“I don’t really care that much about ‘Beauties.’ What I really like are Talkers…. Talkers are doing something. Beauties are being something.” Thus wrote Andy Warhol in THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) in 1975.
At the Austin Museum of Art’s Andy Warhol exhibition, the artist’s orbits around the poles of being and doing emerge as a fundamental dialectic in Warhol’s career and psyche. Walking through the show reveals a shift from doing to being in Warhol and his work from the early classical Pop to what, and who, came later.
The first three galleries are dedicated to the canonical Pop images that made Warhol famous. Each room has a theme, and contains artworks either completed or begun in the sixties. In the first gallery, famous prints such as Flowers (1964), Three Coca Cola Bottles (1962), and Campbell’s Soup 1 (Chicken Noodle) (1968) adorn the walls, along with a few others. A quotation on the wall in a shiny sans serif reads: “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine.”
The second gallery holds equally famous images, predominately of people who (like the images in the previous room) had more meaning as icons than as a real thing. Liz (1967), Marilyn (1967) and Jackie II (1966) recapture the glamour stills or media images of these famous women, turning them into a kind of colorful currency, devoid of meaning beyond their exchange value as images. For the less-famous Ethel Scull, Warhol used a photo booth to avoid as much responsibility for the pictures’ composition as possible. In this room, Disaster (Car Wreck) (1978, from the Death and Disaster series begun in 1963), a black and white screenprint depicting two crashed ambulances, hangs alongside another black and white image of an electric chair. Despite the museum placard claiming that the Death and Disaster series separates Warhol from the rest of the frivolous pop artists of the time, the images retain a glossy, iconic meaninglessness, especially juxtaposed as they are so closely to the portraits. Like the movie stars and everyday products, the car wreck and electric chair images exist as models for the social value of tragedy and horror, rather than actually being tragic or horrible. The shiny lettering in this room reads: “When I got my first television set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships.”
The third room houses Campbell’s Soup II (1969), a portfolio of ten prints of different Campbell’s Soup cans celebrating this greatest example of mass production. Like the soup cans themselves, Warhol’s depictions of them were designed to flood the art market by force of identical duplication and volume. By printing multiple copies of his works (and reprinting different works at different times in his career), Warhol prevented an original work from existing, and guaranteed that people who saw his work in magazines were getting essentially the same thing as the real purchasers of his work: a modified print of a photograph. Warhol understood that images were the things that had real currency in the postwar politics of desire, and he made it his business to make images of those images.
The installation’s fourth room begins to break away from the classic Pop work of the sixties. Three prints of Mao (1972-74) dominate the room, and each contains the as-yet unseen hand of the artist. Thick brushstrokes of paint smear two of the Mao screenprints; the other depicts Mao’s features using a gestural Ab-Ex line. The shiny wall quote here reads: “They always say that time changes things but you actually have to change them yourself.” This room leads into the two main galleries, which house a hodgepodge of Warhol’s late works. Being let loose in the two large galleries from the first four is like encountering a riddle at the end of an encyclopedia entry; but then again, this is Warhol.
The early work, which was Warhol’s most popular and well-received, is relatively easy to digest and accept. Not so with images from the 1970s and 80s, which often stray from his mechanical modus operandi. Warhol’s quest to mythologize his own persona is presented as a possible cause for this shift in his work. Mick Jagger (1975), for example, is a print made from a polaroid taken by Warhol himself. The artist embellished this print with paint, whimsically adding line and color. His artistic interference in the mechanical process appears often in the last two rooms, stamping the works with his cultish persona. Perhaps the ultimate work describing the Andy Warhol persona is the $ (1982) series: as multiple paintings of dollar signs, it doesn’t get much plainer than this. Warhol had become the icon that his earlier works emulated, and the simple act of producing art — regardless of the work itself — communicated the same message as his earlier works.
The late works in this exhibition are roughly grouped according to subject: a handful of celebrity portraits hang near each other, eight prints of ads are together, two appropriations side by side, etc. In these galleries, the quotes on the walls no longer seem to deal with the works in the room, e.g. “If everybody’s not a beauty then nobody is.”
In some of the paintings, there is a vague attempt to quantify his persona in terms of exchange value, such as gems, money, and friendship with famous people (as in Screen Tests, a series of film portraits of stars). As always, these later works are so brutally honest as to be suspect, demonstrating the literal worth of his aura by depicting what things he could use it to obtain. Thus it is no longer necessary to paint icons themselves, but simply pictures of their actual value.
Ultimately, Warhol ceases his emulation of icons and becomes one. In his strongest late works, he chooses to investigate the powerful trade value of his own persona, while other images run more in the vein of traditional painting. The later work searches out a solution to the conundrum of how one can celebrate the equality of democracy, when doing so places one at the top of a hierarchy. Certainly that’s where Warhol wanted to be, and this exhibition makes the argument that Warhol’s greatest masterpiece was his name.
Images courtesy the Austin Museum of Art and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Jeff Jackson lives in Austin.