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Art vs. Life vs. Pop: A review of Andy Warhol (Icons of America series) by Arthur C. Danto cont.

by Gary Comenas/London/2009

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In the preface to his Warhol book, Arthur C. Danto describes how his visit to Warhol's second show at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1964 - which included Warhol's Brillo Box sculptures - was a "transformative" experience that turned Danto into a "philosopher of art" and helped him to know "how to define art" i.e. if a reproduction of a Brillo box was art, then what was art? He returns to the subject in the final chapter of his book by using the example of a Holy Grail vessel to illustrate his point. Just as the vessel looks ordinary until we know it was once used by Christ, Warhol's Brillo Box becomes something special once we know it is art. But Danto never quite explains how we know it is art in the first place. As he accepts Warhol's Brillo Box, a priori, as a work of art we are left wondering whether art is simply something created by someone calling themselves an artist that is displayed in an art gallery.

Danto seems to veer toward such a definition of art in an earlier essay on the subject - "The Philosopher as Andy Warhol" included in the inaugural publication of The Warhol museum in 1994. In that essay he draws an analogy between the Brillo Boxes and "camels and dromedaries" writing "... the difference between art and reality is not like the difference between camels and dromedaries, where we can count humps. Something cannot be a camel that looks like a dromedary, but something can be an artwork which looks just like a real thing. What makes the one art may be something quite invisible, perhaps how it arrived in the world and what someone intended it to be." (AWMU80) In an earlier essay, "The Artworld" published in the October 15, 1964 issue of The Journal of Philosophy , Danto writes "What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo box is a certain theory of art... without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art, and in order to see it as part of the artworld, one must have mastered a good deal of artistic theory as well as a considerable amount of the history of recent New York painting. It could not have been art fifty years ago." (PC276) Both intention and perception, then are integral to Danto's definition of art. If somebody creates something as art and that thing is perceived as art then it is art. The importance of Danto's definition of art is that its basis is philosophical or conceptual rather than a question of the aesthetics of a piece. The reason that the Brillo Box could not have been art 50 years previous to Danto's essay is because definitions of art in the early twentieth century still concentrated on the aesthetics of a piece rather than the idea behind it. Danto's definition does, however, present its own set of problems. Could art exist in a vacuum? Would a painting by Picasso which was left in an empty room still be a work of art - without being perceived by anyone and without an art theorist in attendance to tell us it was art?

Throughout his book Danto uses some of Warhol's most famous aphorisms to back up his ideas, particularly the often used quote, "If you want to know who Andy Warhol is, just look at my face, or at the surface of my work. It's all there." It comes from an interview with Warhol by Gretchen Berg which first appeared in the format of a long statement by the artist in the November 1, 1966 issue of the East Village Other and then, in an expanded and reedited form, as "Nothing to Lose" in the March 17, 1967 issue of the Los Angeles Free Press before finally appearing in the May 1967 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma. (SC317) The quote that appeared in the East Village Other was slightly different than the version offered by Danto. The East Village Other version was "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." The interview was based on conversations with the artist over the course of three to four weeks, with Berg sometimes using a tape recorder and sometimes writing from memory. (KG84) A comparison of the original conversation with what appeared in print shows that most of Warhol's comments were actually said by Berg rather than Warhol, as Matt Wrbican the chief archivist of The Warhol museum pointed out in an essay, "The True Story of 'My True Story'," in 2007. Here is what was actually said during the conversation between Berg and Warhol:

Gretchen Berg: It's all there on the surface then; it's what we can see.
Andy Warhol: Well, I like - I guess, yeah.
Gretchen Berg: What do you like?
Andy Warhol: The surface.
Gretchen Berg: Then that's all we can see; if you want to know about Andy Warhol, we just look at your paintings and your films and that's -
Andy Warhol: Yeah.
Gretchen Berg: There's nothing profound underneath -
Andy Warhol: No. (TT57)

Berg then wrote up the interview as though the words were Warhol's and published them as "Andy Warhol: My True Story." One has to be careful in using Warhol's sound bites when analyzing his art or his life as he never said many of the things he was credited as having said. There are dependable interviews of Warhol out there but Danto doesn't source those interviews. Four that come to mind are the 1977 Glenn O'Brien interview (in which Warhol names some of the artists that he "really likes" as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Paul Klee, Grant Wood and Ray Johnson); the 1978 Patrick S. Smith interview (in which he says Sam Rosenberg was his "favorite or most memorable" teacher at Carnegie Tech and doesn't remember being taught by Robert Lepper); the 1985 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh interview (in which he is asked about Dada and Duchamp) and the 1987 Paul Taylor interview (in which he discusses the Last Suppers).

Danto also makes a critical error, although an understandable one, when he writes "the term Pop art was first used in 1958 by Lawrence Alloway, a British critic, initially to designate American mass media popular culture, Hollywood movies in particular." I say it is an "understandable" error because Danto is merely repeating a mistake that art writers have been making for decades. The person Danto identifies as a "British critic" - Lawrence Alloway - was, after moving to New York in 1961, the senior curator at the Guggenheim (from 1961 - 1966) who organized and wrote the catalogue for the Pop exhibition Six Painters and the Object which ran at the Guggenheim from March 14 to June 12, 1963 and included work by Andy Warhol as well as Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist. The 1958 date that is cited by Danto is a reference is to Alloway's article "The Arts and the Mass Media" which was published in Architectural Design magazine in February, 1958 and has often been credited with featuring the first use of the term "Pop art" in print. But if Danto had read the actual article he would have noticed that the term "Pop art" does not actually appear in it. Alloway was partially responsible for the confusion. In an essay by him which first appeared in Auction magazine in February 1962 and was later reprinted in a collection of essays by Alloway titled Topics in American Art Since 1945 (NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975) as the chapter "Pop Art: The Words," Alloway wrote, "The term [Pop Art], originated in England by me, was meant as a description of mass communications, especially, but not exclusively, visual ones. By the winter of 1957-58 the term was in use, either as Pop Culture or Pop Art." The latter sentence is footnoted, "The first published appearance of the terms that I know is: Lawrence Alloway. 'The Arts and the Mass Media.' Architectural Design, February, 1958." (TA119) Alloway may be confusing his "Arts and the Mass Media" article with another article he wrote with a similar title, "Notes on Abstract Art and the Mass Media," which appeared in the February 27 - March 12, 1960 issue of the U.K. magazine, Art News and Review (now Art Review magazine), in which he did use the term "pop art" (in small letters) to refer to popular art such as Hollywood movies. It was not meant to designate an actual art movement. The article was a review of an exhibition by "The Cambridge Group" - Tim Wallis, James Meller, George Coral and Raymond Wilson. Alloway's claim that he originated the term "Pop Art" is curious because in an earlier article, "Development of British Pop" published in Lucy R. Lippard's 1966 book, Pop Art, he denied that he originated the term, writing "The term 'Pop Art' is credited to me, but I don't know precisely when it was first used." (LA27) The first time the term actually appeared in print (in small letters as "pop art") was in Peter and Alison Smithson's article "But Today We Collect Ads" published by the Royal College of Art (London) in the November 1956 issue of Ark magazine. As Alloway stated in his 1966 essay, "sometime between the winter of 1954-55 the phrase acquired currency in conversation, in connection with the shared work and discussion among members of the Independent Group." The Smithsons and Alloway were both part of the group.

Fortunately, one mistake that Danto does not make is to confuse the original silver Factory near Times Square with what is often characterized as Warhol's second Factory - his downtown offices and studio near Union Square. The original Factory - the one that gave us Edie Sedgwick - was in existence for about four years. Warhol moved into the first Factory on January 28, 1964 and into the second Factory during the week of February 5, 1968. It was during the time of the second Factory that drag queens like Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn achieved superstardom and it was also at the second Factory that Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol - an event used by Danto as a sort of dividing line in Warhol's artistic career. Danto writes, "The first period changed art philosophically. It would be difficult to argue this for the latter period."

It was during the latter, post-Solanas, period that Warhol started producing "business art" described by Danto as suites of "prints (and of paintings) made for money." He rightly points out that the "handsome images of famous athletes and endangered species seemed made to order for the waiting room walls of successful professionals or the lobbies of expensive hotels." Among the exceptions to this rule, as far as Danto is concerned, are the "approximately two thousand Mao portraits," the Hammer and Sickle series, the Myths series and, I think, the Dollar Sign series. I say "I think" in regard to the Dollar Signs because on one page Danto refers to them as "marvelously inventive" and on the next as "too decorative and too playful."

About the Maos, Danto writes that "the imaginativeness of their variety of color and the mock impulsiveness of the brushstrokes was a preparation for the style of portraiture that was to become Andy's signature way of representing celebrities, and those who want to look like celebrities" i.e. Warhol's commissioned portraits of the 70s and 80s. He compares Warhol's "portrait style" negatively to that of Francesco Clemente, writing "I cannot imagine him [Warhol] having an interest in the kind of interiority that is Clemente's reason for portraying someone" but fails to mention Warhol's collaborations with Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But despite Danto being unable to "imagine" Warhol having an interest in Clemente's "kind of interiority," he notes in the last section of his book - devoted to Warhol's Last Supper paintings - that Warhol's "mission" was to "externalize the interiority of our shared world." In regard to Warhol's Last Suppers, Danto does not think "Warhol became a religious artist in the last years of his life, with the Last Supper paintings," but that the artist's "religious turn, if there was one, happened much earlier" when Warhol started painting his first Pop paintings. Danto writes "I believe that at some moment between 1959 and 1961 Andy Warhol underwent an artistic change deep enough to bear comparison with a religious conversion - too deep, one might say, not to be a religious conversion."

The paintings that were the result of Warhol's conversion from commercial artist to Pop artist were first exhibited as part of a window display at the Bonwit Teller department store in April 1961.The display included Advertisement - described by Danto as "a montage of black-and-white newspaper ads... for falling hair; for acquiring strong arms and broad shoulders; for nose reshaping; for prosthetic aids for rupture; for love elixir... and for Pepsi-Cola" and one of Warhol's Before and After paintings based on a nose job advertisement. In reference to these paintings, Danto writes "All religion is based on suffering and its radical relief" and that "It was as if the message of saviors had been translated into the universal language of cheap American advertisements." An interesting analogy but I'm not sure if a before and after nose job is quite the same as the "suffering" and "radical relief" from that suffering that Danto equates with "all" religions.

For Danto, "before and after" also refers to Warhol's conversion to Pop which he describes as "the most mysterious transformation in the history of artistic creativity." But was the transformation really as mysterious as that? At the time that Warhol went Pop there were other artists, including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who were using commonplace objects and found imagery in their works and Warhol was aware that this was the direction that art was heading. He was particularly taken with the works of Jasper Johns. In January and February of 1961, just two months or so prior to the Bonwit Teller display, Warhol had purchased a Johns' drawing of a light bulb and three Johns' lithographs - Black Flag and two Targets. (SC57) One could argue that Warhol's Soup Cans were, in effect, his version of Johns' Flags - both being American icons although of a slightly different nature.

About the Soup Cans, Danto writes that although "what caused Warhol to begin to paint the advertisements and cartoons he installed for a brief time in the Bonwit Teller window is one of the deep mysteries of his biography... there is no such mystery regarding his decision to paint cans of Campbell's soup. He wanted to become very famous very quickly, and nothing could achieve that for him that did not attract media attention." But how could Warhol have known that the Soup Cans would generate the media attention that they did? At the time he started painting them he did not even have a gallery that was willing to show them. Warhol may have craved recognition but what artist doesn't? The decision to paint the Soup Cans was primarily an aesthetic or conceptual one - in other words an artistic decision. Warhol had no idea at the time that he painted them that the Soup Cans would be the success that they eventually became or how famous he would become as a result. When Warhol went Pop he was risking quite a lot, including taking a financial risk. In 1960 Warhol grossed $70,000 as a commercial artist. (SCx) In 1965, after the Soup Cans and Brillo Boxes, the income of Andy Warhol Enterprises was considerably less - $47,153.66. (SC259)

Danto ends his book by commenting on a photograph taken of Warhol’s studio at the time of his death which also appears on the back cover of The Religious Art of Andy Warhol by Jane Daggett Dillenberger which Danto lists as one of his sources. The photo shows one of Warhol’s Last Supper paintings facing the viewer. In the painting there is a double image of Jesus Christ with eyes downcast, presumably looking at a plate situated on the table in front of him on the canvas. There is a separate picture on the studio floor, again facing the viewer, of an enlarged Campbell’s soup label featuring a bowl of chicken soup. Danto writes (referring to the bowl of soup as a plate), “the plate on the label echoes the plate on the table, at which Jesus appears to be gazing… as if the plate embodies some profound meaning.” He “imagines” Warhol standing there in his “final moments” in his studio, “looking at both the dishes as if they were cognate Grails.” Although Danto admits it is impossible to know what Warhol’s “final thought as an artist” was, he again imagines  “that it has to have been about two dishes, one empty, the other full of our daily soup, warm, hot, filling, tasty, like the answer to a prayer.”

That is quite a bit of imagining from Danto – which points to one of the problems with this book. Danto often seems to be making philosophical mountains out of theoretical molehills. Yet the book does pack a lot into its 150 pages, covering most of the major incidents of Warhol’s life while giving the reader at least a taste of some of the more complicated theoretical issues involved with his work. But one gets the impression that Danto's interest in his subject wanes during the sections devoted to the 70s and 80s. Danto is at his best when he is writing about what he has written about before - Warhol's Brillo Boxes.


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