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Correction to This Article
This review incorrectly said that Andy Warhol formed the band Velvet Underground. The band was already in existence when it came into Warhol's orbit and began collaborating with him on performances in New York.

Elevating the ordinary to art

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By Fred Kaplan
Sunday, December 6, 2009


By Arthur C. Danto

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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.

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