this essay made my brain cry brain tears

August 26th, 2006

it might make you cry too, especially if you try to read the whole thing:::
it just started POURING in NYC holyshitt! it is my brain plattering on the pavement::

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(oh and you will miss all the funny footnotes. i promise they are FUNNY)
(and check it out, i got to name another published art thign after a shakespeare quote. ha!)

STIFLED IN THE VAULT
Kathy Grayson

To reconstruct a dead mans plan for an exhibition: it has a certain Warholian luridness to it, doesnt it? And doing it for a profit! I think Warhol would resoundingly approve. Just as he often courted making portraits of the dead more than the living, just as he all his life fingered mortality, just as death could be picked as the uniting thread in his whole oeuvre if you were a little drunk at a cocktail party and feeling sassy; so could you say that this posthumous fulfillment of his artistic intension is long overdue.

This show should have taken place in Italy in 1977 but was cancelled due to the inflammatory content of the work, back when the word inflammatory and artwork did not elicit stifled giggles. Pasolini had just been murdered, and the Red Brigades were terrorizing not just artists and intellectuals, but also what was the 36th government Italy had seen since the fall of Mussolini: and the idea of showing hammer and sickle paintings with paintings of skulls was not just bad business: it was dangerous.

What a wonderful idea to recreate a most exciting Warhol show that never got to see its opening night, now when nothing is true and everything is permitted. This purloined show, this delayed debut of two of my favourite Warhol series paired together, very interestingly calls to the fore not only the passage of these almost thirty years, but also the shift in the critical interpretation surrounding these artworks. What do they look like to art eyes now as opposed to then? How do they relate to other artworks now as opposed to other artworks then? Seeing the puppy every day one often miss the growing: nothing like thirty years of absence to throw the changes into stark relief!

Said metaphorical puppy is still very much alive today, just to beat this brief puppyI mean metaphorto death. oh man Im sorry! Staring at skulls all day is making me feel very Hamlet in the graveyard, more full of puns than pious contemplation. What I mean to say is this work is fantastically vital right now and creates a very fascinating stir in what is going on in contemporary art practice, just as it did in its contemporaneous art practice thirty years ago. The interpretation surrounding itmethods, experiments, nomenclature and allhas changed drastically but as we shall see, I hope, in the most interesting ways. My only caveat is that I feel much more the prankster than the critic right now, as I think behooves when dealing with this master of mystery, Andy Warhol.

Skulls (1974-1976) and Hammer and Sickles (1976-1977) have never been shown together, although the Hammer and Sickles were shown in an exhibition entitled Still Lifes in New York, at the Castelli Gallery, January 1977. The Skulls were shown in Cologne and Munich (1977-78) then ultimately at Dia on Wooster in 1988-89 and are lesser known, having received virtually no critical opinion during the artists lifetime. Funny enough, his Ladies and Gentlemen series (a wonderfully titled group of African American drag queens silk-screened over expressive, almost frenetically coloured backgrounds) evoked such a positive response at the Palazzo dei Diamanti that they prompted the organization of this unachieved show especially for Italy.

After returning from the Ladies and Gentleman visit, Warhol dispatched assistant Ronnie Cutrone to find a hammer and sickle image, probably having been inspired by this Bolshevik symbol graffittoed all over town. Its too funny in 2006 to think that he and Cutrone had such trouble finding the simple thing they wanted: how they were immediately total FBI suspects after frequenting communist bookstores, etc. and had to resort to buying a mallet thingie and a small sickle down on Canal Street. As for the skull, Warhol picked up a nice specimen in Paris to play around with and he and his assistant shot the object in many very lovely poses, two variations of which are included in this exhibition. Polaroids shot at this time show Andy in self-portrait with the skull on his head, while Polaroids of the hammer and sickle betray the blue handle and American brand name label of the sickle conspicuously.

True Temper is the brand, and Champion no. 15 the model. The hammer and sickle were arranged like a classical still life on a horizontal surface in various positions and illuminations. With the sickles especially, Warhol seems to have been interested in the formal possibilities this still life method provided, for the twelve positions he experimented with focused heavily on the possibilities of pushing shadow and abstraction, some couplings where the shadows look even unrelated to the shapes and are unidentifiable. Especially in the hammer and sickle drawings he executed in conjunction with these paintings, the prominence of the shadows and their strongly abstract continuity seemed to be what the artist focused on visually experimenting with the most, even conflating at times the positive and negative space of the objects.

The skulls, zoomed out a bit from the claustrophobic Calder stabile-looking proximity of the sickles, seem to focus more on color and form than on abstraction and shadow. The bright domes of the craniums have that Cezanne-ish colouring and recolouring of edge that makes them quiver a bit in space; the reds aqueous and the blues strangely mattein one a spattering of fuchsia in the background explodes into green when it crashes into a temple. The hot pink fellow, funny enough, is the most gruesome, with the pink and yellow background meeting in an almost odoriferous orange, while the pink, upon meeting the green below, edges as blue. Both comminglings add to a suggestion of depth and mimicking the way the eye blends colors at an objects edge.

The grey variation on the skull with the yellow shadow is vastly different, the colour outline smudged with finger makes the skull unnaturally oblong and lozenge shaped, and a hitch in the screenic transfer renders the eye sockets slightly upturned, as though the skull itself were freaked out. On other skulls the slippage produces quite disturbing effects: one piece has extra purple circling the base of the skull and fashions this fellow a primate, and a bump of the raster in the other direction makes his neighbor tumesce unnaturally about the temples.

Both the Skulls and the Hammer and Sickle works are very late in Warhols exploration of the evocative potential of the slipped register and here the separation of his disegno and colore is most pronounced. The textured impasto colour spread like jam under the screened component lends even the photorealistic black of the objects the ravines and curvatures of the painterliness beneath. In a few pieces he seems to make no effort at all to even vaguely outline the proper areas with colour. The raised paint of the underpainting disrupt the surface fidelity of the silkscreen so much in places that the order of operations begins to invert and the color takes on a disegno of its own. I intend by these terms, of course, to evoke the war between line and color, (philosophy and rhetoric!) Delacroix and Ingres, in which Warhol involves himself by his failure to corral his hues within the silk-screened contour. Warhol and Basquiat both were monsters of this interaction: while Basquiat achieved true drawing-with-colour, Warhols brilliant formal intuition allowed him to make the slightest alterations in the intersection of colour and line take on massive power. Playing with his technique of making a painting look like rotogravure of Sunday ad inserts or old tabloids (where the lips of a model are very likely to be printed on her left cheek instead) and by making these errors so deliberate and perfect and seemingly accidental and fresh, he more than any recent artist innovated in this area.

But lo! If we want to talk about the meaning or the content or any of those nice things we might want to remind ourselves of Warhol in context, Warhol in 1977, Warhol criticism back then-ish, etc, as there are some art kids a generation behind me who are unable to decipher the baffling acronym U.S.S.R. Was he making a political statement? Why did he choose these subjects and how should they be interpreted?

So I will attempt to uber-briefly summarize conventional Warhol criticism so we can all figure out what colour jersey we want to put on before the whistle blows. Youre either a Simulacral Warhol or a Referential Warhol, according to Hal Foster, who bifurcates the field as such in his Return of the Real definitively and excellently. The Referential Warhol dudes think the visceral reality of suffering and death are part of Andys inquest into morbid consumerism. They would put Warhol in a group with other cultural-moment cataloguers who embody their generations sentimentality like Norman Rockwell or something saccharine like that. The Simulacral guys are all absolutely against content: he didnt mean any of that rot because Warhol is a mirror, a machine, a radiant emptiness! He is random, arbitrary, willful! This camp is WAY more annoying, and so vintage sounding to young ears! Baudrillard bien sur puts Warhol at his third sign order of simulation where instead of perverting the referent or, subsequently, masking the absence of the referent, it instead bears no relationship to the referent whatsoever and is pure simulation. These fellows, unfortunately, have the benefit Warhol agreeing with them.

But the referential interpretation is totally uncool, too. The problem with this camp is that locating the entire meaning of an artwork in the pseudo-sociological cultural theory of the audience, denying all artistic agency and perverting visual information to political ends. I have no qualms ascribing what you could call intellectualized meaning to intellectually intended artwork, when such intent is visibly manifest in the work itself. There are a million ways for this to be made manifest, but Warhols technique in all respects is not one of them. Which doesnt mean they arent rife with suggestibility or arent REPEATEDLY BAFFLING AND INTRIGUING, but it means they will forever reside in the indeterminate state where no amount of piled up interviews essays, hot air and x-rays reveal anything more than the surface.

Im a great believer in anecdotal evidence however, and just as the current art generation has taught me that true insight comes from LIVING THE ART so has it given me the urge here to madly play with my forefathers joints in their tomb. The proverbial arms-length of critical distance stinks and we should rather chase the subject down and make out with it in a bathroom. This is so far from anything that deserves to be called critical practice that I am forced to laugh, this time at myself.

But much previous criticism of these pieces sounds very curious to me today; for example Referential Warhol stipulation that the skulls are about fascism and that the hammer and sickles are about communism vs. capitalism (the uber-American brand name left showing, the traditional still-lifing of it, the mechanical reproduction and the comfy, wealthy capitalist society that allows art like this to be bought and soldor even to exist). The very rad Glenn OBrien quoted Andy in High Times, June 1977: Weve been in Italy so much and everybodys always asking me if Im a communist because Ive done Mao, so now Im doing hammers and sickles for communism and skulls for fascism. It seems quite clear that the phrasing here serves as an emptying out of intent sobre todo, I mean really! Hes essentially saying that people mistakenly applied political intent to the Mao pieces so now hes giving people the misleading things they obviously want, so that they can read hammer and sickle as this, skull as that. And Trevor Fairbrother reproduces in the Dia collection of essays from 1989 a very nice fascist skull flag from 1930 to illustrate his point, besides being backed up by the artists curious affirmation of this (as far as that is admissible).

It is a fun fun game to try to decipher Warhols interviews and writings and intent with evidence like this, but here I just dont buy it. Warhols interests never were local or specific in that waythe hammer and sickle idea might have leapt into his head from a graffito in Naples but he painted it because it was one of the most internationally famous pieces of graphic design of his time, and I most definitely think he painted the skulls because they are famous as well. Famous as in we all have one, how common, how pop, right? Famous in the sense of a powerful universal symbol, and one famously tackled in the realm of fine art for centuries. Warhol liked famous things, universal and notorious things. He disavowed any political interest constantly in interviews and backed that assertion up repeatedly with artwork and behaviour. While this exhibition was prohibited from being shown in Italy because conflicts arising from the local implications of his images, I bet that this was more an international miscalculation of a very calculating artist, a bold artists cultural faux pas.

Warhol was knee-deep in painting famous things at the time: he executed the skulls and the glamour portraits concurrently in his studio and it is too delicious to draw the obvious comparisonsin the graveyard we go again: Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let/her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must/come; make her laugh at that. Even more excitingly suggestive is his assistants assertion in an interview around that time that painting skulls was like doing a portrait of everyone in the world. Thats some gravedigger humour for you.

So much for the referential reading of these pieces, then. But the majority of writing on Warhol up until now is from critics love to love the Andy that is simulacral. The word on the serious people street is so intimidatingly polysyllabic that you find even the referential critics sometimes celebrate the emptiness of the image (while scurrying to explain in a cultural context the importance and nuance of that emptiness). Verdict: in holding up his unique mirror to bullshit consumer/media culture, he created pieces that poignantly reproduced the feeling of emptiness in the hearts of his viewers: we feel the absence of the fear of the hammer and sickle; we feel the lack of a fear of death. And are perversely reassured.

Maybe this is how people felt back then, I couldn’t begin to relate: the things that scared people during modernism, like mechanized depersonalization, anomie, atomic weapons, whatever, are NOTHING compared to the shitstorm of today I mean the complexity of the fuckup is at staggeringly incomprehensible proportions as postcapitalism or whatever you want to call it has linked up all strata in the volume of lifeness to its soul-sucking death needs and logic. The response to these works NOW, then, coming out of this extra holyshit life, is bound to be different that the pop simulacral cool that the previous generation begat and has to be something else. I don’t see simulacra; I see something worse. These works are rich with that suggestibility of something else, of what comes after the emptiness.

The Warhol that is most relevant and interesting to the arting now is the Warhol of these skulls and hammer and sickle pieces; the Warhol of the small handful of works (stretching from the electric chairs and disasters to the Shadows series at Dia Beacon); where instead of radiating that signature Andy emptiness, the works radiate an intangible, nascent new. A huge shadow opens up through his work, literally, as it ends with a series depicting only shadow, and it is here that redemptive meaning is tantalizingly begun. At the point where a skull resists simulation, where the shadow of the sickles tangle up the objects literality, here the young artists now are directing their excavations. And so you find some of the best new artwork: a little sinister, a little cold, a lot of concept, a little playfulness and a lot of looking askance; to find a feeling way more chilling than mere emptiness.

Todays audience at first glance might (as many of my friends did) say oh, how totally goth of Warhol, and point out to me that well, he always said his favourite colour was black. Art eyes have recently feasted on Robert Lazzarini, Jo Jackson, Damien Hirst, and Amy Sarkisian skulls, and this is just in the past New York City artyear. But as easy as it might be to make a big stack of recent skull art and say now doesnt this make a pretty pile of evidence; it bears no relation to these projects except in maybe title. Furthermore, skulls are like the favourite thing to depict right now in not just art but in that especially gross slice of pop culture where the mainstream shit media grab something from subculture and deck some teen movie person out in a skull print baby tee. But this is not interesting, I mean, my goodness we have another page or so of room left, lets really look into it!!

The willfully jangly silk-screening tends to vulgarize whatever Andys subject, as the slippages evoke the printing methods on tabloids and Sunday paper advertising inserts. High-rolling rich farts look like trash, celebrities like ghouls, (actually the drag queens come off looking the best of the bunch), but what of these still lifes? They seem to be affected differently. The skull image seems to put up a more powerful fight against this technique of trashinesssomehow no matter how drag-queeny the colour set, the skull does not back down as a signifier and is more gruesome for it. The skull is still a skull- I dont know if there is any way to photographically reproduce the real thing in a way that makes humans completely desensitized to the naked casement under their face. A cartoon logo or doodle of a skull, maybe, but not the photographic image of a real one.

Which brings up an interesting nuance of these series, that in both cases Warhol deliberately used the REAL things in a traditional still like manner. In the hammer and sickle pieces he has a completely new innovation where he shoves the real back into the vacantly iterated fake in such a way as to EVEN FURTHER empty it out. Isnt that awesome? Its totally the opposite conceptual direction of almost all his other work, where he loves the pop flat image of a real thing to play with, not the thing itselfa photo clipped from a newspaper a drawing from an advertisement, the coca cola advert, not a real bottle sitting in the corner in dramatic chiaroscuro. All his other series fit roughly into the model of: take poplar media image, and through iteration and difference, though flatteningly mechanical reproduction, show the emptiness behind the image, repeat till all meaning disappears. In these works though he took the real things, the cold-to-the-touch steel tools and the smooth lighter than youd hope palmable skull as subjects and, subjected to the same technique, found that instead of meaning disappearing, instead of radiating emptiness, a new inscrutable meaning was created.

So what does this huge difference in approach reveal to us about these works and the artist at this point in his career? (Because as I already intimated, I am of the camp that is interested in these things, and believe you can approach getting information on them in this manner). To me the act of going out and fetching these objects feels to have been an interest in investigating the power of these megasymbols, where Andy might have thought something like well whats the big deal with these things anyway? Ill go out and get them and see and then in presenting the thing itself he challenges the viewer: is this what you were so afraid of? Look its just two ordinary tools you can buy on the street is this what made Americans freak out for like over thirty years? And then of course for Andy, whose life was strongly informed at all points with a fear of death; he might have been directing this demystification of a feared object to himself. Sort of here look its just a skull a thing you can play with take pictures of paint funny colours. Its an object like any other, a softly indented spheroid thing with lots of interesting bits that make cool shadows. I dont know if Id go so far as to say they are apotropaic, but they do seem charged with that moment where you take a feared object and in getting up the courage to grasp it, look it in the face (or in its lack of face har har), grapple with it a bit, and in doing so obliterate that aura, the unknown powerful field of fear it used to radiate, and break the spell it previously cast.

There is that great Hal Foster quote which might be the truest thing said on the subject of Warhol yet: that we each get the Warhol we need and deserve. Kids today get their pose and projects from Duchamp via Warhol, as opposed to Picasso via Pollock. Thats the strain of modernism the current generation considers most important. They prefer the ambiguity, the interdisciplinarity, and the diabolically prankster pose as opposed to the what is painting and lets be heroes about it and take ourselves super seriously while we mull this over. Its how we keep art and life in charged connection to each other, instead of compartmentalizing experience and seeking a false, metaphysical sublime. Like remember the Wrong Gallery Most Wanted thingie in this years Biennial? Makes a nice dot to connect with Andys Most Wanted and Duchamp’s Most Wanted, in case you wanted to start making connect the dot drawings.

The number of times I see the Warhol pose struck by the new artmakers of today is hilarious: its not just Maurizio sending surrogates to lecture in his stead, as was pioneered by Warhol, its stumbling into Terrence Kohs Berlin abodes sitting room and finding everything aluminum foiled silver, or Nate Lowmans silk-screened bullet-hole paintings, Ryan McGinley and Dan Colens community flophouse of an apartment/studio, or Dash Snow spinning facetious circles around reporters taking advantage of their prosaic plodding by being only what they have already decided he isand more. The Warhol they deserve is the interdisciplinary Warhol: the artist, filmmaker, writer, superstar, publisher, actor and music producer. I think the only thing he didn’t do was play bass guitar in some funny band. The most exciting part of new art practice is just this crossover of genres, where artists make myriad kinds of artings in all manner of collective groupings and everyone is in a band. And just as Andy came to art though commercial illustration, so are there area exceedingly few artists of my acquaintance that come to fine art from a fine art background: one was a surfer, one a sign painter, one a graffiti writer, one a drummer. And such diversity of background breathes life into what could be a ploddingly predictable contemporary art scene, just as Warhol did.

Just as fluidity of disciplines is a Warholian mainstay for young art makers, so are celebrity and the trappings of it. For every friend of mine with a full page in Vogue, not of his or her work, heaven forbid, but just paint-spattered, beautiful, young, hip them, I have Warhol to thank. He was the first artist to obsessively use what was then only a Hollywood film term, photo-op, and certainly made use of them. For the paradigm, the pattern par excellence of fame-spun art and art-spun fame, there is only Warhol. He did not invent the importance of the artist interview but rather blew it out of the water, yet in doing so made it an additional part of what takes up more and more artists time: image management. This terrible part of the art-life gauntlet is perpetually problematic; I cant tell you how embarrassing it is to catch my art peers spout off to me things they never felt but rather only read in their own reviews or interviews, to catch them at the most embarrassing but most unavoidable part of being some young art star. Warhols oblique, fresh, real answers made any serious question sound cliché- which is fun fun fun and put into action by the most savvy today.

But the Warhol they DON’T get is the clumsily political Warhol many critics insist on. While a politically crazed situation in Italy kept this wonderful show from seeing the light of day until now, the Warhol at the time was not even vaguely a political artist, and he should not be inherited as such now. Its so shocking the change in these mere thirty years, where today terrorist nonsense is again at a crazed level of course; violence, reactionary civil rights violations to counter it, fear, close-mindedness, ignorance, hate, state surveillance, etc. etc. But here in 2006, can you possibly think of any conceivable artwork that could be deemed inflammatory? If you can, please tell my friends and they will make it because damn if that isnt what truckloads of art rebels are desperately trying to do now.

Their efforts are almost unilaterally in vain, however; subversive protest is now in integral part of the suffused system of oppression where free speech is permittedand celebrated in the mediajust to misrepresent how free and un-oppressed we are. I cant tell you how many stupid flags, Bushs, and Bin Ladens I saw in Basel this year (and skulls for that matter), and I dare you to find a group show this summer that didn’t include one. Art makers now would benefit immeasurably to learn how Warhol could treat these conceptually loaded subjects of a skull, a hammer, and a sickle formally without kitsch vacancy or slathered sentiment; learn what makes them so vital and exciting instead of merely copying their imagery, because, of course, the imagery is nothing new. What was and remains shockingly new is the way Warhol mastered not only the interplay of technique and symbol, line and colour, but also his role in the mythology surrounding the artwork. Part of their mystery is that the mysterious Warhol made them, and their challenging nature is partly the challenge of relating to not merely the canvasses but the whole phenomena that was this inveterate prankster.

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