematically removed the hand from the work. But since it keeps appearing in the drawings after 1973, it is possible to suppose that not knowing how to handle it might explain the absence of drawing from 1962 to 1973. The same contrast as in the Maos is present in two drawings of Joseph Beuys, circa 1980. One is simply traced. The other, in acrylic, shows that Warhol has internalized Beuys’s image, which he dashes off freely, using dark dense jabs of black. It is less successful, in my view, than the traced drawing—mainly because the mouth is conventional rather than observed, as in the fey portraits of the ’50s—while Beuys’s entire personality is revealed in the toothy expressiveness of his mouth. This shows that critical evaluations of the drawings cannot be based on which of the two styles dominates. In any case, the drawings after 1973 differ so greatly from those done before 1962 that “before and after” suggests itself as a metaphor for Warhol’s career as a draftsman.

The best drawings in the show are two self-portraits from 1986, the year before Warhol’s death. In both, the face is half in dark shadow. The wig, like an exploding chrysanthemum, is traced. The face, too, is delicately traced and then blackly covered with a cascade of angry black jabs. Does this imply a sense of straddling the boundary between life and death? Francis and Koepplin inform us that drawing became a Sunday activity for Warhol, possibly a form of solitary meditation. Despite the medical uncertainties surrounding his death, it is difficult to resist finding it prophetic that the penultimate drawing in the show is an anatomical diagram of the large and small intestine, the stomach, and, if not a lobe of the liver, what could be the gallbladder itself. The final drawing, deeply metaphorical, is of dentures—those emblems of aging if not the jaws of death. It’s tempting to guess what was on Warhol’s mind as the end approached.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.

"Andy Warhol: Drawings, 1942–1987’’ is on view at the Kunsthalle Tübingen through Nov. 29, when it will travel to the Neu Galeri der Stadt, Linz (Dec. 12, 1998–Feb. 28, 1999). Additional venues include the Walker Art Center and The Andy Warhol Museum.