ANDY WARHOL’S PUBLIC IMAGE: A CONTRADICTION OR A SYMBIOSIS

Even after his death Andy Warhol remains the most commercially successful artist of the twentieth century. The phenomenon of his success was studied from different points of view, from cultural studies to economic analysis. Depending on the point he is studied from, Warhol can be seen as a cultural icon, a successful businessman, or as a weird character of marginal subculture, raised on a pedestal of international fame just by doing right things in a right time. No matter from which angle you look at his persona, Andy Warhol’s heritage, his influence on the art and culture, his role in forming of what we now know as “a conceptual artist” are obvious. His role in history is directly connected with the public image he carefully created. Each word during an interview, each public appearance seem to be carefully directed by Warhol to support this illusive and controversial persona, as a result, Warhol himself became a work of art. It also could seem that his image and his public activities overshadow his own work, so did Warhol become bigger when the art he created, or understanding of him and his work goes side by side? We analyze Warhol’s life, works and his interviews and try to find out how his works reflect his life and vice versa.

Public Image

To understand Warhol’s work it is important to find out how he became the image we all know and remember: an iconic picture of lean emotionless face with white hair, wearing glasses. This image itself became a symbol, a cultural artifact, much like Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s face imprinted on T-shirts, or, ironically, Warhol’s own colored image of Marilyn Monroe. Even those who do not know anything about artistic movements of the 1960`s in America, are aware of who Warhol was. He became something he always admired and promoted with his art – an icon of popular culture. Though Warhol’s life was unprecedentedly open to all sorts of media, it is really hard to differentiate when he was honest, and when he was acting. During his whole artistic life, Warhol changed his views and constantly contradicted himself. During interviews he changed his behavior from playing stupid, answering just “yes”, “no” and “tell me what I must answer”, to proclaiming long pieces of information, as if taken from tourist brochures (interview on his film “The Empire”), and prolonged (and rather sharp and informative) monologues on his work. Playing a simpleton was a great part of Warhol’s public act: describing his creative decisions in a casual way, always referring to his art as “empty”, sometimes even diminishing his artistic prominence, Warhol in many ways initiated a doubt in the minds of many of his critics. He not only did not oppose those calling him a “hack” but by his he attitude supported this point of view.

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Warhol’s interest broadened to other artistic and social spheres, and the financial income provided by his reproduced paintings allowed him to create a personal “empire”. Hungry for public attention, Warhol became a centre of the artistic community. He attracted creative people and made a favorable climate for artists around him. Warhol’s headquarters, “The Factory”, which served as a manufacturing facility for his paintings, and the artistic folk around it became an art project in itself: Warhol’s own recreation of star-filled Hollywood. He is the founder of the “Interview” magazine where creative people interviewed each other; moreover, he created legendary “The Velvet Underground” band. Practically he was involved in everything artistic going on around him. During his entire career Warhol never publicly broke the character. Only after his death some fragments of information on “true” Warhol started to surface, which drastically contrasted the image he created during his life, for example: Warhol being a very religious person.

Early Years

When Warhol started his artistic career, economy and culture in America were developing very fast. Economic development led to improvement of financial situation of almost all layers of the society, which resulted in the flourish of consumerism. Everything in America was becoming a brand, from food products to production companies and even living people, Hollywood stars, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley being the brightest examples. Hollywood provided general audience with an assembly-line production of light cultural project. The demand for industrial design grew in a geometric progression. In this increasing market, a talented young artist from an immigrant family could easily find his niche. Drawing illustrations for fashion magazines became Warhol’s temporary resort. At the start of his career as a fashion illustrator, young artist faced an obvious collision of his artistic ambition and the simple requirements of the profession. This extract from Warhol’s interview with Gene Swanson proves that he was baffled with the fact that the objects he was drawing were considered the work of art, but his drawings were not:

Everybody’s always being creative. And it’s so funny when you say things aren’t, like the shoe I would draw for an advertisement was called a “creation” but the drawing of it was not… . The attitude of those who hired me had feeling or something to it; they knew what they wanted, they insisted; sometimes they got very emotional. The process of doing work in commercial art was machine-like, but the attitude had feeling to it.

Hollywood and American Mass Culture

So by developing the copying process both on technical and ideological levels, he transformed from a conventional illustrator into a real artist. The paradox is that the more artificial and methodical his creative process became (turning from hand drawings into mechanical reproduction of photos with silkscreen printing), the more Warhol grew as an artist. At some moment, it became obvious that it was not the work itself, but the idea behind it, the concept that had the greater value. And the ideology of Warhol’s work grew from his own personal obsessions with
Hollywood and American mass culture.

Faces of Fame

Working in the advertisement industry Warhol was personally familiar with the “inner kitchen” of commercial design and its principles. This led to him using objects, faces and images, already imprinted in the minds of not only American, but the international public. Warhol’s The Coke Bottles, The Campbell’s Soup Cans, The Elvises and The Monroes with washed-out or oversaturated colors, repeated to the point of industrial reproduction, became not only Warhol’s trademark, but also his artistic manifest.

“Marilyn Diptych” (1962. Acrylic paint on canvas. 205.4 x 144.8 cm), created the year the actress died, is one of the brightest examples of Warhol’s obsession with the star. There is an obvious contrast between the brightly colored left part of the painting and bleak, depressing decolorized pictures on the right. This duplicity comments on the dissonance of the actress’s public image of a glimmering glamorous dream-girl and her inner loneliness and sadness hidden from the public. This visual contradiction also stresses that even after her death the image of Marilyn remains alive on the silver screen. The repetition of images, traditional for Warhol’s work, reflects the principles of reproduced art. At the same time the motive of duplicity, which we can often notice in the works of Warhol, may stress his own “split personality” – the self-directed public personality and the “real” person unknown to the most.

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Being Political

It was difficult for Warhol to remain apolitical in a very political time. As a real “contemporary artist” Warhol was aware of the issues most talked of in the society. It is hard to tell if he had his own personal position regarding social and political issues, even if he did have it, he never publically addressed these issues. But this did not stop analytics from inflicting these ideas to Warhol’s works, whether he meant them to be political, or not. This is especially prominent concerning his “Death in America” series and the works with an electric chair in particular. It is impossible to deny that “Death” series really had deeper social and philosophical connotations. Everything was on the surface. The press in the early sixties blatantly exploited the images of car accidents and suicides, some of them containing gruesome details. This attitude of the press towards tragic events made an impression on the artist:

I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of a newspaper: 129 DIE. I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or Labor Day — a holiday — and every time you turned on the radio they said something like, “4 million are going to die.” That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.

Warhol in his own right was fascinated and deeply concerned with death. It troubled him personally, as a concept of non-existence, and popped in his numerous works in different forms: as the image of a skull and dead celebrities resurrected again and again in his paintings.

“Blue electric chair” (1963) is a part of a series of works, in which Warhol used a picture of the execution device, taken from a newspaper in 1963. The topic of the capital punishment reached the peak of social debates in the sixties in America. The image of an electric chair in the centre of a room, with empty space around it, in itself had a powerful effect, but with the blue coloring it opens a whole new angle of understanding. The “pretty” colors make the image somewhat ironic, but the work itself is open for interpretation. There is an opinion that it forces the viewer himself to project his own attitude to the question of the death sentence. Warhol was stressing repeatedly that his art is “empty”, but in this case it works like an empty vessel, which the viewer can fill with his/her own impressions. The simple viewer is struck by the chair itself, the brooding darkness in the corners of the room, the threatening shadows, and the repetition of this image multiplies the effect. Deeper analysis can lead to various interpretations, from the author’s reflections on death, to his own position in regard to the corporal punishment and commercialization of death images in the media. On the other hand, Warhol was openly apolitical, his views were often described as “on the surface”, and his creative process was often subjected to the temporary public debates. As described by his assistants: they used to bring Warhol photos of accidents seen in newspapers, and if he liked the image, he used it in his painting. So this work remains open for interpretations.

Shift to Filmmaking

Warhol’s shift to making “films” had many explanations. Some say he just “got bored” of making paintings, and decided to try new technologies and new ways to embody his idea of manufactured art . His own comments make us think that filming was more close to Warhol’s aspiration to make art more repetitious and mechanical. One can say that making films was a continuation of his passion for Hollywood, because even though Warhol’s film remained an “underground” phenomenon (literally, because these films were shown in basement movie theaters), in many ways these films and creative process around making them was a copy of the Hollywood film industry. This caricatured and exaggerated version of Hollywood had many characteristic attributes of its inspirer: “Superstars” (numerous representatives of the Factory’s marginal population, becoming “actors” in Warhol’s films), Warhol becoming a producer (his name was placed in the titles of projects of his co-author in filmmaking Paul Morrissey like “Heat”, “Trash”, and the most eloquent examples: “Andy Warhol’s Dracula”, “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein”), and finally his films having a moderate financial success. While Warhol’s filmmaking evolved, gaining a more narrative structure and higher production values, these are his earlier, more experimental, and as some consider, more artistically outrageous works, like “Sleep”, “Empire” and “Blowjob”, that had more influence in the history of filmmaking, in many ways contributing to the formation of video-art as an art movement.

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One of his earlier films “Sleep” consist of five and a half hours of poet John Giorno sleeping 9. Warhol’ initial idea to film Brigitte Bardot also reflected his obsession with the star. As a result, his first anti-film or a motionless picture was created.

The effect of Warhol’s early films on the visual media of that time was summoned up by David Bourdon in his article “Warhol as Filmmaker”:

The notion of introducing stillness to movies was a radical idea. No one had to see Sleep to be provoked by the very concept of such a movie. The fact that Warhol’s early films are still talked about more than they are seen can be interpreted as their strength, demonstrating the power of the idea, or as their defect, suggesting they do not transcend the idea. However, anyone who has actually sat through the films knows how words fail to convey the experience. Consequently it would be wrong to say that Warhol’s films are so conceptual that they can be adequately described or experienced in words.

Later Period and Self-Reflections

After Valerie Solanas` assassination attempt on Warhol in 1968, his life, artistic work and public image all have undergone dramatic changes. Warhol mostly shifted to commercial art, making portraits for rich manufacturers, his public appearances became rarer, even in his carefully constructed artistic community he became more of an outside observer, than an active participant. Although his latter period is often described as filled with self-imitation, it also had some high points, like Warhol’s collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat.

During this period, Warhol created a number of self-portraits, which in many ways shed light on the contradictions between his public image and his private self. Camouflage self -portrait (1986 Silkscreen ink and synthetic polymer paint on canvas. 208.3 x 208.3 cm) being a bright example. Created a few months before his death, this work combined in itself different motives, already present in his previous work: camouflage (originally used by the military to hide soldiers, in artistic works has an opposite effect, drawing the viewer’s attention) and a Polaroid photo of himself in a white wig on a black background. The photo has a dark menacing mood; unlike most of Warhol’s emotionless pictures, this one has deeply unsettling feeling in it. Camouflage, at the same time, can be interpreted as a proof that “two Warhols” actually existed, and his public image served to conceive his inner self.

Culture Icon and Prototypical Media Personality

Even long after his death, Warhol’s presence is still distinctly present in modern culture in various ways: with him remaining one of the most commercially successful artists, him being a cultural icon, a symbol of creative diversity and an inspiration for conceptual artists of today. The most prominent part of Warhol’s heritage is how he in many ways changed the art in its deeper processes and in a more general sense. Warhol was a prototype of media-personality, being involved in various cultural activities as an active participant, an inspirer or a spectator. A list of his accomplishments and impacts cannot be described in one work, as it was not summarized in numbers of scientific works so far. Warhol brought business into contemporary art, broadened the limits of using hired workers in art-production, thus opening possibilities for the likes of Damien Hurst, he practically turned himself into a character inseparable from his artistic work.

A great example of his media presence was a short lived TV show “Andy Warhol’s TV”. Though being commercially unsuccessful and described by many as “self indulgent”, this program can now be viewed as an early example of a “podcast”. It is safe to assume that if alive in the internet age, Warhol would be “tweeting” about his daily routine with the posts like “nothing is happening” and broadcasting the view from his window on YouTube on the twenty-four-hour basis.

This combination of self-promotion, innovative artistic methods, stylistic and visual diversity and business approach towards art made Warhol a highly influential figure in the cultural process. Many consider that Warhol changed art once and for all. Even if sometimes the mechanic process of his work downplays its artistic value, Warhol as a conceptual artist proved that the idea behind the work can sometimes be more important when the work itself and his own life are a great proof of this statement.

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