It seems to me that as an artist, Andy Warhol was a remarkably talented and ingenious man who in his entire public lifetime had one, and only one, genuinely original idea.
And in his hands, that idea became a tremendously interesting one. Warhol played with it in many ways and in various media, including film. It assumed a hundred different faces.
The concept consisted of one deeply absorbing insight into something that I shall call here visual power. What counts instead is the images’ power, what a given image is capable of exerting over the mind.
So far as I can determine, this concept fell into place in Warhol’s mind somewhere around the time he turned 30 and the country entered that decade of convulsion that began with the inauguration of John Kennedy. Until that time Warhol had been a commercial artist in Manhattan; he was somebody whose task it was to make things look interesting, make them look pretty. By 1960 Warhol had spent 11 years at it; he had gotten to be very good at it.
But then a quality of self-discovery clicked into place. It transformed him and his entire life; it made him a gallery artist and a very famous one at that. It is worth recalling once again just how startling and suggestive his works once were, and how powerful they remain:
The Gold Marilyn (1962); the Disaster Series of 1963 and 1964 (works such as Five Deaths Eleven Times in Orange, Suicide, Purple Jumping Man, or Saturday Disaster); his “portraits” of the electric chair; The Triple Elvis (1963); and among the films, Kiss (1963), Sleep (1963), and The Chelsea Girls (1967).
They stop us on the spot; we recognise them instantly; they seize us as we sink into them. It is true that their primary impact is one of a perfectly astonishing visual immediacy. Of course time has worked its changes on that momentary immediacy.
We were not used to looking at Marilyn Monroe’s face in all its frank frontal immediacy, made at once more striking and more remote by Warhol’s transformations of colour: the changes he could ring on that single face. But with the passage of time, and above all with Warhol’s death, the interplay between distance and immediacy was complicated by the look of history.
At the Museum of Modern Art’s major Warhol retrospective in 1989, I was surprised to discover how authoritatively his work held up, how well it had survived its author. Not only did the work look good, it looked good in a rather new way. How to describe it? Well, it looked “real,” it looked like “real art.”
What seemed strongest about it was its sumptuous visual presence, while the formal ingeniousness that had seemed at first so interesting had faded. It had picked up the patina of historical standing.
Ordinarily when we look at a given image there is a certain passage of time required for primary comprehension. There are five, or maybe 15 seconds (30 would be a long time) during which the mind is simply identifying what it is seeing. In Warhol’s case, the time required for recognition is reduced to something instantaneous. We get it, always, right away.
These are some of the most famous faces in the world, Marilyn and Mao; these are the universal commonplaces of brand names or things universally known: the mushroom cloud, the electric chair.
The game here is power. The back and forth of Warhol’s work is always a subtly eroticized interplay of active and passive terms, a subdued encounter with energy. The distanced immediacy, the subdued potency of the work was precisely that of the man who could say, “My conflict is that I’m shy and yet I like to take up a lot of personal space.” And, “Once you see the emotions from a certain angle you can never think of them as real again.”
Before his death, a leading question among critics was whether Warhol’s work was art at all. The question deserves response, even more because Warhol’s reputation is hedged round by a discussion of art’s end. Yet one turns to it with a heavy heart.
It seems to me Warhol’s work is plainly art and moreover art of a very high order.
It is powerful and it retains its power. It speaks. It is interesting to look at and it is interesting to think about. It is linked to the principal questions that trouble and drive art in the 20th century. It is often beautiful and deep in its paradoxical distances.
Excerpted with permission of Open Road Media from Stargazer by Stephen Koch.
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