Against the backdrop of a major retrospective, Richard Hell writes about the “transcendentally camp” Pop artist, portraitist of daily life.
Since Warhol’s death in 1987 a lot of attention has been given to his pre-Pop work—his late-1940s student paintings, his ’50s commercial art (book jackets, advertising drawings), and the personal work he made for friends and to charm art directors (handmade books, handbill calling cards). It’s unusual for an artist’s juvenilia to get so much attention; presumably it’s both because Warhol’s major work has been so thoroughly covered and because he’s so mysterious that every clue matters. The Whitney show follows the pattern. That early work is fey, whimsical, tending to exquisite, and campy, featuring ornate, rococo, highly stylized painting, collage, and drawing—of shoes, often—with shiny metal foil and gold leaf frequently pasted on, and spare Cocteau-esque portrait line drawings that are usually traced from photographs. A lot of the drawings are a bit lewd, in a whimsical way—as a student Warhol would draw people picking their noses and sitting on the toilet, and the ’50s drawings include such things as a penis with a bow around it. At first, little seems to connect all this work to Warhol’s ’60s Pop, but the more one sees of it the more one sees links, both conceptual and technical. Conceptually there’s the humor. The ’50s art is usually teasing and jokey (a handmade picture book is called 25 Cats Name [sic] Sam and One Blue Pussy), which you could also say of his famous grid of thirty-two paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, each a different flavor, from 1962. It’s just that the Soup Cans are dry and enigmatic, as befits “high” art. Also the hero worship—Warhol was obsessed with Truman Capote in the ’50s—and the fascination with celebrities, especially dramatic women, lounge-lizard artistes, and sultry pretty boys. The ’50s line-drawing portraits are traced from photos, a technique obviously antecedent to the silk screens, and their cosmetically improved contour lines foreshadow the same in the post-’60s portraits.
But the most significant way the ’50s work anticipates the famous art is its overall campiness. In that state of aesthetic and philosophical consciousness, all artists are artistes, charm and glamour matter most, and everything is funny. Of course camp is associated with male homosexuality, at least the “effeminate”-behaving segment of it, and with seeing life as a performance; nothing is real, everything is theater.
The original great analysis of and salute to camp is Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp,’” first published in 1964. It’s dedicated to Oscar Wilde and he is quoted in it a lot, for good reason—Wilde’s art and thought may be the work prior to Warhol that best exemplifies or codifies conscious camp. Two quotes of Wilde from the essay: “It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious,” and “Life is too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.”
Same goes for the 1964–65 Flowers, Warhol’s version of art history’s “nature,” I suppose. Part of camp is its too-muchness, as Sontag pointed out, and the Whitney’s hang of aggressively colored flower paintings on top of Warhol’s fuchsia-and-acid-yellow cow wallpaper from 1966 sure qualifies. The way that wall subverts your expectations of art while making jokes and deliriously confounding your eyes is like a final declaration of indomitable whimsicality that’s simultaneously a kind of alarm, a call to attention, a theatrical gesture that you can only savor and salute, as you smile. It’s not quite in the class of the Soup Cans or the Disasters (mostly 1963), but the pure beauty of the Flowers on their own equals the Soup Cans in their adamantine splendor.
The Disaster paintings bring me to another point: the way Warhol seemed to want to make everything about his daily life into art. He aestheticized—again a camp impulse—his whole life, mundane or dramatic: his lunch (soup), his continuous magazine-page flipping (celebrity silk screens) and newspaper thumbing (the news-photo Disasters), his cohort and entourage (the movies), even his mail (the time capsules) and his corporeal being (the wigs and shades, cosmetic surgery). At all times, though, he was both being funny and seeking to profit from publicity, whether or not a viewer might also feel other emotions and intentions. Even the Disasters, which can feel chilling and are often thought of as personally revealing—since it’s well known that Warhol was wildly skittish about any reminder of death—are also funny. Tunafish Disaster—four women die from eating bad tunafish??? There are eyewitness stories about him laughing about it while silk-screening. In Ambulance Disaster, ambulance passengers are crushed when it crashes (think about it); Suicide (Fallen Body) is from a news photo of a woman whose leap from the observation deck of the Empire State Building ended with her looking like Sleeping Beauty, sweetly wrapped, face up, in the roof of a car—these are jokes. It’s all camp, no matter that it’s also powerful art.
I’ve seen Chelsea Girls projected three times—once in the ’60s or ’70s, then six or seven years ago, then 2018. I don’t well remember the first time; the second time I came away awed by how Warhol had managed to reinvent film the way he had so many other mediums; and this most recent time I was so repelled and bored by the people in it I could hardly sit through it. This brings up the moral-v.-camp sensibility again. By “moral” I just mean an artist’s taking life seriously, thinking that in life there’s some kind of meaningful purpose, including compassionate values about how people treat each other; honor and the golden rule. In a way an artwork is simply an artist saying, “I propose this as interesting,” and the assumption is that that inevitably has moral implications. Camp sidesteps the moral part.
Sontag makes one brief parenthetic reference to Pop in her essay:* having described camp as “a tender feeling” (her italics), she contrasts it with much of camp in Pop art, which she calls “ultimately nihilistic,” the implication being that the nihilism disqualifies the work as camp. It’s true there’s not much tenderness in Chelsea Girls; rather, the material is deeply cold and bitchy. For me the cruelty and hysteria are hard to swallow, and make me uncomfortable and depressed, but I think that’s my problem rather than Warhol’s, because: 1) you can call the meanness tender in that the people involved all seem to accept it, as if ultimately it were a fun game played by people who appreciated each other; but also, 2), a nihilistic reading of camp, contrary to Sontag, can be legitimate. Over and over Warhol said that everything is just nothing, but he is exhibit one for how that idea is consistent with camp. In Chelsea Girls he’s simply capturing the theatrical behavior, often enacted by pretty people, that he both participated in and voyeuristically relished in the hard-drug-driven underworld he hosted for the first years of his fame. That world of junkies and camping speed freaks deserves its portraitist as much as any other world, and, like sensationalist news stories and Hollywood glamour, it was just raw material for Warhol to turn into high art in his innovative ways.
He did falter when he narrowed his intentions down to “business art.” The corporate logos, dollar signs, and pulpy signage (“Repent and sin no more!”) he painted in his final years are not in a class with the Soup Cans. Their typical emphatic, hand-painted look doesn’t have the power of the original, more remote, impassive appropriations in the ’60s. The pictures get shrill and desperate feeling, or just soft. The colors aren’t as interesting. Images are just scattered across white canvas. The early grids worked better. The countless perfunctory-feeling commissioned portraits—maybe he just got tired. It feels like he’s simply staying on brand, albeit dilutedly. And sometimes even appearing to try to keep up stylishly with the ’80s youth boom in painting—such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Salle and David Wojnarowicz—which artists had inevitably been influenced by him. Of course, the profit motive was always present. Something I hadn’t realized, and that was noted in the Whitney show, is how he timed his first movie-star silk-screens to sensational news stories—Marilyn Monroe’s overdose death, Liz Taylor’s affair with Richard Burton—so that they would have built-in public interest. Whether consciously deliberated or not, this is true of painters since the cave people, who presumably painted wild game because that’s where their attention was.
But modernism had been pretty contemptuous of the aim to satisfy taste, much less popular taste, and Warhol was the first modern high artist to contradict that contempt—while of course realizing that almost everybody would laugh at the Soup Cans as ridiculous, but that they’d also talk about them, which would force dealers to recognize them and collectors to buy them. Over and over, Warhol said not just that everything is nothing but that everything is good. The idea that everything is good is the essence of Pop as conceived by Warhol. It’s quite Zen. But when Warhol starts doing it all to order—explicitly in the society portraits and commissioned portfolios (Endangered Species, Cowboys and Indians) or exploitively in commemoration (Moonwalk)—the work often suffers, feels rote. There is still great painting after the ’60s—the Skulls, the piss paintings, the Shadows, the Rorschachs, and more—and even some of the portraits and portfolio prints are very fine, with their Juan Gris interlocking geometrical patches in brilliantly unpredictable color combinations, patches of painterly brushstrokes here and there, and elegant cosmetic lines massaging the mix. But overall the level falls off.
When I attended the press preview for the Whitney show in early November, I happened to recognize Bob Colacello standing with another Factory mainstay, Vincent Fremont, in the museum lobby. I introduced myself to ask a couple of questions; they were both very gracious. In Holy Terror Colacello had written that, of the sixteen sections of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Hackett wrote nine, he himself wrote four, Berlin wrote one, and one, the prologue, was by the three of them. That would leave one chapter by, supposedly, Warhol himself. I asked him how he could explain that, when the philosophy was so eccentric and personal. He conceded that Warhol had read and tuned up the ms., had signed off on every page, and that much of the material came from recollections and sometimes recordings of Andy’s conversation, but he insisted that 95 percent of the book was written by the ghostwriters. I don’t know quite what to make of it. I guess it isn’t quite as dramatic as it seemed at first, when I could only figure that Warhol was so pithy and comprehensive and indelible, not to mention faithful to his readjustment of the concept of originality, that he could confidently assign to others the labor of detailing, in the first person, his worldview across a whole 241-page book. It still seemed like a unique achievement. What precedents are there? The Bible, I guess.**
* It’s funny that Warhol’s and Pat Hackett’s book Popism: The Warhol Sixties(1980) briefly mentions Sontag’s essay, but rather than saying it contrasts camp with her two other categories—“high” moral art and fragmentary art of extreme feeling—Andy says the essay is about “the differences between high, middle, and low ‘camp’”!
** As I continued to wonder about this, it occurred to me that plenty of books recount the conversation of notable people—books of “table talk” by such as Samuel Coleridge or Orson Welles. I suppose The Philosophy is a Warholian twist on this tradition.
Original text: Richard Hell / Gagosian Quarterly