Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Pop Art Paradise

Having assiduously studied the works of Andy Warhol over the years, and having seen exhibits in Chicago and London, I can say that nothing quite prepares you for the Sammlung Marx Collection on display in at the Hamburger Banhof, a majestic former train station which now houses works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly (fraud), Robert Rauschenberg, Bjork hubby Matthew Barney and others. Perhaps it is the novelty of contextual analysis used here. For example, the Warhol paintings are preceded by a mid-20th century painting of the Virgin Mary, to illustrate how East European Catholic iconography shaped Warhol's use of celebrity images, for example Marilyn, in the same way (the same technique is used by placing a Picasso next to works by Lichtenstein). To be honest, I had never thought about the connection.

The shock could be compounded by the sheer magnitude of the paintings on a human scale (as you can see here with the Mao). And the effect of the Hammer and Sickle paintings has more resonance in the former East Berlin than in New York or London, obviously.

This inspired me to revisit an article I wrote last year which examines the depth, belied by trademark surface Warhol naivete, of these paintings:


The personal is political, or in the case of Warhol’s work, I would modify the axiom to “the impersonal is political,” in that he took everyday, common household items and used them in an alchemical process to make (in effect) political or iconographic statements. The altered maxim is certainly apropos of Warhol’s Hammer and Sickle Paintings, in which the once controversial symbols were transmuted through Andy’s artistic process, the vagaries of history and the progressive impotence of the symbol -- which Arthur Danto contrasts with the still-potent swastika -- into those of a homey, apple-pie, American style capitalism. The works are:

In the aggregate celebration of a form of life in which he believed fervently, even to the point of subverting the once-feared Communist emblem by finding a way to bring into it the form of life it was thought to endanger. To deconstruct the emblem of an opposing political system and recreate it as a still life is exactly to drain it of life.

The emblem, in Warhol’s work, is certainly drained of life. And it is given new life artistically in a process I would argue is markedly different to that which yields art in the case of Brillo Boxes. They are both conceptual pieces, but Hammer and Sickle requires a more traditional definition of aesthetics, since, though its recognizance (implements he “just picked up on Canal St.”) and “line of beauty” do draw the eye in (as in the Brillo work), and Warhol uses his training as a commercial artist to cram in all sorts of concealed effects on the viewer, it requires a certain amount of education or awareness of the two economic systems to fully “get” the work.

One of Danto’s rationales for the Italian capitalists’ embrasure of the paintings is that the “aesthetization” of these “dread symbols” would be a trophy not unlike the “shrunken heads of his enemies” to their owner. Conversely, the Communists would have seen this work, superficially, as a validation of their political system. The common denominator, from Warhol’s vantage point, was of course, money. So capitalism wins out in the end, and the meaning of those symbols becomes attenuated, outdated and eventually lost. After all, post-Industrial revolution, what function would these items serve other than, as Danto points out, hardware items for the home? Therein lies the subversion of the paintings.

Danto gives us Hegel’s famous quote: “When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a form of life grown old.” If philosophy is the changing consciousness of the history of art, this is made manifest in the Hammer and Sickle paintings. These paintings were based on symbols which, at that historical moment, were losing their original power to shock. The subversion exists in Warhol’s use of ordinary brand-name hardware tools, which not only neutered them, but gloried in the political system which was anathema to them.

Now let us apply the same historical phenomenon from the Hegel quote to the Brillo pad boxes. The industrial capacity to build the boxes, according to Danto, was only generated about a year before the work came out. Brillo pads themselves had scarcely been in households that long, so it was very of-the-moment. The art world plainly could not have been ready for such a foray into “commercialism” before that historical moment, either.

The concept of the Hammer and Sickle paintings is heightened and complicated by the intellectual caché imparted by the history of the symbols. We can contrast this with the Brillo pads, which appeal to a primitive, democratic sense of beauty in the everyday. If there was any political statement in this latter work, it is the proverbial enigma wrapped in a riddle. Most people in America have used or seen Brillo pads; to riff on The Philosophy of Andy Warhol , it is likely these folks include the President and Elizabeth Taylor. Though most people in America at that time were aware of jingoistic terms such as “Pinko Commies” or “Red Menace”, I don’t believe most would have cottoned to the florid political connotations behind it, which Danto describes in detail on p. 180: the original symbols struck a delicate balance between the implications of power/force and unity in their evocation of the crossed swords used in heraldic code. Many Americans, if they were to see the original communist logo, would have a gut level reaction, which is what Warhol’s art is about, but by including brand names and separating the two implements, thereby neutering them, he magically changes this feeling into a warmer familiarity. The warm familiarity of capitalism! The magic lies in the fact that he is using the subliminal techniques of advertising to make a statement on these self-same techniques, but the resulting enigma is partly found in the fact that Andy himself would probably never admit to any such intent! His purported ignorance of this merely plays into the notion that in a capitalist society, consumers don’t know why they want what they want, they just want it, and in many cases that fact is contingent on packaging. This also precipitates the “gut level” reaction in “Brillo Boxes.”

The intent in “Brillo Boxes” is obfuscated due to the fact that the boxes themselves are actually factory items, so there may be a “hidden” political agenda there, but I think Danto is more obsessed with it for that very reason. He confesses that the nature of their aesthetic completely eludes him. I’m guessing he considers “Brillo” the more radical (certainly the more seminal) of the two. He even states that the Hammer and Sickle still lives are apolitical. The Brillo Boxes have been elevated to iconographic status, whereas the hammer and sickle have been brought down from their original place as icons . The nadir of this “bringing down” would be exemplified in Paulette Goddard’s request for a pin of the icons (p. 182).

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