Screenprint by Andy Warhol.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe in Black and White (Twenty-Five Marilyns), 1962, Photo: Albin Dahlström © 2018 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / ARS, New York / Bildupphovsrätt 2019

Andy Warhol: The Brand that Sold Out

Andy Warhol, who became a Pop Art giant and a global celebrity by seeing in one of the most commonly found products in any convenience store, a can of soup, an object worthy of elevation to the status of art, has caused a stir by visiting Stockholm. But who is he, and what does the art he makes stand for? Does it belong in a handicraft shop these days rather than an art gallery?    

Text: Casimir Djuric, artist, B.A.

Technological development has long since gone off the rails of humanity. The superindustrial revolution that followed has manifested itself through its products in a new landscape. The urban inhabitant’s relationship to the surrounding world was transformed by the accelerated pace of life in an environment full of temporary and continually new artificial temptations, or by the threat that humans were no longer profitable in the market. Man is motivated by and equated with his products—he must both serve as a consumer and be consumable. His very existence is characterized by variety and variability, his fate just as abstract as the fact that society is now controlled by its products.

In a social climate like this, man responds with either violence or apathy, escaping into oblivion or obliviousness. In the development that guides us, because man does not decide over his own future, he is at best a sentient marionette. If he accepts this situation, he becomes neither victim nor master.

Andy Warhol wants to call our attention to this new way of living. In the natural world of the city, he searches for an appropriate lifestyle, like Robinson Crusoe on his island. Having completely capitulated before the absence of identity, he wants to serve as both a documentation and a revelation of the artificial homo sapiens. He sits voluntarily in the cage of civilization and reduces himself to the confinement he confesses.

He wants to expose himself, unprotected, to manipulation and to cumulative effects, and with the camera and tape recorder he surveys the artificial world that surrounds him. With no will of his own, no personal interpretation, and no sorting, he fills up the emptiness inside himself, the tabula rasa, with the material his surroundings demand of him. Even as a mirror he doesn’t want to acknowledge his own existence as a person: “People are always calling me a mirror, and if a mirror looks into a mirror, what is there to see?”

Are we to understand Andy Warhol’s attitude as a sarcastic documentation of the commercial drama and its laws, or is he a prophet of the future of humanity? Does he want to come across as a symptom of the fact that each of us can come up with a diagnosis for our own everyday situation—created by us but not for us? No! In his sea of products there is no life raft for man; what we need to be is fish—and why not plastic ones? “Everybody’s plastic—but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”

An impressive bit of alienation.

It is just this passive consciousness that has allowed Andy Warhol to ascend to the throne of the Pop-art decade’s hard-hitting sovereign. Pop art brought everyday objects into the realm of fine art and thereby became an integral component of the industrially manufactured landscape. It did so with portraits of mass-produced articles, often with a vulgarity it hardly exaggerated. It thereby illuminated something that could be traced to a misunderstood Bauhaus ideology—a design that took on everything from the building itself to the ashtrays inside. By being universal in its application, it aimed to elevate the popular taste to better suit modern life. The practice was already developed: the brand name was Internationalism. Mega advertising and clichés equated Konsum with Ikea and led to the mass media’s hollow and easily marketed ideals, and all of it culminated in the uniformity of suburban housing boxes.

Pop art portrays—unconsciously—all of these mistakes.

The market-savvy Andy Warhol found the direct visual language of consumer products in art—an apathetic packaging of fine art. Soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, money, flowers, bottles, and electric chairs all seem to have attached themselves to the canvas by themselves. There they are, hung up like depictions frozen in the same time they describe. Neon, startling, they reveal their own lives beyond the will of man. Like speechless clichés from the future, with a quantity that can be a threat to quality, they glare at us as though we were dying reptiles. Standard products we’ve never seen before.

That is what it felt like in the 1960s when we were confronted for the first time by these Warhol artifacts in galleries and museums. Today we even allow them in our bedrooms. Have we found a new capacity to experience something new, a fluorescent sensualism? Or do we look at them with the same blindness we have for everything else that surrounds us? If these works seem more indifferent today, less challenging, on a par with any other consumer product, then Warhol would be thoroughly pleased—they have taken on an unintentional meaning, become yet another component in the Warhol message.

We can only find the message in Warhol’s pictures indirectly. His canvases were actually empty rectangles in which man as originator has left room for a naked reality in which things justify themselves. In rectangles devoid of humanity we can harvest an epidemic of urban consequences. This meant new concepts for a new conception of art. Andy Warhol made us do it—made us abandon the requirement that art be something original, something authentic by an individual hand. The less the picture expresses the artist’s own personality, Warhol believes, the more successful the picture’s motif is.

Warhol’s primary message lies in the production process. Even when he was working as a commercial illustrator in the 1950s, drawing shoes, he strove to give his own personal taste a universal look. He “improved” his drawings until they became more the customer’s work than his own. In other words, he allowed the subjects in his pictures to be manipulated just as they in turn manipulate us. The next step in rationalizing away himself, his own contribution, was to replace the hand craftsmanship with machinery. A technological method of manufacturing art is not solely a working process; in his case it is also part of the message. Silkscreen made it possible to make a direct portrayal of the subject, and at the same time to mass-produce it—and thereby the work justified its existence on exactly the same grounds that other products do. In civilization’s supermarket he could finally sell art as though it were any other kind of product.

By multiplying silkscreened images on linen canvases, his paintings also take on significance for the politics of art. The sophisticated art of making original paintings is transformed into a new kind of mass-production. One might well assume this would undermine the art market, but in fact Andy Warhol became the galleries’ most lucrative deal. In three years he made two thousand “oil paintings” that only escalated in price. Warhols ascended to the top to become the most sought-after articles on the mountain of consumer goods. His collective studio in New York, the Factory, grew around the brand. A Warhol was now a cult object. Assistants helped out, manufacturing ANDY WARHHOL art packages designed to be good investments. When the demand was at its peak, the artist’s mother had to help sign the works.

Now that Andy Warhol had found the appropriate visual language for art, he turned his attention to laying bare other media. With the same apathetic empathy he exposes the manipulation inherent in the structure. He filmed a skyscraper for twenty-four hours, and a sleeping man for eight, and made short film portraits of people doing nothing.

The feature film Chelsea Girls shows two sides of a hotel room for three and a half hours. Warhol doesn’t influence the action with any kind of direction, but instead allows the people to interact with one another and with the camera. In later films such as Trash and Flesh, he lent his name as a brand to Paul Morissey to make films about the marginal figures of the scene surrounding the Factory. His own photographs are amateurishly made, their subjects all too aware of the camera. In the play Pork, Warhol becomes a listening voyeur who rolls around the stage in a wheelchair goading the actors into monologues on their sex lives. These narratives are taken from conversations overheard at the Factory, just as in the novel A, a transcription of a twenty-four-hour tape-recorded conversation.

The fact that our products can decompose into their own soil and our experiences and impressions are suppressed within the mass media’s manipulative framework is an acute situation that Andy Warhol was able to transform constructively into an enduring truth—a still life for our times. In 1968 he dressed up Moderna Museet in Stockholm with screen-printed cows, perverse symbols of beef production and even labels for cans of meat. His flowers were inspired by wallpaper.

Andy Warhol was recently in Stockholm to attend the opening of his exhibition at the Nova Gallery. This time his drawings and paintings were of cats and dogs and were made by hand. These works seemed privately shaky, like the artist himself among the crowd at the preview, drained of color as in the familiar loop of cult images. He is the eccentric factory director whose company has done so well that he now has time to work on his “etchings.” A.W. Enterprise Inc. is a major corporate group now, a leader in profit-driven cultural products.

Back in 1968, Warhol began making the effort to add some hand touches to his products. In a series of portraits of Mao he made some lines by hand, and later he produced a number of private portraits on commission. The cult he had become attracted many clients. Because his hobby was collecting money, it was mostly the super rich who could afford to commission him.

Andy Warhol became their court painter. Vain and conservative, they demanded their portraits be made more in the hand of the artist himself. Warhol, who had always adapted himself to the taste of “the general public,” could edit the flattened images produced by re-photographing and silkscreening his Polaroid snapshots. The image became more hand-made with each step, coming gradually to depict something else. The packaging of the art was allowed to dominate the subject, and Andy Warhol filled his empty rectangle with himself, just as we all try to do. Thus, although he once said he wanted to exist only in everyone’s television screen around the clock, he also struggles, alone and unsatisfied, with his impotency before that emptiness.

The message Warhol’s art used to have, that fertile emptiness, is now gone. Because his pictures have never worked as a counterweight to the surrounding world, in his case we must understand the personal contributions he made to the images as acts of escapism. Every one of these new pictures would be more at home in a handicrafts shop than in an art gallery.

The text was first published in Svenska Dagbladet, November 13, 1976.

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