By Fred Kaplan
Sunday, December 6, 2009
By Arthur C. Danto
Yale Univ. 162 pp. $24
The Genius of Andy Warhol
By Tony Scherman and David Dalton
HarperCollins. 509 pp., $40
Two decades after his death, Andy Warhol remains the biggest-selling artist of our time and the most famous -- the only one whose name, face and style are recognizable even by people who know nothing else about art.
Why is a bit of a mystery. Warhol rose to glory in the early '60s among a handful of artists rebelling against Abstract Expressionism and creating a new kind of American art that in some cases celebrated images from mass consumer culture. Among these artists -- Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist -- Warhol was the last to emerge and arguably the least talented craftsman. Yet it was Warhol who came to define the era. His breakthrough canvases -- silkscreen paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Campbell's Soup cans and grisly car crashes -- are not only museum centerpieces but modern icons.
How this pale, shy (but also calculating and ambitious) boy from Pittsburgh became "the artist of the second half of the 20th century" -- as critic Arthur C. Danto describes him -- is a puzzle that two new books try to solve, with uneven success.
Danto is the author of the slim, meditative "Andy Warhol." The art critic for the Nation and a philosophy professor at Columbia, he has been struggling with this question since 1964, when he attended Warhol's show of Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery. The boxes were made of wood, not cardboard; and the logo was silkscreened, not machine-stamped. But otherwise, they looked exactly like the shipping containers of Brillo soap pads in every American supermarket. The "challenge," Danto writes, "was to explain why Warhol's box was art while its look-alike in common life was not." He concludes that there is no explanation and that, therefore, Warhol ruptured all of art history.
He goes too far here. A half-century earlier, after all, Marcel Duchamp had displayed a urinal and an upside-down bicycle wheel as works of art. Danto notes that those "readymades," as Duchamp called them, were objects already in existence, whereas Warhol created the Brillo Boxes to look like readymades. But this doesn't necessarily make Warhol more revolutionary than Duchamp; in fact, given that Danto describes Warhol's boxes as "beautiful," they might be less defiant. In this sense, Warhol and the other Pop artists -- all influenced by Duchamp -- were reviving an artistic tradition from an earlier rebellious era.
Still, Danto's larger points about Warhol's impact are indisputable, and he traces its lineage to a moment in 1961 when Warhol made two paintings of Coke bottles -- one with Abstract Expressionist drippings, the other without -- and chose the latter as the template for his subsequent work. "It was a mandate and a breakthrough," Danto writes. "The mandate was: paint what we are. The breakthrough was the insight into what we are. We are the kind of people that are looking for the kind of happiness advertisements promise us that we can have, easily and cheaply." Danto calls the subsequent era "the Age of Warhol" because of this blending of high art and commercial art -- of art and life broadly.
Tony Scherman and David Dalton, in their Warhol biography "Pop," underscore "the Pop insight that a great part of our experience now comes to us not directly but through a photographic, mass media veil." Pop art and early '60s rock music grew out of this same aesthetic of "cleansing away all the traditional prevailing sensibilities in the arts," leaving a broad "openness to possibilities." This link explains why, even before he recruited Lou Reed and formed the Velvet Underground, Warhol was hailed as a superstar by young rock fans, though he was as old as their parents.
Scherman, a music writer, and Dalton, an art writer who briefly worked as an assistant to Warhol, entertainingly trace the artist's rise from a sickly, poor art student to a wealthy, prize-winning Manhattan advertising designer to the most unlikely avant-garde painter of all time. They're less clear, and sometimes contradictory, on why Warhol emerged as the decisive figure. They persuasively refute the notion that he was a "primitive," noting his deep knowledge of the art world. But on a single page, they claim both that Warhol "genuinely" admired the commercial products that he painted and that he found them "goofy and inane." They start the book with a moment in August 1960 when Warhol supposedly transformed himself from a commercial artist into a gallery artist; but they later note that he kept doing commercial work throughout his career. In fact, Warhol's conceptual novelty lay in seeing commercial and high art as seamless.
The authors draw a thick dividing line at June 1968, when Warhol was shot and nearly killed by the delusional Valerie Solanas. They argue that his art was rebellious and innovative before, corporate and lazy after. Certainly the attack made him more cautious, but they overstate the point. First, as they observe, Warhol's art had declined a year before the shooting, especially with his senseless movies (to which they give way too much space).
Second, many of Warhol's post-'68 works -- his Mao portraits, skull paintings and several of the commissioned portraits (which the authors unjustly dismiss as hack work) -- are adventurous and gorgeous: his familiarly plaintive style fused with painterly flourishes reminiscent of de Kooning. They're not the breakthroughs of his early-'60s works, but they fit -- and guided -- the postmodern pluralism of the '70s and '80s. He remained a trailblazer of his era.
Did Warhol grasp the profundity of his innovations, or was he as vapid as his pose made him seem? Danto writes that Warhol had "a philosophical mind" -- a dubious claim: If he ever discussed ideas seriously, the evidence has yet to be revealed. A more plausible perspective comes from an article by critic Peter Schjeldahl, from which Scherman and Dalton quote at length. Some artists at the time did mull the issues that Pop art raised. "I don't see him doing that," Schjeldahl wrote of Warhol. "That's why we reach for the word 'genius' . . . He sees clearly. He just does it."
Fred Kaplan is a Slate columnist and the author of "1959: The Year Everything Changed."