Sunday, January 1, 2012

“Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol”: Just Look At The Surface

Pop: The Genius Of Andy Warhol by Tony Scherman and David Dalton. 509 pp. Harper Collins. $17.99 (paperback)

“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it,” wrote Andy Warhol. “Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol” focuses on the artist’s most creative period, 1961-1968, when this emphasis on the surface startled the art world. Following abstract expressionism’s focus on the inner life, pop art, with Warhol as its prime example, looked outward. Warhol’s silk-screened Campbell’s soup cans, Brillo Boxes (which he spoke about in characteristically deadpan style) and Marilyn Monroes reflected American consumer and celebrity culture–and their mass reproductions reminded one of the media's repetitious images. When Warhol next depicted “death and disaster” events, he reminded us of the way one becomes desensitized through such repetition.

As Warhol turned to film, he showed the same tendency to reflect, this time in minimalist fashion; his early films trained, hour after hour, on the Empire State Building or a man sleeping. Eventually he turned his camera on the marginal and self-destructive characters who flocked around his Manhattan studio, The Factory. Without film plots, he let them reveal their exhibitionism and neuroticism. Warhol also produced The Velvet Underground, which explored dark, urban themes in contrast to the flower power ethos of the day; in the process, he produced a multimedia show, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The Factory scene, which became a web of competition for Warhol's favor, spun out of control and ended when a deranged hanger-on shot Warhol and left him fighting for his life.

Though Warhol eventually spoke of challenging Hollywood by moving from underground films to entertainment, he was incapable of sustaining a narrative. In addition, Scherman and Dalton contend, he lost his way as an artist, accepting commissions to paint the rich and famous, becoming in the process a “court painter.” Contending that Warhol’s late work never came up to the standard of his 1960s output, the authors end their account in 1968. A 2010 show at the Brooklyn Museum, however, reviewed here, leads one to question whether his work over the next two decades could be dismissed so summarily. Regardless, the book gives us a fresh look at the impact Warhol had in expanding our definition of art–an impact so groundbreaking that he became one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

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