Andy Warhol: Redemption Through Glamour

From Warhol, Carter Ratcliff. Photograph by Christopher Makos.

Guest article by Carter Ratcliff. Carter Ratcliff is an art critic, poet, editor, and the author of numerous books on art and culture, including John Singer Sargent (1982); The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art (1996); and Warhol, recently released for the first time as an e-book from Abbeville Press.

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In writing Warhol, I talked to the artist at length. This is standard procedure and Andy made no difficulties. He was always available, sometimes on short notice. Warhol was one of the great talkers of the New York art world–his interviews are an important part of his oeuvre–and our conversations were crucial to my understanding of his work. As forthcoming as he was, his demeanor was always deadpan and his remarks were tinged by a certain reluctance. On the slightest pretext, he would change the subject from, say, his childhood or a new series of prints to something else–anything else. Warhol was always in flight from himself and his evasions are often more revealing than his reminiscences. How much did we learn about the Campbell’s Soup can paintings when he told us that he often had Campbell’s Soup for lunch when he was a kid?

The trajectory of Warhol’s self-evasion took him toward disaster (car wrecks, suicide), high fashion (Halston, Diane von Furstenberg) and above all celebrity (Marilyn, Liz). In his art, these categories acquire a remarkable capaciousness. Thus the Marilyn pictures invoke disaster even as they celebrate stardom, and the images of Jackie Kennedy in mourning belong to all three categories–disaster, high fashion, and celebrity. Warhol once said, “The Empire State Building is a star.” He saw stardom in the Campbell’s Soup logo, the Brillo box logo, and Chairman Mao. His detractors understand his devotion to fame as a sign of adolescent shallowness. That judgment never convinced me and in the years since Warhol was published I have come to see him not merely as an important artist but as an American visionary of the first magnitude. And he has taken a place in my imagination near Jay Gatsby, another seeker after fame, American-style.

Gatsby, the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, is of course a fictional character. But then so was Warhol, who had imagined and reimagined himself several times over by the time he became known as a Pop artist in the early 1960s. Faced with an array of his celebrity portraits, I’m reminded of something Gatsby says to Daisy, when she asks how he can live all alone in his immense house. “I keep it full of interesting people,” he replies. “People who do interesting things. Celebrated people.” Gatsby’s guest list mirrors, with a time-delay, the roster of Warhol’s sitters. And in both of these figures, one historical and the other make-believe, we find an extreme, even an exalted instance of the American faith in redemption through glamour.

From Warhol, Carter Ratcliff. Photograph by Christopher Makos.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently presenting a show entitled Regarding Warhol. It contains forty-five works by Andy and a hundred more by sixty artists–American, European, Asian–who have somehow been affected by his example. As a study in influence, this is an impressive exhibition. Yet it seems a bit too academic, too museumy, if I may put it that way. One could mount a comparable demonstration of Caravaggio’s influence or that of Jacques-Louis David. And those would be useful shows, as is Regarding Warhol. If there was ever any doubt, we now have Met-certified proof that, during the past half-century, Warhol exerted more influence on the look and idea of art than anyone else. Yet he was more than an influential artist. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and a very few others, he helped us see what it is to be American.

Unlike those nineteenth-century figures, Warhol never set out to do any such thing. He simply wanted to find his way into the realms of celebrity and stardom and glamour. In doing so, he found that even a supermarket logo could be given a dazzling aura–and so could the mundane commercial process, photo-silk-screening, that he used to replicate his favorite logos on canvas. Even the glitches in his process could acquire an offhand glamour. When the image on a Brillo box turned out to be blotchy or dim to the point of invisibility, he accepted it, saying, “It’s all part of the art.”

According to Warhol, “Everybody has their own America, and you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.” As the leading citizen of this invented America, you make it real. You take on, in imagination, its scale and its inclusiveness. Or you do if you are Walt Whitman or Andy Warhol, for the inventiveness of Warhol’s art was self-invention by proxy and he had that Whitmanesque sense that a truly American self is somehow identical with the nation and its infinite possibilities.

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