Andy Warhol: By Hand
January 22 – March 10, 2019
10am – 6pm daily
NEW YORK ACADEMY OF ART
111 Franklin Street
New York, NY 10013
By DANIEL MAIDMAN February, 2019
I’m here to recommend an amazing, encyclopedic show of Andy Warhol’s drawings at the New York Academy of Art.
To be clear, I have never liked Andy Warhol, and I still don’t like Andy Warhol.
I am a partisan of the mark of the hand in art. I don’t seek it for its own sake, though I enjoy the aesthetics of the struggle between perfect vision and imperfect capability. Rather, for me the mark of the hand stands for and demonstrates an essential quality of art, that the world has been processed through the mind. Art is a means of communication between consciousnesses. Without evidence of consciousness, we have at best the beauty of nature, which is of a different kind from the beauty of art.
Andy Warhol stands in opposition to this quality of art. He self-consciously eliminates himself from the creation of his work: he diffuses its manufacture over a production team, none of whom is authorized to stamp his own personality into the work – he automates and industrializes his media – he selects imagery on the basis of mass recognizability – he intervenes in the imagery only in the minimal sense of adjusting line and color – he generates line through projection and tracing, to efface the record of the hand’s search for shape – and he reduces color to an algorithmic rotation through a sequence of bright hues. Warhol vanishes from Warhol’s art. To my eye, his work represents an aesthetics of suicide.
I am also unpersuaded by the argument that his work makes a statement regarding mass culture and consumerism, and that any emptiness in the work is a commentary on the emptiness of society at large. This latter complaint is more to do with me than Warhol. I have never been persuaded regarding the alleged anomie of consumerism. It strikes me as a ginned-up neurosis, indulged in by a fairly small ring of mutually reinforcing culturati. In a world of family and friends, of sunlight, water, birdsong, and air, who but a lunatic would spend all day inside hunched over the label on a can of soup, drowning beneath an undertow of existential dread? If we kick out this ideological support strut, the entire Warholist doctrine falls apart: without the dread, there is no basis for ironic celebration either.
So much for me and Warhol. And yet this show of drawings is, as I said, amazing. It spans Warhol’s entire career, from the Andrew Warhola of the 1940’s to the Andy Warhol of the 1980’s. It is full of humanity and pathos, and the sum of it tells a tragic story that is well known to any artist.
Consider this drawing, the 1952 Nude Profile.
This work is best considered as juvenilia. Warhol is 23, and he does not yet know how to draw. Like most beginning artists, he turns by nature to the figure. He avoids the problem of anatomy by focusing on the outline. He cannot control his hand sufficiently to draw a curve, so we see the distinctive procedure of the beginner: hesitant line segments, joined by little inflection-point nodules where his hand changes direction, traveling along the paper as his eye seeks to decompose the baffling complexity of the figure into tiny straight lines.
We visit him again 5 years later, age 28:
He has developed his perceptual ability and his skill of hand. He can see complex forms now, and he can draw curves with confidence. But he is profoundly insecure. He lacks the instinctively perfect line of an Ingres or a da Vinci, and he also lacks the distinctively personal line of a Matisse or a Schiele. After at least five years’ practice, he recognizes that he is not showing any especial quality of line, and he makes three feints at imposing a personal style: he composes the entire object, ostentatiously choosing to draw some leaves and branches and ignore others – he hollows out interior forms, allowing local outlines to join together into larger shapes – and he accentuates the blots left by his metal nib pen.
None of these gestures reads to me as exploring the visual field. He is exploring possibilities of style. All three gestures are half-hearted. He is seeking, but he doesn’t know what he’s seeking.
By 1959, he has begun to systematize and optimize his available resources.
He has improved the fluidity of his line and he has figured out how to compose multiple complex forms into a single rhythmic composition. One of his stylistic ideas, the ink smears, is fading away, while the other, the elimination of interior detail in favor of the large blank shape, is assuming a more central role. He also appears to have begun to trace.
At this point, the 30-year-old Warhol is well prepared to succeed as a commercial illustrator, and he did. But consider a few contemporary draughtsmen with whom he likely compared himself. He is not as talented as Alberto Vargas, not as idiosyncratic as Ben Shahn, not as inventive as Jean Cocteau. Warhol has enough talent to feed himself on his drawing, but as he approaches maturity, he recognizes that he will play no real role in art history. Looking back, we understand that he had an insatiable need, if not to be great, then to be famous. And if he had it after, then he had it before. These early drawings do not look like Warhol, but the cravings that drive them must, at least in part, be Warholian.
Warhol makes a breakthrough in the next several years. He has the revelation that he will get no further by trying to become a better artist. If he were ever going to be a better artist, he would be by now. Further enhancements of technical skills and of a vision purely internal to the art itself are never going to carry him to his temporal goals: fame, money, adulation, some gleaming vision of success. So he steps back from the straightforward path of practice and exploration, and seeks an idea. If he can just have one special enough idea, then he can write his own ticket.
And, indeed, he discovers that idea. The stylistic substrates had existed for a long time – his tendency to eliminate the interior in favor of the outline, his increasing reliance on tracing. Now he elevates them to a metaphysics of art: art without an interior, art without style, art without content, art without the artist, art without art.
Here is Warhol in full flower. This is what we think of when we think of Warhol’s drawings: that strange combination of loud and spare, quite large but quite empty, clearly traced from a projection, nodding at a personality of line without really getting tangled up in all that, technically beautiful but spiritually unnourishing.
They didn’t have Photoshop in 1975, so you can’t fault him for turning himself into a Photoshop filter, but try running the actual photograph of Mick Jagger, if you can find it, through Photoshop/Filter/Stylize/Find Edges. Study what the software does to the hair. You will find that the drawing’s seemingly idiosyncratic shapes are closely replicated by the computer. The startling resemblance of style tells you what you need to know about Warhol’s mature eye. He didn’t just use machines to make his work. He made himself into a machine.
Now, I hope, the attraction of the show, as distinct from the artist, becomes clear. The show tells the whole story of Warhol, from the very beginning of his attempts to draw, to his completion of the process of becoming a mediocre artist, to his decision to remake himself as a superstar, to his success in this second quest.
It should also be clear that I am making up this story, based only on close reading of the work and general knowledge of the man’s career. Therefore the story I am seeing must, in a sense, be my own story. I find this show personally moving because I see myself in it. But I think the “myself” that I see is a self recognizable to many artists: to those artists who combine career ambition with discovering a personal vision late, or never. The particular pathos of this position should be apparent even to the non-artist. It is one thing, quite a noble thing, to want to be a great artist and to fail at it. It is an entirely shoddier thing to want to be a famous artist, and to be undone by a lack of talent.
To each artist in this awkward position, the Devil one day presents himself, making a deadly offer: I can give you what you want, if only you destroy yourself. It is always possible to cheat, to step back from art to meta-art, to find one idea sufficiently destructive or perverse, to eliminate the best in oneself and embrace the impersonal glamor of the worst. To allow one’s work to make the world a lot worse instead of a little bit better. All artists know it.
Andy Warhol took the deal. He traded the disappointing soul which he grew to despise, for the shiny coins of a fallen world. Committing artistic suicide, he vanished long before he died. His story is the story of Faust.
I recognize Warhol and I am haunted by Warhol, but I have not gone down his path. Of course I want to be rich and famous. But I want my soul more. I believe in my art more, and if it fails now, maybe it won’t fail later; and if it fails later, it will fail honestly. I am not corrupt enough to try my hand at Warholism, as so many of our blue chip contemporaries have. But I am certainly corrupt enough to see myself in him. There was a critic – I think Peter Schjeldahl, but maybe Jerry Saltz, or someone else – who wrote that to look into Warhol’s eyes was to gaze through them into an emptiness 50,000 light years across. That sounds about right.
Whether or not you like Warhol, this is a great show, a great and tragic portrait of a man and an artist. If you are in New York, do not miss it.
Daniel Maidman is a painter and writer. His art is included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Long Beach Museum of Art, as well as numerous private collections, among them those of New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz, Chicago collector Howard Tullman, Disney senior vice president Jackson George, and Gemini-winning screenwriter Jeremy Boxen. He has produced paintings in collaboration with best-selling novelist China Miéville, award-winning poet Kathleen Rooney, independent film icon Martin Donovan, and noted installation artist Erika Johnson. Maidman’s art and writing on art have been featured in ARTnews, Forbes, Juxtapoz, Whitehot Magazine, Hyperallergic, American Art Collector, International Artist, Poets/Artists, MAKE, Manifest, and The Artist’s Magazine. He blogs for The Huffington Post. He lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.
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