Warhol: A Life As Art by Blake Gopnik, Penguin; 1st edition (March 5, 2020)
By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, December 2020
The year of anti-virus self-confinement began with my reading of the enormous biography of Andy Warhol called Warhol: A Life As Art by Blake Gopnik. But any response to the political, cultural and material tumult with which the citizens of the art world have been submitted in the year 2020 would also have to begin and end with Donald Trump. But as we try to say goodbye and good riddance to the unpopular populist (Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by just under 3 million votes and now has lost the 2020 popular vote by more than 7 million) I recognize that this year is ending for me with a huge dose of Warhol’s iconophilia. Indeed, the two men’s icons are becoming interconnected in my mind, as both manifest a heightened sense of the histrionic, the rupturing of taboos, and weird hair replacement deceptions. So in my mind, Warhol and Trump have metamorphosed into a conspiratorial-ideological-commodity form I now wish to call Donald Drella (albeit Warhol was a life-long Democrat, Drella is what Warhol was called: a mixture of Cinderella and Dracula). 2020 will end for me, back in confinement, immersed in the delusional, Trump far right conspiratorial bubble called (somehow non-ironically) Stop the Steal. For some of its apparent success (something like 70% of Republicans currently want it to be true so think it to be true) I am here blaming the legacy of Andy Warhol, for within the home confined regime of the 2020 electronic digital simulacra, Warholian reproducibility remains the fundamental code of our viral information culture. I blame Warhol for all of the smoothly accepted falsehoods, lies, star worship, and believe-anything rabbit holes within which the Trump virus spins to the delight of a sycophant fantasy cult (now, according to x-Navy officer Steve Bannon’s War Room emissions, self-identifying as The Deplorables. You know, in détournement style). It is worth recalling that, as with the cliché of the Trump deplorables, Warhol emerged from an art-starved provincial background, and became set on integrating the rejected into the elated. Something Gopnik exhaustively fleshes out.
For Donald Drella, the love that counts is the love a fan has for his or her superstar. I don’t generally feel this kind of love, so to try to understand the Trump-love mind-set, I watched Bannon’s 2010 documentary film Generation Zero where Bannon hysterically blames the Warhol golden era of experimental cultural openness of the 1960s (rather than the greed of real estate developers and Wall Street bankers) as the cause of the financial crisis of 2007–2008 that brought the backlash to globalization and the Trump wave behind it. Elsewhere, Bannon has asserted that politics flows downhill from culture, and on that, I tend to agree. Remember that Bannon, with the help of Robert Mercer, became famous in the pop cultural realm for amassing Facebook psychological profiles linked to Russian cyber interference in the elections of liberal democracies. Such interference, as confirmed in the Mueller Report, played a crucial role in the narrow election of Trump in 2016; himself a creative fabricator of the kind of information best explained by his own portmanteau: fake news. For this morbidity, Trump-love benefits from the post-Warhol cultural legacy of freedom, where all statements are of equal interest, worth, and unworthiness: the excessive theatricality of embracing everything that Warhol theory entailed. Though laudable for encouraging gay liberation, Warhol’s theory of art as nonselective abundance continues to play well into conformist postmodern simulationism in Trump town.
The relevant salient point of Warhol: A Life As Art is the unquenchable thirst for refusal of consequence or selectivity or hierarchy. This approach stems directly from the chance operations of Marcel Duchamp as honed further by John Cage. But for Cage, this refusal had an aesthetic-spiritual foundation originating in the egoless ideals of Buddhism. With Donald Drella, I see rejection panic rather than a spiritual non-evaluation approach taking every possibility in stride with equal detached panache.
Within this 962page book, Gopnik makes evident his remarkable familiarity with copious documents archived in the Andy Warhol Museum to what end? Warhol’s chief artistic achievement was in bringing together the apparent contradictions of radical minimalism and fey camp or debased political imagery in a perverse and interesting new combination. Such as with Black and White Disaster #4 (5 Deaths 17 Times in Black and White) (1963), a flickering, sedately glamorous, silk screen painting in the collection of Kunstmuseum Basel. Regardless of Gopnik’s hard revivalist urgings, looking at this work makes clear there is no question that Warhol did his best work in the early-60s and cruised downhill thereafter. But the somewhat original thesis of Gopnik’s biography stresses that Warhol’s truly great achievement was the performative effect of removing the conceptual frame from art, thereby aiding art to melt into life, into business markets, and into the dark side of high-grade celebrity culture. Thus art melts away. As the title indicates, Warhol: A Life As Art works to establish just this theatricalizing of everyday life into celebrity. Gopnik maintains that this social status is Warhol’s crowning achievement. Perhaps that once seemed like a cool idea, but what once looked new and bold, now looks old and stupidly suicidal. It is the opposite of what Warhol once did so well, which was to make camp symbolist art that took media reality into its scope in an emblematic minimalist way.
Rather, Warhol tries hard to establish that Warhol’s real and continual importance is exactly his glittering dissolve into personality cult extravaganza. Gopnik stresses this dissolve into devotional spectacle has a continuing ubiquity today. Trump proves this point. My construction of the anti-idolization of Donald Drella supports that claim.
On a more theoretical level, with Donald Drella there is the redemption of banality, the transcendence of triviality, by insistent repetition. And the volatile intermixture of nuttiness with passionate rigorousness. The current far right political radical taste for the excessive extravagance of extraordinary claims lacking extraordinary evidence begins with a conclusion (that Trump is the victor of the 2020 election (by a lot!)) and then looks for evidence that supports that claim. Such camp value reversal fallacies are common when the goal of achieving an a priori result is more important than utilizing sound reasoning. When Donald Drella reverse fallacies are used, the premise should be recognized as ill-grounded, the conclusion as unproven, and the argument as unsound. Similarly, Donald Drella involves a rejection of good sense and good taste. In a way then, the hyperbolic hysterical performative masquerading of Donald Drella plays a decisive part in the self-justifying fabrication of a denial virus virtual reality. It is the basis of the freedom the right wing angry religious misfits enjoy in their travesty playhouse of the ridiculous.
Reading Gopnik on Warhol makes it clear that the author sees this element of the ridiculous display of unfiltered man as mise-en-scéne as Warhol’s central achievement: where self-theatrically is ephemerally projected/presented large to the point of devotional sanctification. Understanding this point of view is one of the sardonic challenges of reading this fat yet often formidable tome, and is what applies to the current Trump temper tantrum in a teacup. Idealized power presentation gives to both Warhol and Trump an aura of perversely sanctified original that is simultaneously manipulative and ridiculous. But Gopnik’s Warholian exegesis also dislodges many canards about Andy’s personal sex life, that I do not care to go into here, but may interest others.
Rather, I recount dealing as a philosophy student with Arthur Danto’s Brillo Box tromp l’oeil dilemma. I am still wondering how I failed to convince Danto that the surface qualities of the wood Warhol boxes do not look the same as those of the smoother commercial cardboard, if you look closely. For Danto, the Warhol hand-made Brillo Boxes (1964) were visually indistinguishable from the Brillo boxes in the grocery story. As his student, how did I fail to convince him to look harder? Why did I not confront him more effectively? As a result, the Danto-enhanced Warhol anti-expressionist legacy of the non-differential surface became that of projecting glossy male ego into the spectacle of social-political life. This assumed simulacrum-based scopic regime of scam theatricality accepts smoothly incoherent and fantastic expressions of any kind: the more outlandish, the better. Thus Donald Drella is never concerned with the problem of the loss of evidential authenticity. He is already used to working on assignment in his commercial business, where he was told what kind of image to project in what style.
In this circuit of self-display, Warhol achieved the silver phantasmagorical. But that is why his early period (1962 to 1968) is greatly admired by me and many other artists, and most of the later work considered uninteresting in its mannerist self-parody.
Reading about the Factory 60s is reason enough to get your hands on this book. With the violent, politically charged Death and Disaster series, Warhol waltzed into the artistic provenance known as the ‘death of painting’ with images of death, starting the summer of 1962 with the monumentally-scaled 129 Die in Jet (1962) – now in the collection of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne – in which he transferred the photo image from the June 4th, 1962 edition of the New York Mirror by means of an opaque projector. It was painted by hand. Then Warhol created a gripping series of gruesome paintings that transferred images of suicide victims, the wreckage of smashed cars, the atomic bomb, civil rights protesters attacked by dogs, people unwittingly poisoned by contaminated tuna-fish, and the electric chair onto canvas using silkscreen reproductive technology to great consequence. As with Black and White Disaster #4 (5 Deaths 17 Times in Black and White) and others, sometimes the visually magnetic pull of horrifying death was repeated over and over in a single large work across the canvas, like patterned wallpaper. It is precisely this tense uncanny leitmotif of repeated death that intoxicated pop and permeates Warhol’s best pictures, charging them with allusion. But soon in Paris in 1965, Warhol announced his intention to stop painting; claiming that painting was dead. Next he began plunging into the world of underground camp film where the making of bad art (in a pitiful, sordid, Jack Smith / Theatre of the Ridiculous outcast kind of way) was highly valued. Also came Warhol’s art-music happening group, the Exploding Plastic Inevitables (E.P.I.) (1966) which eventually became Velvet Underground. E.P.I. happenings first were performed in the spring of 1966 at a Polish dance hall on St. Marks Place in New York City called Polsky Dom Narodny. Warhol rented the Dom (home) from two artists who sculpted with light, Rudy Stern and Jackie Cassen, and painted it white so that movies and slide projections could be cast on the walls in wallpaper-like fashion. Five movie projectors were utilized along with five carousel-type slide projectors which could each change an image every ten seconds. The slides were projected directly onto the films, whose sound tracks would sometimes be played, and thus blend in with the live music and general hullabaloo. A mirror-ball also was utilized along with spotlights and strobe lights.
Like his best silk screen paintings, E.P.I.’s happenings aimed to achieve a dazzling restructuring of ontological consciousness. Here the space of the light-show/concert/film-show/live-performance verged on the all-consuming. This hot, pulsating work was brilliantly counter-pointed by a chill-out dance installation consisting of the delightfully calm and playful Silver Clouds (1966). Familiarity with the details of this work is essential.
Riveting are details Gopnik recounts of the day in 1968 when Warhol suffered a near-death experience from Valerie Solanas’s murder attempt, and its aftermath. Reading on, it is clear that this dreadful incident left Warhol a much weakened artist. After that, little by little, Warhol’s commercial-aesthetic works take on a conservative servitude, clicked off with numbing regularity. The art and artist soon lack even a semblance of the brilliant petulance that proceeded the shooting, and reading about Warhol’s exalted skankiness turned social climb becomes an increasingly tawdry and tedious endeavor. WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.view all articles from this author