The following essay was written by Dr. Dorothy Joiner who, at the time of the original writing of the essay, was a member of the Department of Foreign Languages and Art faculty at West Georgia College, Carrollton, GA and at the date of this November 2003 reprinting is the Lovick P. Corn Professor of Art History at LaGrange College, LaGrange, GA. The essay was written for the illustrated catalogue Works by Warhol: From the Cochran Collection which accompanied the exhibition of the same name. The essay is re-keyed and reprinted with permission of Wesley R. Cochran and the author, and without accompanying illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, have questions concerning the Cochran Collection, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue, please contact Mr. Cochran through one of the museums participating in the exhibition's national tour.
Andy Warhol, 1928-1987
by Dorothy Joiner
Marked as it is by contradiction and paradox, Andy Warhol's art is best understood in relation to his life. The son of working-class Czech immigrants, Warhol was born Andrew Warhola on October 28, 1930, in Forest City, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh. Later falsifying the date of his birth in order to benefit from educational benefits attached to his deceased father's insurance policy, Warhol attended Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie-Mellon University).
A disaffected child, described as shy and withdrawn, Warhol was bedridden at ten after a nervous breakdown and suffered from intermittent bouts of "St. Vitus's Dance." While incapacitated, he played with a Charlie McCarthy doll and made paper cutouts, cultivating early the propensity for fantasy which characterized his personality. In addition to altering his birthdate and his name, Warhol underwent plastic surgery in the 50's to trim his bulbous, red nose but was angered when the operation failed to lend him the glamour he so desperately desired.
Warhol's infatuation with Hollywoodian glamour is revealed in a photo he had taken of himself in 1951: he clutches his hair with a hand near either cheek, imitating the pose assumed by Greta Garbo in Edward Steichen's celebrated shot of her taken in 1929. And over his naturally ash-blond hair, Warhol sports a brown hairpiece as though to replicate the bangs worn by another of his idols, the writer Truman Capote, in an equally celebrated publicity photo. Warhol's provocative conflation of these two photographs reflects his equivocal posture of adulation mixed with detachment. Stunning yet remote, Garbo radiated a mythic existence as a film icon, elusive and hauntingly removed from mundane reality, even transcending. gender in a sense. The French literary critic Roland Barthes said that Garbo's face was "almost sexually undefined." The Capote image to which Warhol also alluded was similarly fugitive. Described by Patrick Smith as an "exquisite affectation" of "dandified vanity," the publicity shot poses the epicene Capote lying on a couch distanced from the viewer by an emotional retreat comparable to that of Garbo. Conscious of his own fix on the unattainable, Warhol wrote: "Fantasy love is much better than reality love. Never doing it is very exciting. The most exciting attractions are between two opposites that never meet" (Smith 10).
Despite this deliberately cultivated emotional stand-off, Warhol succeeded in channeling his fascination for glamour into productive employment. After moving to New York in the late 40s, he worked as an illustrator with chic magazines: Glamour, The New Yorker, and Harper's Bazaar; and he designed window displays for upscale department stores, such as Bergdorf-Goodman, Bonwit Teller, and Tiffany and Co. It was as sole illustrator for the I. Miller shoe company, however, that Warhol gained recognition for his elegant drawings characterized by a "blotted" technique, a "delicate, errant line of great decorative charm," exploiting the expressive nature of the accidental (Alloway 104). Seeming "hesitant almost backed up," in the words of Patrick Smith, the theatricality of Warhol's blotted line tends to overshadow the significance of the fashionable object depicted.
In 1960, Warhol made a definitive break with commercial art, destroying scores of drawings and launching into Pop art with two paintings of oversized bottles of Coke, his favorite drink. Popular success followed quickly with his Campbell's Soup Cans and Coca-Cola Bottles of 1962 and his sculptures of Brillo Boxes (1964). But it is perhaps for his celebrity portraits that Warhol is best known: Marilyn Monroe (1967), Elizabeth Taylor (Liz, 1964), and Jacqueline Kennedy (Jackie I, II, III, 1966).
Although his first works in the fine arts were painted, Warhol soon discovered that silk-screen printing offered a simpler photo-mechanical process for duplicating an image. This method avoided the individuality revealed in brushwork and accomplished his aim of rendering himself robot-like. "The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine," he avowed (Swenson 117). In accord with his anti-aesthetic propensities, Warhol called the studio where he employed a bevy of assistants, "The Factory"; and he welcomed emendations of his ideas by associates, either accidental or intentional. These deliberately cultivated irregularities and "mistakes" serve paradoxically to undercut the sense of identical images that are mass-produced.
Selecting motifs from the spate of visual images flooding contemporary culture, Warhol printed these in multiples, usually varying the colors of each single image and often retaining the graininess of newsprint photos, as though to underscore their source in the media. His garish, arbitrary colors and deliberately off-register printing reflect as well color T.V.'s early days when near psychedelic colorations attended a set imperfectly tuned.
Warhol's preoccupation with the tragic, the violent, and the sensationalized is evident in his choice of subject matter, as, for example, his transposing the famous photographs of Jackie Kennedy after her husband's assassination. Warhol's Death and Disaster series, moreover, began with images of electric chairs, race riots, automobile wrecks, and suicides. And the Most Wanted Men series used FBI photos of felons and gangsters. When asked why he started with "death" pictures, Warhol replied, "I believe in it."
The Cochran Collection offers a wide sampling of Warhol prints, dating from 1974 through his last series done in 1986, just before his death the following year.
One print in the collection from the series titled Flowers (1974), which is unique in Warhol's oeuvre for their delicacy. Borrowing from magazines and a wallpaper catalogue, the artist first crops and abstracts the images. Then, with characteristic inversion, he personalizes the flower prints, adding by hand delicate washes of Dr. Martin's aniline watercolor dyes.
Other prints in the collection feature human figures. Choosing his own photograph of his buddy the rock star Mick Jagger (1975), Warhol effects a cubist-like dislocation, doubling the outline of eye and nose and surrounding the redundant profile with emphatic black hair and jagged, collage-like patterns (visual pun intended) in black and a mournful lavender. In Speed Skater, Warhol superimposes a dynamic yellow outline over the crimson figure of a skater, borrowed from a poster of the Winter Olympics, 1983. In Love (1983), the artist begins with outline drawings taken from a freeze-frame of one of his films: a nude couple stand in profile, about to kiss. As in the Jagger portrait, Warhol reiterates the outline of their bodies and enhances the image with pools of smoky lavender for the female and dull yellow for the male. Here the inversions are subtle: the man's tentative demeanor seems to belie the more forceful aggressive if you will - character of yellow, whereas the woman's more assertive stance toward her partner counters the recessive implications of violet.
The two prints titled Moonwalk (1987) represent the only completed works from the series on television, which Warhol's sudden death left unfinished. By affixing his initials in neon colors to Buzz Aldrin's helmet, the artist has staked claim to the image, as it were, just as the astronaut planted the United States flag on the moon.
The Cochrans are especially fortunate to hold a complete set of Warhol's series Cowboys and Indians (1986). Though not as well known as his other work, these prints are significant in their illumination of America's collective mythicizing of the West.
The first print of the series, Indian Head Nickel, reproduces in silvery tones the familiar noble profile of an American Indian which formerly appeared on the U.S. five-cent piece. The ironies are multiple. Warhol first of all focuses the viewer's attention on the inherent contrariety of depicting the vanquished red man on an American coin, the money of his conqueror, in the same manner that the profiles of rulers, such as Alexander the Great or the Roman emperor Hadrian, decorated silver and gold coins during Antiquity. The artist reinforces this irony, moreover, by outlining in black the word "Liberty" inscribed near the coin's circumference.
In contrast to the Indian's fierce nobility is the taciturn self-satisfaction of General Custer, his arms folded, his gaze directed toward the distance. Having led two hundred men to defeat in a highly controversial encounter with belligerent Plains Indians, George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) was accorded a hero's funeral at West Point. A horse, the battle's lone survivor, rode for many years saddled but riderless in Seventh Cavalry parades, a testimony to the nation's biased recollection of its past.
For John Wayne, Warhol begins with a publicity shot for the actor's 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, individualizing the image with his characteristic linear reiteration. A popular figure in America's romanticizing of the West, Wayne embodies the stalwart cowboy: righteous, quick on the trigger, and hesitant of speech. The only Warhol print marked "unique," this work was recalled by "The Factory," which removed the edition number and altered the original brown of the pistol to a fluorescent blue, these changes inspired by the threat of a lawsuit by the John Wayne Foundation.
In Geronimo, Warhol's calligraphic duplication of outline transforms a nineteenth-century photo of the Apache chief. In the original, Geronimo sits with a rifle resting on his bare knee. Warhol crops the photo, concentrating on the face and transforming the Indian's angry scowl into what seems more like the verge of tears. Weeping was perhaps appropriate to the aging Geronimo, who had seen his mother, wife, and children killed by Mexicans and who had spent many years defending his people's homeland only to be tricked by the United States government into believing that he would be allowed to return to Arizona after a time of exile in Florida. Instead, the Indian was held at hard labor and never permitted to return to his home state. The government finally consented, however, to his selling photographs of himself, like the one Warhol has used for this print.
In Teddy Roosevelt, Warhol chooses a photo of the country's twenty-sixth president in military uniform, overlaying the figure with nervous red lines and coloring the face a shadowy charcoal. Typical of the energetic, hard-hitting national spirit at the turn of the century, Roosevelt is best remembered for quoting an African saying: ''Speak softly, and carry a big stick." As he helped to establish the preeminence of the United States in the World community, Roosevelt personifies the dynamic which sought to subdue all opposition to the national cause.
For Annie Oakley, Warhol reworks a photo of America's foremost markswoman wearing the many medals which her expertise earned. The artist reddens the figure's lips and stains her hair blue-violet but retains the clarity of her gaze directed steadily toward the left. Billed as "Miss Annie Oakley, the Peerless Lady Wing-Shot," Phebe Anne Oakley Moses (1860-1926) toured the country in "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" show. As part of her act, she aimed at a dime tossed into the air and at the thin edge of a playing card, these exploits contributing in the popular imagination to the glorification of the West.
In seeking to understand Warhol's art and to explain its impact, I am reminded of Susan Sontag's observation that '"a sensibility... is one of the hardest things to talk about .... To name a sensibility, to draw the contours of it, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion" (515). Endeavoring "to draw the contours" of Warhol's labyrinthine mind and fey humor is no less formidable. We can nonetheless pick an Ariadnean thread of understanding in the artist's youthful photo imitating his idols, Garbo and Capote. Fascinated with the unattainable and excited by "never doing it," Warhol cultivated the affective neutrality of the voyeur. This same suspension of feeling also governed in a curious way his preoccupation with sensationalized images of death and violence. By passively transmitting to the viewer images from contemporary life - both alluring and horrifying the artist fosters in the observer a resonant response akin to that of his own.
RLM note: Readers may also enjoy Works By Warhol: From the Cochran Collection (7/25/03)
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.
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