Some know him as the author of the phrase (gone cliché) promising everyone fifteen minutes of fame. Others can instantly recognize his Marilyn Monroe or Campbell’s Tomato Soup Can paintings. Andy Warhol is all that and much more.
Considered one of the most important 20th century artists in the world, he redefined art – what is art, what it could express, how it could be accepted and/or rejected – all these questions were tackled in his oeuvre and quite often the answers he provided were openly provocative.
At the forefront of pop art and postmodern art, he has shown that there are no boundaries for art and that every single tiny detail is significant enough to become the focus of a big painting exhibited in some of the finest high end galleries in the USA.
Pop Art and Postmodernism
It’s no coincidence that Warhol was one of the harbingers of Postmodern art. Actually, some consider pop art to be preceding Postmodernism. Others argue that pop art, together with minimalism, is the ultimate expression of the Postmodern condition in art.
Postmodernism couldn’t possibly find a better field for expression than pop art. It’s here that the basic premises of Postmodernism are laid out for everyone to see and feel, thus making a work of art much easier to understand than a postmodern novel, for example. You don’t need to read, say Slaughterhouse-Five, and spend hours pondering what the hell happened there, exploring the themes, motifs, and symbols in search of the characteristics of Postmodernism.
Characteristics of Postmodernism:
2. the use of words prominently as the central artistic element;
6. performance art;
7. the recycling of past styles and themes in a modern-day context;
8. the break-up of the barrier between fine and high arts and low art and popular culture;
The "Andy Warhol: Headlines" exhibition
I ventured visiting MMK (Museum für Moderne Kunst) today only for the second time in a year and a half since I’ve been living in Frankfurt. I did it with the sole intention of sneaking a peek at some of the works of the very father of pop art – Andy Warhol.
There were some equally (or even exceedingly) provocative exhibitions at MMK at the moment but my point of interest was there on the third floor. Though this particular exhibition focused on newspaper clippings collected by Warhol and appropriated – as might be expected from its title “Warhol: Headlines” – there were a few of his works widely popular works, e.g. Most Wanted Men No.11, John Joseph H. JR (April-July 1964), Brillo Soap Pads Box (1964), and a lot of Madonna appropriations.
I spent some time looking them over and letting them touch/change me. Before I left, I felt the strong need to go back to the famous 100 Cans painting. It is a canvas of 100 cans of Campbell’s Beef noodle Soup. I stared at it for a while, totally perplexed. Not because I didn’t know its meaning...
It’s quite obvious that the single can of soup (see 7) is subjected to postmodernification. It is first made an object of arguably undeserving interest (see 5), a worthy model for a painting, thus indirectly compared to other models for painting. (through association, it calls on bricolage, see 1). It also urges a breakdown of high art and popular culture since it takes a common everyday object, whose sole purpose is to provide nutrition and it doesn’t qualify as a status symbol in any way (see 5). But as much as the painting makes the soup can a worthy object, it also simplifies (see 4) it by multiplying it, making a collage (see 3) of seemingly identical images. That, of course, is one of the most powerful ideas of Postmodernism - Simulacrum taken to new postmodern heights. To put it otherwise, simulacrum refers to the idea that art, for example, intends to make a copy of reality (a photograph is a realistic copy of reality). With the advent of postmodernity and mass production, the original is sometimes questionable, but mostly – simply non-existent. There is no single unique piece that is copied. In postmodern times, copies are made off copies until no one can differentiate which is a copy of which.
Warhol was more than aware of these tendencies and he showcased them bravely in his pop art. He actually said, “The reason I'm painting this way is because I want to be a machine.” If we fast forward half a century, we could easily say he desperately needed a printer. :D Many of his works take on a single image and then copy it an unexpected number of times.
Now back to my perplexity while observing the 100 Cans canvas. I couldn’t get over the fact that today Warhol, through his art, fails at the very thing he used to be the best. Through my post-postmodern eyes, I could easily see that his copies were far from perfect. They were not identical images of the same can of beef noodle soup. They were each different, the font he had used, the pressure, the color gleams – everything about those 100 cans shouted at me – done by hand, thus not eligible to be called machine-like. Sad but true, a human could never be as unified, machine-like, and impersonal as an actual machine. Not yet, at least.
An inhabinat of Information society rather then postmodernity, I saw one of the best examples of Postmodernism as closer to Modernism, and I believe, calling his art Modernist, would have been the worst insult to Andy Warhol. I don’t mean it like that. It’s just that times change and people change with them. Thus there perceptions of the same piece of art changes. It doesn’t mean that that particular piece is no longer adequate.
Fortunately, in 1967 Roland Barthes declared the “death of the author,” so no one needs to try to guess what the author had in mind or what his/her message was. Interpretation is everything. And there are many possible interpretation. Always.
The “Warhol: Headlines” exhibition venues:
25 September 2011 – 2 January 2012: National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
11 February – 13 May 2012: MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt am Main
11 June – 9 September 2012: Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome
14 October 2012 – 6 January 2013: The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh
- The father of pop art? Though pop art was a fairly new art style in 1960, it was not literally fathered by Warhol. Some indeed call him the “father of pop art” but that title has also been given to Richard Hamilton – the British artist mostly famous for creating the cover design for the Beatles’ White Abum.
- His real name was Andrew Warhola. His parents had emigrated from Miková, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia), in the early 1920s.
- Warhol expressed his homosexuality openly even before the gay liberation movement.
- Marilyn Monroe and the Coca Cola Contour Bottle - Apart from being two of Warhol’s most famous objects, could those two have something else in common? Obviously, the widespread idea that the Coca Cola bottle was designed to match Marilyn Monroe’s shape is a myth. The “contour” bottle was introduced in 1915 after the design won a competition – the Coca-Cola Company had been looking for “a bottle which a person could recognize even if they felt it in the dark, and so shaped that, even if broken, a person could tell at a glance what it was.”