Apropos our visit to the 'Three Times Out' Andy Warhol exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery during the week, here's a review I remember writing of IMMA's 'After The Party' Warhol exhibition, which ran from 21 Nov 1997 to 22 Mar 1998. How Time doth fly.
After The Party
Andy Warhol Works 1956 - 1986
Irish Museum of Modern Art
What can be added, in a short review of a retrospective exhibition dedicated to the work of one of the world’s most famous artists - one of whose overriding concerns was the nature of fame - to the unwieldy body of discourse and uneven attempts at exegesis that already exist and are growing exponentially, about that artist’s life and work? Space, in the form of column inches, may be filled, but does anything new or worthwhile get said? Maybe the reiteration of that hoary old maxim to the affect that ‘There is nothing new under the sun’, that can be detected in and surmised from most of the criticism that is being written about this oeuvre is merely an eloquent testimony, intentionally or unintentionally on the part of its writers, to the force and potency, the truth and beauty, of the work it is written about. The ubiquity of the commodity that is Warhol’s work in our everyday lives is the fitting denouement to the critique of the ubiquity of commodities that takes place in that work, through seemingly effortless and endless repetition. So perhaps the greatest compliment anyone, including a critic, could pay the master of the deadpan is to engage in a species of ‘Blind and Dumb Criticism’, as Barthes called it in an essay in Mythologies, and simply say nothing, or nothing new, or as little that is new as it is polite and politic to do, and merely trot out what has been said before.
Barthes characterises ‘Blind and Dumb Criticism’ thus:
'Critics (of books or drama) often use two rather singular arguments. The first consists in suddenly deciding that the true subject of criticism is ineffable, and criticism, as a consequence, unnecessary. The other, which also reappears periodically, consists in confessing that one is too stupid, too unenlightened to understand a book reputedly philosophical'.
But however justifiable some of the accusations of the ‘King’s New Clothes’ may be when levelled at the effusive excesses or wilful obscurantism of much Warhol criticism, and criticism of modern art in general, taking fogeyish refuge in either of the fraudulent approaches against which Barthes directed his strictures will not suffice when dealing with what is on display here. For, if one is acknowledging an inability to understand merely to call into question the good faith of the artist and not one’s own, then one has no business being a critic. And Warhol’s art is neither so ineffable nor so philosophical as to preclude understanding (if only because no art is). Nor so disposable, inconsequential, stupid, trivial, and all the other meaningless, in this context, adjectives one constantly hears bandied about and around in relation to it.
Two quotes from Thomas Crow’s essay, ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol’, reproduced in the excellent IMMA exhibition catalogue, are apposite. Firstly: ‘What has also gone unobserved is the contradiction at the core of the usual interpretation of Warhol’s work: that the authority for the supposed effacement of the author’s voice in Warhol’s pictures is none other than the author’s voice itself.’; and, secondly: ‘Yet the quality of “dead-pan” is significantly different from the passivity that Swenson (an interviewer) expected Warhol to endorse. It is a consciously maintained absence of expression intended to disguise interest and engagement.’
Warhol was both a greater tragedian and a greater comedian than any of his contemporaries. Nominally a pop artist, he was by times and by turns, an expressionist, a minimalist and a conceptualist, but both much more serious and much more fun than any practitioners in these obviously reductive and ultimately arbitrary categories. Those broad brush strokes and bright colours are fairly expressionistic, but in a more channelled framework; those ‘Silver Clouds’ helium balloons share the preoccupations of minimalist sculptors, in drawing the viewer’s attention to the artificial nature of the gallery space, and the space occupied by the artwork itself; that ‘Last Supper’ reproduction, doubled as it is, asks just as many questions as the conceptualists about representation, and about the fate of what we have been taught to think of as the greatest historical works of art, if their ability to retain their uniqueness or mystique cannot stand up to mass production.
The IMMA exhibition is representative rather than inclusive, but most of the usual suspects are on show. The space is used exceptionally well, and the groupings of works in the many small, well-lit rooms is thoughtful and sensitive. I found especially moving and revealing the drawings done by the artist’s mother, Julia Warhola. If I had to select a favourite series, it would be ‘Myths’, because, well, I’m interested in myths. The ‘Disaster’ and ‘Gun’ series, and the ‘Chairman Mao’ portrait and ‘Hammer and Sickle’ still life, show that as a good American citizen Warhol was exercised by threats to the American way of life, both from the inside and the outside. They also exemplify his darker, more sombre and serious mode. The ‘Dollar Signs’ sketches refer to the idea of the artwork representing money above all else, both to producer and consumer, and link art directly to its monetary value. They also show his funnier, more frivolous and frolicsome side. Of course, like everything else in Warhol, these handy but crude divisions begin to blur and break down. If you can make what could be thought of as a joke out of something that could be thought of as serious, and make what could be thought of as a serious point through something that could be thought of as a joke, you’ve really got something. Nevertheless, the synthetic polymer paint and silk-screen on canvas works ‘Skull’, ‘Cross’ and ‘Self-Portrait’, are affecting intimations of mortality, inviting one to meditate, like Samuel Johnson did in his great poem, on the vanity of human wishes, when all is over, after the party.
Warhol’s interest in contemporary culture extended beyond the limits of conventional fine art to film making, record cover design and production, and the set design and promotion of multimedia events called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, featuring performances by The Velvet Underground and Nico. Indeed, it is via the latter activity that I was first introduced to his work. His art rejected distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, between fine art and commercial art, at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so. It may now reek of post-modern irony, perhaps chiefly because that is the lens through which it is presently viewed, but it was made long before such a way of seeing had become the dominant sensibility, the main means of apprehending and appreciating works of art. Antecedents of it can be found in the work of Oscar Wilde, of Ronald Firbank, of Cole Porter, and it was thoroughly delineated in Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Notes on Camp’, but it had always been generally distrusted because of a supposed lack of deep feeling on the part of the artist, which resulted in a paucity of genuine profundity in the art. Insofar as this anti-romantic method has now gained such huge currency, Warhol could be said to have ironically followed the Wordsworthian dictum of creating the taste by which he is understood. There he is, a closet romantic all the time. Nor is it fair to saddle him with responsibility for the thousand and one pale imitators who have sprung up in his wake. Blaming Andy Warhol for Jeff Koons is like holding The Sex Pistols responsible for every third rate punk band you’ve ever heard.
If you’re looking for social comment, reflected here through individual portraiture, consider J. G. Ballard’s remarks in the annotated version of The Atrocity Exhibition:
'A kind of banalisation of celebrity has occurred: we are now offered an instant, ready-to-mix fame as nutritious as packet soup. Warhol’s screen-prints show the process at work. His portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy drain the tragedy from the lives of the these desperate women, while his day-glow palette returns them to the innocent world of the child’s colouring book.’
What a pity Warhol isn’t around to do Diana, since he would undoubtedly provide a simultaneously more affectionate and more visceral memorial than a rehashed ballad which actually started life as a song about Marilyn Monroe. (Could one of his assistants or disciples give us one instead? After all, it is a commonplace among Warhol’s detractors that his helpers did most of the physical work involved in producing the art. As if Renaissance masters didn’t do the same thing, presiding over workshops akin to The Factory. Is a style more personal than a process, when it is inextricably bound up with that process?) Untempered, gushing praise may be just as reprehensible a critical strategy as the blind and dumb varieties, but when we recognise the range and depth of Warhol’s interests and his achievements, his ‘persona that has sanctioned a wide range of experiments in non-elite culture far beyond the world of art’ as Crow has it, we begin to realise what a true original Warhol really was, and remains, if the use of the word ‘original’ is not too much of an insult to his memory, his celebrity, his legacy.
Commissioned for Circa Magazine