Andy Warhol screen-print portrait disaster

Apparent Return as print version (PDF with illus. and fn. 3.320 KB)


The Apparent Return of Representation. Ambivalence structures in Warhol’s early work

in: Andy Warhol. Paintings 1960-1986, ed. by Martin Schwander, exhibition catalogue Kunstmuseum Luzern 1995, Stuttgart 1995, S. 43-53 and 76-78.

Chapter III

If one looks at the pictures from the point of view of the films similar qualities emerge. In their case too the „code“ of the medium („painting“) is often broken and the works harnessed to a dialectic that cannot be removed or resolved on one particular side. Let us first take an example from the extensive range available that is particularly close to the films in both form and content: Ethel Scull Thirty-six Times (fig. 5). This work is Warhol’s first commissioned portrait and dates from the same year (1963) as the first films. It consists of 36 panels in the same format; together they reach the considerable dimensions of 202 x 363 cm. The panels have different coloured grounds and show Ethel Scull, the wife of a New York taxi operator and contemporary art collector, in a different pose in each case. The picture gives the impression of being put together from individual images from a filmic portrait, as Warhol realized not only with Henry Geldzahler, Eat, or Sleep (which are all also portraits) but of the kind that he used to shoot, as so-called „Screen Tests“, of every new visitor to the Factory. For the latter the stereotypical instruction was to remain as still as possible and look, without blinking, into the camera, which was placed head-on, for the duration of the shot (three minutes: the length of a reel of film), but Warhol drove Ethel Scull to Times Square, sat her in an automatic photo booth, put the money in and said: „Now smile and start talking.“ After initial consternation (she had expected an extensive photographic sitting and so had put on an expensive model dress) Ethel Scull responded quite effusively to this challenge. About a hundred pictures were produced, and in them she laughs, runs her hands through her hair, seems lost in thought, put on her sunglasses and takes them off again – all as though she were engaged in lively conversation. If Warhol provokes a return to the quasi-fixed image in the moving medium of film then conversely in the static medium of photography he provokes a quasi-dramatic incident.

But in a similar way to Eat or Sleep, the chronological sequence of the machine-generated pictures is broken again when they are arranged to form the composite picture. Closer examination shows that Warhol used only 25 shots for the 36 panels. Eleven panels therefore represent repetitions (some reversed) and they appear to follow no discernible rule. Likewise there are only 25 different ground colours, by which means Warhol avoids printing the same photograph twice on the same ground. And so despite the repetitions the picture does not contain any identical panels. A subtle play of original and reproduction, difference and indifference comes into play. Is the reversed repetition on a different ground „the same image“? The question can be answered in both the negative and the affirmative, according to the concept of „image“ on which the decision is based. The ambivalence of multiplicity and redundancy and the random quality of the arrangement undermine the first impression that Ethel Scull Thirty-six Times reproduces a meaningful event. They are much more the aesthetic equivalent of what this actually was: abrupt gesticulation in the face of an uninvolved and immobile camera, a play-through of a limited repertoire of stereotyped poses on the basis of a request to present oneself as a show. Warhol uses the apparent approach to film narrative to redefine the process of creating a portrait. If a traditional portrait is a synthesis of the way the portraitist (painter or photographer) experienced the subject during the sittings, then Warhol’s portrait shows how Ethel Scull made herself into an image. At the crucial moment of the creative process at which reality (Ethel Scull) became an image, Warhol is literally standing outside the event: in front of the photo-booth in which the transformation is occurring of its own accord. Dialogue between artist and model is replaced by the monologue of self-representation.

Warhol only appears to return to the almost forgotten genre of the commissioned portrait. By splintering the representation process and firstly delegating it to a machine, but above all giving it back to the model herself („Now start smiling and talking“), he undermines it at a crucial point. He himself is effectively active only on the periphery, he feeds the machine with coins beforehand and modifies the results afterwards, selects, crops, enlarges, breaks down into dots, selects grounds and formats, prints and finally fits the whole thing together. The way in which Warhol does this serves less to say something about the subject than to reveal the representation process as such and to identify the image as a portrait and a non-portrait at the same time. (We shall return to the fact that the broken-off interaction between Warhol and his model nevertheless tells us something about the client later.)

Once the ambivalence of Warhol’s return to representation is recognized, the crucial features of his working process, reproduction and seriality, appear in a new light. They are recognizable as a process that means that the retreat from abstraction does not simultaneously turn into traditional, reproductive painting.

The crucial point in terms of reproduction is that Warhol handles screen-printing in the same dilettante manner as the camera technique in his films. The poor quality is intentional. In order to give an impression of inadequacy the photographs to be used are subjected to various quality-reducing manipulations in their translation to the print screen (reduction to dots, underexposure to heighten contrasts etc.) and more „flaws“ and irregularities are consciously provoked in printing. As in the films the intention is to allow the medium to appear in its materiality. It should be made obvious that the pictorial process is split in two: that Warhol is not the author of the representation of reality but simply the person who takes over the existing representation „ready-made“ and places it in new contexts. For all their „realism“ the images always reveal as well that they are not images about reality but images about images. Certainly that is only the first, the formal plane. For even the photographs that Warhol uses are contradictory in their relationship with reality. Let us take, as an obvious example, the Marilyn Portraits (plates 7-9). Even the picture of Marilyn Monroe on which they are based, a publicity still for the film „Niagara“, feeds on the tension between the realism vouched for by the medium and the fictitious quality of a pure „image“ construct. The experience of the photograph swings between the known difference of „image“ and reality and the visible indifference that exists between the two. Faced with the actual image-reality represented by the phenomenon of a „star“, it seems logical to create a portrait of this image rather than the person herself. Warhol does this in a way that accentuates the imaginary and incomprehensible qualities of the star. The explosiveness of the Marilyns lies in the impossibility of ever being able to grasp the firm ground of reality behind the intertextuality of „images“, but nevertheless still having to assume a reality (or an original) behind the reproductions, as otherwise the concept of „reproduction“ would be meaningless. Warhol’s method of replacing the relation that normally exists in art between the empirically experienced world and pictorial representation by the relation between different images gains its actual content dimension when faced with the question of what the images of Marilyn Monroe actually communicate.

Mutatis mutandis something like this could be identified in most of Warhol’s images, especially in those that are created using models that are published en masse, whose content everybody knows, without ever having seen them with their own eyes. As well as the Star-Portraits these include the Jackie Series (plates 26-27), which deals with events surrounding the murder of President Kennedy (events which represented a political upheaval and mark the high point of television as a medium to almost the same extent, as the longest live broadcast in its history), the series of Disaster Paintings (plates 10-19), the Mao Pictures (plates 52-54), etc.. But even the example of Ethel Scull Thirty-six Times, which does not fall into this category of work, is revealing here. The 36 or 25 images of Ethel Scull merely betray her willingness to reduce herself to a brilliant surface – but a surface which she herself was convinced was „enchanting“, and that would make her grandchildren „proud of their grandmother“. In the same way she also decided to give her portrait to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York only on the condition that it is permanently on show. The mondaine world’s credo of treating the staged show-side as the only authoritative reality is also Ethel Scull’s credo. Warhol’s ability to reveal representation processes (in this case: self-representation), gives the image a psychological sharpness that it seems to lack at first glance. Pictures like the Marilyns or Ethel Scull Thirty-six Times are anyway a suitable aid to reconsidering Warhol’s „superficiality“.

The conflict between reproductive presentation of reality and mere intertextuality of images is further sharpened by the combination of reproduction and seriality. Within the various forms of seriality that have been developed since the late 19th century, Warhol’s position is distinguished by two qualities. One is the linking of seriality and reproduction itself – which is logical to the extent that every reproduction carries seriality within it by its very conception. The second is that his pictures are serial within the picture, in which an identical motif is printed a number of times all over the surface of a single canvas. The effects of this process on the individual reproduction and on the image as a whole are of elemental simplicity, but at the same time have far-reaching consequences. The grid shape of the juxtapositions weaves the structure of the individual images into an ornamental texture whose fundamental feature is to remain external to the object of the picture. The serial repetition leaves the thematic context from which the image originates out of account, but at the same time it establishes a new context by means of the arrangement itself. But this affects only the form of the images, as the repetition creates only redundancy (and definitely not a context) in terms of content. The transformation of the image that begins with this enhances the presence of the image as a surface, while removing its presence as a copy. This is an effect that Warhol is not the only artist to use. The collages by the German artist Peter Roehr, for instance, which date from the same time, should also be remembered (fig. 6). But most frequently he finds a use for advertising. Here the serialization occurs either within the design, or as a subsequent measure, with posters pasted twice and three times one after the other, for example, or monitors with a commercial running on them piled up into great towers and walls. The repetition, which produces no more information, makes what is shown seem more interesting formally and thus grabs our attention – the primary aim of any advertising (fig. 7).

There is one group of works in particular for which Warhol prefers to use the serial images within the picture approach, and that is the Disaster Paintings, which are based on press photographs of car accidents, suicides, the electric chair etc. So let us look at some of the Disasters in terms of the serial effect. Saturday Disaster, 1964 (fig. 7a) for example, shows the most minimal form of seriality: the doubling of the image. But that is already enough to start up the described transformation. Warhol places the two reproductions one on top of the other, not next to each other. This means that the hanging bodies combine to form a dominant central axis that dominates the reproductions and together with the contrasting horizontals of the image borders and the motor car gives the picture as a whole a clear order – an order that stands in strange contradiction to the chaotic content of the picture. In Orange Disaster, 1963 (fig. 9) we notice that in the pictures of the electric chair the horizontals and verticals and the light and dark section of the individual reproductions join to form a pattern in which the electric chairs occupy the centres like the medallions in a Persian carpet. Another variant can be seen in Suicide (Fallen Body), 1963 (plate 14), where the picture-object is overformed by the surface ornament to such an extent that it almost disappears. As a last example let us consider the case in which something analogous happens in language. In Tuna-fish Disaster, 1963 (plate 15) the newspaper pages reporting the death of two women from tuna fish poisoning are made into a collage. This happens in such a way that not only repeats the tins and the two portrait heads but combines the fragments of sentences from the picture caption into a continuous line: „Seized shipment: did a leak kill…Seized shipment: did a leak kill…Seized shipment: did a leak kill “ – and this line itself is repeated twice. The effect is to wipe out the statement and transform it into a kind of concrete poetry.

But the crucial factor is that the gross subject matter of the Disaster Paintings not only cuts out the content side of the images but above all makes ornamentalization or a poetic transformation seem especially inappropriate. In this Warhol’s pictures are clearly different from Peter Roehr’s comparatively lyrical sheets or even from the agreeableness of advertising. Once more – this time in extremis – it is to be noted how Warhol intensifies the ambivalence of the image and makes what is represented contradict the concrete texture of the surface.

„The turn away from the representational and one of the first steps into the realm of the abstract was in terms of drawing and painting the exclusion of the third dimension, i.e. the attempt to keep the ‚image‘ as painting on a surface.“ (Wassily Kandinsky). Kandinsky’s seminal description of abstraction’s concerns is helpful in once more clarifying Warhol’s multiply refracted representation process. By replacing „painting“ with „reproducing“, Warhol includes the third dimension in his painting again, in order to exclude it at the same moment, as his pictures obviously deal with a reality that has already been reduced to two dimensions rather than empirically experienced reality. Besides, they relate to phenomena whose reality was always perceived in the mode of the picture, indeed whose reality may be dubious beyond the pictures in some cases. And finally the grid-style serialization causes the attachment of the image to the surface of the painted ground while at the same time relativizing the (three-dimensional) content. Warhol subjects the anti-illusionistic representation-criticism as formulated by abstraction to criticism of its own, but without going over to the other side that abstraction was intended to overcome. The pictures continue to float between illusion of depth and „the attempt to keep the ‚image‘ as painting on a surface“, between representation and non-representation, between painting and non-painting. „Pop Imagery, as I understand it…is a way of getting around a dilemma of painting and yet not painting. It is a way of bringing in an image that you didn’t create.“ (Claes Oldenburg).

The pictorial structure, especially that of the works that are serial within the picture, thus takes up the grid structure developed by colour-field painters like Ellsworth Kelly or Ad Reinhardt in the 50s and adopted and refined by Minimal Art in the 60s (figs. 10, 11, 4). At the same time many of the pictorial patterns, e.g. in Suicide (Fallen Body), 1963 (plate 14) or Optical Car Crash, 1962 (plate 10) are reminiscent of the polyfoca1 „all-over“ devised by Jackson Pollock (fig. 12) or Clifford Still. The point of these echoes, which is also significant for what is represented, lies in uniting things that are apparently not capable of being united. The abundance, certainty and completeness of representational art is melded with abstract pictorial languages that not only attempted to overcome traditional representational art with their emptiness (in the semantic sense), uncertainty and openness, but seem diametrically opposed to Warhol’s artistic activities.

At this point the function of picking up trivialities – with the ability to be copied, and reproduction, the third „scandal“ in the pictures – finally emerges. Only a motif that is familiar because of its reproductive omnipresence can cause both the object itself and also the fact of being first and foremost a picture to strike the eye forefully. Its triviality reveals the change of representation by speaking first not about the object, but about the way in which it is communicated. It is precisely the use of a motif that seems in itself to forbid repeated copying, indicates a conceptualization „of painting“ in which representation itself becomes the subject. Warhol’s adoption of the trivial occurs neither in a populist turn away from élitist art and towards mass culture – the pictures are too wrapped up with the artistic context for that. Nor is it with the intention of revaluing the popular and raising it to the level of high art – again the pictorial motifs are too clearly anti-artistic for that. It occurs much more with the aim of creating a complex figurativeness by the crossing of „high“ and „low“ that requires knowledge of both sides and compels definition of its condition.

Warhol continues the modernistic outdoing of what has gone immediately before but gives it another, unexpected turn. The ambivalence structure of the works means that outdoing as such is subjected to criticism at the same time. The categories „author“, „painting“, „representation“, „original“, „innovation“ and finally „art“ are brought into play in such a way that negation and affirmation balance each other. Thus the view that Warhol is an early representative of post-modern art practice seems indeed justified.

At the same time Warhol’s aesthetic concept would be misunderstood if it appeared exclusively as a strategy for securing a position for himself within contemporary art by skilful subversion of existing artistic procedures. Both the films and the pictures, by blending closeness to reality and distance from reality, the unmediated and the much-mediated they touch a nerve of the times. At the beginning it was mentioned that the late 50s and the 60s in the United States in particular were marked by the rise and explosive spread of the visual mass media. Illustrated magazines were at the peak of their circulation figures, crucially encouraged by record spending on advertising caused by the post-war production boom. „Life“, the leading example, had a print-run of about eight million and a readership of over 40 million in America alone in the mid-sixties. It is a magazine that apart from the advertising consists almost exclusively of photographs. At the same time television established itself generally in this decade. In 1950 only eleven per cent of American households had a television, by 1960 it was 88 per cent. Average consumption of this medium was already between four and five hours per day at this time. It has been known for a long time that this brought about radical changes in world- and self-perception, even if the effects were assessed differently. However, the direct and overwhelming response to Marshall McLuhan’s „Understanding Media – The Extensions of Man“ (published 1964) shows the extent to which contemporaries were already aware of it. Concepts like „mass media“, „information age“ or „global village“ that are commonplaces today were introduced into linguistic usage by MacLuhan, the father of communication- and media-theory, at that same time. Warhol’s works that appeared simultaneously, seen in this way, are a phenomenology of media transformation and perception of reality. For like them the mass media too have the trait of being transparent and opaque, unmediated and mediated, realistic and with their own inherent laws. And they share with Warhol’s pictures the fact that they show the encyclopaedic abundance of what is represented in a stencil-like grid that is always the same. Warhol brings up one of art’s old questions again, under changed conditions: the question about the relationship of appearance and being. Many of the works seem like experimental apparatus to research what „representation“ might mean in view of the new forms of technical and media appearance. They unroll the problem again from its very beginning to a certain extent, as though photography and film were new inventions whose peculiarities and use had still to be practised. It has rightly been said of the films that they effectively went right back to the Lumière brothers, who began to explore the medium that was still at its earliest stage by using primitive documentation of the simplest possible everyday situations. „Movies bring in another whole dimension. That screen magnetism is something secret – if you could only figure out what it is and how to make it… But you can’t even tell if someone has it until you actually see them on the screen. You have to give screen tests to find out.“ (Andy Warhol).

Warhol’s strength lies in combining these various artistic and extra-artistic planes. Contemporary art discourse, cultural testimony and seminal questions about the image and its relationship with reality are inextricably entwined in them. This complexity is also the reason why Warhol can be read and evaluated in so many different ways, he can appear as a cynic to one person, a social critic to the next, and as an outstanding artist to a third, and none of these views is right or wrong in itself. And it explains how the pictures, despite their complexity and regardless of their apparent „impossibility“, enjoy incomparable circulation and are appreciated by people who otherwise take very little interest in art. „I like to be the right thing in the wrong space and the wrong thing in the right space…because something funny always happens. Believe me, because I’ve made a career out of being the right thing in the wrong space and the wrong thing in the right space. That’s one thing I really do know about.“ (Andy Warhol).
Translated from German by Michael Robinson

Chapter I
Chapter II
Punkt Chapter III
Apparent Return as print version (PDF with illus. and fn. 3.320 KB)