Any question concerning ANDY warhol’s importance in art history has been rendered completely illusory following the astonishing sleight of hand with which frank reijnders made this academic discipline vanish into thin air in his Kunstgeschiedenis: Verschijnen en Verdwijnen, which was published some years ago. For in his coup de the'atre reijnders seals the fate of a genre which warhol has tarnished like no-one else apart from MARCEL DUCHAMP. By simply denying all art’s claims of being the privileged medium for hyperindividual expression and by seeking affiliation with the world of the mass media, WARHOL could expose all art’s false pretentions with unerring precision. Hence, any further claims by an academic discipline (that suddenly surfaced in the 19th century) to be the arbiter of real art have merely become a diverting form of fiction.
The havoc warhol left behind him in the relatively safe art institutions was always of a deliciously destructive nature. For him the Piss paintings exhibited at the art’s World Fair in Kassel (DOCUMENTA 7, in 1982) were unsubtle highlights among the many epitaphs for art history that he has been producing. As a gracious gesture to pasolini and Theorem, the copper netting that was splattered with his own urine and mouldy with age formed a handsome companion piece to marcel Duchamp’s famous urinals. Here an illusionless sleight of hand reacted to what one now realizes is Duchamp’s obvious sexual invitation. By means of warhol’s homosexual delicacy, DUCHAMP finally achieves the contact he wanted to make via his urinal while this dandy’s gesture has none of the whiff of pretention contained in the word peinture.
Icon Of Our Times
Personally I have little interest in warhol’s importance in terms of art history. Nor in his indifference to art and its history, nor in his terrorist acts at the major exhibitions of the last few years. For me, warhol’s name is primarily linked with the grainy structure of his films that seem to be about nothing yet their unreal atmosphere attest to some great secret, warhol’s name is for me also associated with two scratched velvet underground records that speak a language which for the first time gave pop music the perspective of history because something fundamental was happening. Waiting for the Man embodies the longing for the appearance of a figure who is still untained and blank, who is still a virgin and must never be consumed. Yet every appearance and interpretation of this vague silhouette negates this longing like no-one else, warhol could represent the Man without Qualities, the icon of our times. Yet an icon must remain vague and abstract. Hence, his aura diminished as characteristic outfit and statements became more emphatic and as I got to know him better (particularly when TED HUGHES and NAT finkelstein brought him out of the FACTORY shadows). The more of a media star he became the less interesting he was as a person; for that matter the battle of reflections belonged to the silver foil darkness of the Factory where the suspense seems to have been provocative and challenging. And when warhol moved to new premises and relinquished his obscurity, his words remained the last echo of this irretrievable atmosphere.
His most succinct statements came in 1975 with the publication of his book The Philosophy of ANDY WARHOL: From A to B and Back Again. The icon had begun to pontificate. Pm sure Pm going to look in the mirror and see nothing. People are always calling me a mirror and if a mirror looks into a mirror, what is there to see. The point where he was becoming more definite in his speech and appearance was also the point where he began to disappear. The Other (which in his original obscurity he had represented as the latest archetype) did indeed appear at close encounter to be nothing other than the ego, an imaginary being that could ask the ultimate question only to pass by like a solved secret. At least that’s how I experience his work from the 1970s and 80s which although polished and full of interesting statements was characterized by a complete lack of magic. Actually most of it is little more than the kind of work where well-styled advertising standards form the highest priority. However, there is undeniably more to said about warhol’s estate. The Man without Qualities who presents himself as the ultimate mirror with his innumerable faces is discussed in innumerable ways. But he may never before have been compared to the figures of 20th century literature who are considered to be characteristic of our times. It is as if warhol’s extraordinary mirror images are reflected by those characters who typify our era the best, warhol is PAUL valery’s monsieur teste, he is cal vino’s palomar, he’s a dead ringer for borges or NljHOFF’s awater, or, as I read recently, the brother of FOUCAULT or truman capote. And it is precisely this cameleon character structure that always makes any discussion about WARHOL interesting because his appearance immediately functions as a mirror image of someone else. It is a liberating experience because anything that’s said about WARHOL has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the speaker. He is a translucent body, transparent as an albino skin, which enables us to look through him at ourselves. In their spiritual motionlessness warhol’s Sixties’ films function as those mirrors that confront us with ourselves. The Other on the screen is waiting for us but the Other waiting for us gives little way. Initially as viewers we think that something’s going to happen on the screen until all of a sudden we become aware that we are the ones who being called upon for action. The characters on screen are waiting for something to happen in the hall so, in a complete reversal, it is they who are investing their expectations in us. We occupy the space of the screen that occupies the place of the hall. Hence, this is also why this complete reversal makes the first confrontation with warhol’s films such a far-reaching event.
The Historic Warhol
Along with these more personal experiences, warhol’s film aesthetics have a particularly strong shared background. There’s something remarkably perverse in the feeling of sharing someone. It’s the sort of perversion that is not only sexually defined but also in terms of literature and culture. It is the perverse pleasure of letting yourself sink into communal oblivion, into the amorality of a totally empty world.
I become particularly aware of that shared pleasure while reading ANNA ABRAHAMS’ study of warhol’s film. She places the films within the context of their time, the Sixties. At that time although they were hailed as avant-garde, they were also denounced as being dangerously immoral works. Nowadays it is easy to label warhol as someone who’s made it, but those films were highly controversial when they were first presented and abrahams plays out that controversial element deftly. The facts she provides are compact and clear, yet they can also be sobering. But what struck me the most was the incredible ease with which ABRAHAMS automatically restores WARHOL to the art history of our century whereas I always felt that his strenght lay in the fact that he turned his back on art history. It is interesting to read how ABRAHAMS manages to do this in a very simple way and succeeds in neatly subjecting these facts to theory. Indeed placing WARHOL against a surrealistic background seems to be thoroughly enlightening. And the idea of viewing warhol as a political artist (as is the case in warhol films) has been all too frequently suppressed, abrahams correctly devotes much attention to this aspect and supports it with ample information. In my opinion it is certainly connected with the enormous influence film noir had on warhol’s development. Perhaps this is not always obvious from the films themselves but certainly in the visual language he used for the silkscreens made in the Sixties. We encounter the atmosphere of dark, urban landscapes, the depravity of city life, the complete absence of sentiment towards rural America and the obsessed obstinacy with which America’s concrete environments are portrayed. His Electric Chairs are an unsurpassed representation of the concept of class struggle which, more than any social realist painting makes explicit the oppression of the lower classes.
SAVE THE ROBOTS
Despite the character of much of the other work that latterly left his studio, it was these social and political qualities that clearly remained an underground source which sometimes rose to the surface as is especially obvious in the videoclip that the warhol studios made for the cult band save the robots. A clip of almost ten minutes that lives and breathes the atmosphere of a film noir with its black- and-white, quasi-experimental fragments of the New York night club save THE robots where this group performed. This was edited together with images of recordings filmed in wet, glistening streets.
The techno song Gangster’s Maul functions as a new wave remake of a trailer for a pre-HiTCHCOCK thriller in the penumbra of a city landscape, alienated by the anachronistic elements and by the obvious contradiction between the rock group that almost looks like something out of the Sixties and the music that is carried in a sci-fi futurist wall of sound. It is at odds with warhol’s other well-known clips (like the one he made for THE cars) that have little connection with his early aesthetics, yet here there is an almost wordless communication with the protagonists of classics such as My Hustler and Sleep.
We see the band members PETER KLASHORST en GERALD VAN DER kaap, also known as the editors of Zien Magazine, here playing the role of bohemians of the new generation of artists who have driven a wedge between the rapidly accepted aesthetics of later warhol (of which this film is a product) and the early, sixties, work now viewed as being his most essential contribution to film an. VAN der kaap and klashorst undermine the late work in a completely provocative and almost parasitic way from the completely respected motive of creating a tension by means of an antithesis out of the man without qualities that Warhol was, thereby suddenly making the image of WARHOL visible by setting one creation against a second, completely contradictory one. It is as if in that unexpected polarity a negative suddenly appeared of WARHOL who has been invisible in his albino skin, as if he can only open up in his negative materialization.
Anyway it’s still extremely unclear in what way this film should be included in warhol’s filmography. Despite the fact that this film was made a long time after the early WARHOL films (which for the first time have been so conscientiously classified and catalogued by abrahams), its inner strength is essentially related to this early catagory of film. So perhaps SAVE THE robots’ Gangsters Maul will always remain something of an odd man out in warhol’s richly connected oeuvre. It is certain that by its eventual analysis it can contribute to the studies of WARHOL and that that is in everyone’s interests, whether, like ABRAHAMS, we believe in his historical importance or feel, as I do, that he is shown to best advantage outside of art history.
Translation Annie Wright