[This first appeared as a feature in Metropolitan Magazine, June 2008]
As an art student, I regarded Andy Warhol suspiciously, as the kind of toxic, cliquish insider who initially fascinates you with the throwaway cool of an offhand gesture, and later bores you with sarcastic one-liners. Later, I saw him as one of those necessary-but-unlovable topics one had to grant a certain amount of conversational territory, as in “Oh, we have to have the Warhol talk again” depending on whether it was necessary, on whether at that moment, he was fashionable.
One of the opportunities afforded by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s omnibus Warhol: Larger than Life, which features prints, paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, etc. is the chance to see the artist’s drawings, notably those he made during the early years of his career when he worked as a commercial illustrator (among Warhol’s first big jobs were graceful doodles of hemlines and handbags for Glamour magazine). In this respect, the show clearly brings together the two worlds that Warhol bridged over the course of his career – art and fashion – as glimpsed though the hazy twinkle of celebrity that bedazzled them both. What viewers might discover is that while Warhol was criticized both dead and alive for sins often laid at the feet of fashion – shallowness, meaningless repetition and variation, celebrity worship – his work was not tainted by a dalliance in fashion, it was fashion, in a way that makes us look closely at how fashion behaves and why we require it.
It’s interesting to look now at Warhol’s frozen Silver Elvisses and partially thawed Mick Jaggers and realize how much they occupy a place where memory ought to be. What helps make the images classic is surprisingly enough his tact; like any adept social portraitist, his observances of character disclosed most through the elegance of their restraint. This is not to say we should admire him for being a closet conservative, but as a poet of decadent empire on its way to decline, delineating the rules of the game even as they as they slid out of existence. They remind us of a time when celebrity culture’s negotiation between public and private lives was a localized event (as in Warhol’s favourite hangout, Studio 54). Reinventing oneself, living always -as Warhol said of his own life after a time- “on TV”, was left to professionals; it had yet to become an amateur pastime.
“An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.” Warhol announced, while paradoxically producing images of “his favourite things” (money, soup, shoes, Elizabeth Taylor…). What were his favourite things really? Photographs. As a perpetually sickly child growing up in working-class Pittsburgh, his private existence was a bedroom lined with magazine clippings. It’s been pointed out that Warhol was probably the first artist to created images that would be meaningless to anyone who didn’t recognise them as being made from photographs and about photographs. His dependence on photos (collecting them, reproducing them, taking them of everyone and everything) amounted to addiction to documentation …but were they really documentary images? In Warhol’s time, before the coming of Photoshop, snapshots revealed the naked truth. But pictures of celebrity often lie by virtue of their positioning, and Warhol’s technique (“getting it exactly wrong”: the rough offset print, the greasy blur, the filmy scrim of colour) emphasized the exact moment when facts slid out of their frame and became fascination.
Now of course we take it for granted that photographic proof has been eclipsed for good. The sliver of decency separating fact from fiction has disappeared, and critics of Facebook or MySpace decry a consequent lack of personal regard, a convex culture in which we have no private lives, only public postures. Warhol’s celebrity subjects were performers known less as people than as gestures, profiles and characteristic expressions, in short known photographically. The turnover of time (the death of Marilyn or Mao) strips them of everything but the pose; the pictures become haunted with extinguished wish-fulfilment, the way money in your hands grows worn with the wondering at all the other hands that have spent it.
But there was another kind of star. Warhol famously had a posse of assistants, bohemian hangers-on and protégés he dubbed his ‘superstars’, people of no particular talent without whom his particular way of working would have been impossible, not because they made his art for him (though they sometimes did), but because they illustrated the possibility that fame and attention – as a kind of endless, needless love- could belong to anyone in a moment of blithe consensus. Taking pictures of yourself, your friends and favourite things, like printing your own money. Warhol’s desire for things without the need to alter or finally possess them was part of his listlessness; it would become his most enduring and influential trait.
Online at night, I’m polarized by some of Warhol’s more magnetic declamations:
“When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums.” How do the binge-buyer’s words translate into virtual shopping scenarios? I seem to feel the sensation of slipping from speculation to purchase when I read reviews of books I’ll never buy, scan other people’s messages to one another or cruise the BBC world news. Am I constructing and curating a solipsist’s history story by story? “I think it would be terrific if everyone was alike” Well, yes, lately so do I, or more to the point, I find myself acknowledging the possibility; everyone I know now seems more interested in participating in likeness than in delineating difference. In the long view, fashion as the friend of history sounds frivolous at best, corrupting at worst, but in its intimacy it’s shimmering, softening, ever attending to our movement from seeing to seen to scene. I know it’s unkindly to have disdained Warhol for entering so effortlessly into these times as to become one’s choice of words, code of conduct, outfit or trip. To pass beyond being a character or conversation, becoming inevitable, invisible. That would be heaven.