Friday, January 20, 2012

Andy Warhol, Revisited; rebellion against Abstract Expressionism

Remember my recent post about Andy Warhol?  In it, I contemplated on how part of the meaning of his art is that it is supposed to be a joke, poking fun at the art establishment.

Well, last weekend, I visited the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC to see their display of one of Warhol's grandest works, Shadows.  My visit there just reenforced my conclusions that was having some fun mocking the art world, particularly Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionism was the art movement at the top of the pedestal in the 1940s and into the 1950s, featuring daring, animated application of paint, which did not directly represent anything in the world present outside the painting, except perhaps concepts like rhythm or power.  Think Jackson Pollock, or think Franz Kline:
Franz Kline, Delaware Gap, oil on canvas, 1958, Hirshhorn Museum

Abstract Expressionism was not just know for its particular aesthetic, but also for a kind of philosophy behind it that emphasized the individual emotional-soul-genius of the artist.  The act of painting, an Abstract Expressionist work, in the mind of an Ab Ex painter, was a process of spiritual creation.

Andy Warhol seems to have thought (perhaps fairly) that this philosophy was a load of garbage.  His work Shadows, demonstrates this opinion.  This work is a set of 102 paintings of equal size, featuring an image he got off of a shadow on the wall in his office.

Andy Warhol, Shadows, 1979, as displayed at the Hirshorn

Each painting individually looks like it could be an Ab Ex painting, with thick brushstrokes and an abstract sense of composition.  But instead of a painting process of "genius" and "spiritual creation" Warhol created his paintings as mechanically and efficiently as possible.
First, he and his assistants painted big chunks of canvas one color (with a mop, Warhol claims).
Next, he cut the now painted canvases into several pieces of the right size.
After that, he had a silkscreen technician silkscreen the black on top (sometimes the black was the shadow, sometimes it was the negative space behind the shadow).
Finally, he had them hung on the wall, just above ground level so viewers wouldn't kick them on accident.

I think this whole thing is actually kind of funny.

On the wall beside the paintings, the Hirshorn had put up some quotes from Warhol, about this work.  For example, "Someone asked me if I thought [my shadow paintings] were art and I said no.  You see, the opening party [at the gallery where they were first displayed] had disco.  I guess that makes them disco decor."  On the one side, this quote shows how Warhol played to the sensibilities of his audience.  He wanted to appeal to young, hip, anti-establishment people (or at least to people who were hoping to seem young hip and anti-establishment).  But it struck me also, being in front of the works, that these paintings would make fantastic disco decor!  Can't you just imagine them under strobe lights and vibrating music?


  1. Isn't their some irony in the fact that we have come to see his mockery and belittling of genius as a work of genius?

    1. Yup. And I bet he wasn't too too upset when his work got to be accepted in the art world and he got to be seen as a genius.