Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Andy Warhol by Arthur C. Danto

Let us consider his last substantial body of paintings, based on Leonardo's The Last Supper, which are thought by some to be evidence of Andy Warhol's religiousness. As so often happened in Warhol's work, the idea came from elsewhere, in this case from the dealer Alexandre Iolas, who had a gallery in Milan. Andy was one of five painters he selected to do paintings based on Leonardo's The Last Supper. His idea was that a show of Last Suppers by contemporary artists would generate interest, since the gallery was across the piazza from where Leonardo's masterpiece was undergoing its latest restorations, and there would have been incentive for visitors to take in both it and versions of it by painters of our day. Warhol specialists have observed that he found the reproductions of The Last Supper in art books too dark, explaining why he used cheap copies of the old painting instead. But my view is that everyone knows Leonardo's painting- it belongs to the common consciousness of the culture that Warhol shared with everyone who knew his work, and which he took as his artistic mission to raise to self-awareness- to show our inner life to ourselves. Leonardo's The Last Supper is one of the few paintings that enjoys this status- Warhol's can of Campbell's tomato soup is another- though few of those who know The Last Supper ever actually saw it in Milan; it is better known through its many reproductions. To show The Last Supper as commonplace is to show it as it appears on a postcard, the way Duchamp showed the Mona Lisa, or in a calendar of masterpieces. Ask people to name ten paintings, they will inevitably name The Last Supper- not La Conversation by Matisse, let alone The Last Sacrament of Saint Jerome by Domenichino or one of the Mont Sainte-Victoire landscapes by Cezanne.

Andy treated the Last Supper as he treated many of his subjects. He did versions that showed series of Last Suppers, much like his serial paintings of soup cans or dollar bills. He doubled Jesus, the way he doubled Marilyn, or Elvis. Repetition was a sign of significance. He filled it with logos from contemporary products, like Dove soap, to represent the Holy Spirit, or the Wise owl from the familiar potato chip package, emblematizing wisdom. Or he used the General Electric logo to emblematize light. All these came from the commercial world in which he and the rest of us are at home, though it is fair to say that none of them had religious significance as such. Warhol's great artistic project began with the images in the Bonwit Teller window and evolved on two levels- the levels of fears and agonies, and the levels of beauties.

The level of plane crashes, suicides, accidents, executions; and the level of Marilyn, Liz, Jackie, Elvis, Jesus, radiant with glamour and celebrity. A dark world with radiant beings, whose presence in us is redemptive, and into whose company Warhol sough to insinuate his own ungainly presence, and to make stars of us all. His mission was to externalize the interiority of our shared world. The Last Supper has penetrated the common consciousness with the momentousness of its message. In making it his he shows us that it is ours, part of life, rather than something one has to travel to Italy to see.- in this respect it is like the dish sometimes held to be the Grail, commonplace rather than rare, a dish like any other rather than something crusted with jewels and made of precious metals. Or, like his early prints, something that one could buy for a few dollars at the receptionist's counter at Castelli's, where they were displayed on the racks. A genuine work of art for five bucks! No wonder he stenciled low price tags- like $6.99- on pictures of masterpieces...

I think the religious turn, if there was one, happened much earlier. 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. Before then, his work had a certain effete charm, consisting of plump cherubs, posies, pink and blue butterflies, pussycats in confectionary colors. He made a handsome living as a commercial artist, whose chef product consisted of playfully erotic advertisements for upscale ladies' footwear. My feeling is that his religious identity was disclosed in April 1961, in his first exhibition- installed, symbolically, in a site displaying soft fluttery summery resort wear for the class of women for whom the luxurious shoes that had given him his first success were designed- the windows of Bonwit Teller, one of the great emporia for upscale women's clothing on Fifth Avenue in New York.

Warhol, as we saw, surrounded the mannequins with blowups of the coarse, grainy advertisements one sees in the back pages of cheap newsprint blue-collar publications. The images he appropriated after the conversion were vernacular, familiar, and anonymous. They typicalty advertise cures. A montage of black-and-white newspaper ads is for falling hair; for acquiring strong arms and broad shoulders; for nose reshaping; for prosthetic aids for rupture; for love elixir ("Make him want you"); and for Pepsi-Cola ("No finer Drink'). It projects a vision of human beings as deficient and as needy. IT was a message not unlike that of Joseph Beuys, whose symbols were fat and felt, to minister to the hungry and cold. All religion is based on suffering and its radical relief. It was as if the message of saviors had been translated into the universal language of cheap American advertisements. The Bonwit Teller show testified to what remains perhaps the most mysterious transformation in the history of artistic creation- Warhol's "before and after".


  1. In February 1972, Mao Tse-tung encouraged President Nixon to visit China, and this was widely seen as a step towards easing the Cold War. Only someone with a solid anti-Communist reputation would have dared to undertake this journey, and Nixon is credited with having made an exceedingly bold gesture. Warhol painted portraits of both these world historical figures. Nixon is depicted with a green complexion and fangs, and the injunction "Vote for McGovern" is lettered along the bottom. The Mao paintings, by contrast, have a benign blandness, based on an exceedingly familiar image- the picture of Mao's features that was used as a frontispiece for "The Little Red Book" of quotations from the leader of China in the role of a sage. Warhol modified the image by making it look as if Mao is wearing lipstick and eye shadow, like (what I assume to be an allusion to ) a raging queen.*

    As with his popular Flower paintings, Warhol produced his' Mao' portraits in all sizes and prices, so that anyone could purchase a Mao painting to suit his means, including four giant 'Maos', seventeen by thirteen feet, impressive enough to make a powerful statement at a rally in Tiananmen Square. As this is being written, the one remaining giant 'Mao' in private hands has been sent to an auction in Hong Kong, where speculation is that it may bring $120 million, outselling Andy's 'Green Car Crash', which sold for over $80 in 2007. But he also produced 'Maos' in small and medium prices, and even printed rolls of wallpaper consisting of iterated Maos. The Chairman's face was not simply silk-screened onto panels: Warhol enlivened the surface with spontaneous brushstrokes so that they had the look- they were hand-painted Pop.

    The final transformation was astonishing. What Warhol had managed to do was to detoxify one of the most frightening political images of the time... Warhol managed to transform this awesome image into something innocuous and decorative. Anyone could hang one- or ten-' Maos' without fear of offending anyone, or suggesting that he held dangerous and revolutionary ideas. Imagine a young student, excited by the ideas that were taken up by the Red Guards in China, bringing home a poster of Chairman Mao to hang in his bedroom, being shown his parents new Warhol- a benign portrait of Mao over the fireplace, next to one of Andy's soup cans, in a living room whose walls were covered in green an purple cow's head wallpaper!

  2. In a certain sense, Warhol was a follower of Duchamp but he was not anti-aesthetic in quite the way Duchamp was. Duchamp was trying to liberate art from having to please the eye. He was interested in intellectual art. Warhol's motives were more political. Andy really celebrated ordinary American life. He really like the fact that what Americans eat is always the same and tastes predictably the same. "What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same thing as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke to. A coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it"... Andy like everything to be the same. He thought that was what was great about America. And, after all, he grew up in squalor, in a depressed neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He once said the house he grew up in "was the worse place I've ever been in my life.". The "little boxes" of Daly City, California, would have been palaces in comparison to the slum he knew as a child. The warm, tasty nourishing food from the supermarkets was a daily treat. Against the grinding poverty he grew up in, the storm doors and refrigerators he painted were warmth and satisfaction embodied, just as blankets and fat were antidotes to the cold and hunger in the symbolic system of Josef Beuys. "Ticky-tacky' applied to little boxes by those protesting the spiritual poverty of suburban life, betrayed the fact that those who used the expression had lost sight of the fundamental needs that the victims of hunger and cold would give their lives for. "I adore America," Warhol once wrote, "and these are some comments on it. M<y "Storm Door"; 1960, is a statement of the harsh impersonal products and brash material objects on which America is built today. It is a projection of everything that can be bought and sold, the practical but impermanent symbols that sustain us". And in an interview on Pop art, he said "The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second- comics, picnic tables, men's trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles- all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all."

  3. "Andy Warhol" by Arthur C. Danto, Yale University Press, 2009