The Consumer Article in the Art World: On the Para-Economy of American Pop Art
in: Shopping. A Century of Art and Consumer Culture, ed. by Max Hollein and Christoph Grunenberg, exhibition catalogue Tate Liverpool, Ostfildern-Ruit 2002, p. 148-53.
Not hung of necessity, however, was the shop-window front of the New York department store where Warhol staged his first ‚art exhibition‘ in 1961 – which, nevertheless, remained totally unnoticed. Here he presented five of the first works produced following his decision to give up his successful career as a commercial artist. They were based upon advertisements and comic strips, and provided, since no gallery would show them, the background for clothes dummies. It was a transitional moment in several respects. The art exhibition in the display window marked precisely the interface between Warhol’s two lives as a commercial designer and free artist, the precarious intermediate stop between department store and gallery. The pictures not only stood behind the dummies, which were presenting the latest ‚costumes‘, but themselves revolved around the theme of metamorphosis. In two of them were painted advertisements for nose operations, hair colouring and muscle building, in three the comic figures Superman, Popeye and Little King – fantasy figures, all of which possessed the potential to rise from a humdrum and petit bourgeois persona to an ideal, bursting with vigour.While Warhol’s success as a commercial artist rested upon a pointedly intimate and characteristic trade style, he found his artistic style exactly the reverse and thoroughly paradoxical in its apparently impersonal approach. It led him to the pictorial language of the serialised, reproductive silk-screen pictures. Here Warhol tested the tension between the singular and the mass-produced, repetition and difference. The themes that interested him were things, which no individual had made and yet which possessed individuality, which were ‚unique‘ although they existed in large numbers: Campbell’s soup cans, regarded as ‚classical‘ because their label design had remained unchanged for decades, or the flashy boxes in which ‚Brillo‘ pads were packaged. Warhol’s first method of dealing pictorially with such phenomena was the elimination of everything handwritten, which the first pictures definitely still showed. It gave way to a method of production that adjusted to the manufacture of the things to such an extent that the printing of a packaging carton only differed from the printing of Warhol’s reproduction in that the former was undertaken by a machine while for the latter Warhol was himself the ‚machine‘. Not only did the object assume a reproductive and serial identity, Warhol’s pictures and sculptures matched this.How essential this parallelism of subject matter and production form was becomes clear when one compares Warhol with, for example, Wayne Thiebaud. Thiebaud, who considered ‚painting is more important than art‘, attempted in pictures such as the Cake Counter of 1963 to continue a great painting tradition in the light of contemporary aesthetic phenomena – and thus acquired the nickname ‚the Chardin of the cake shops‘. To call him a Pop artist because of his choice of motif would be to do justice neither to Pop Art nor to Thiebaud, as his pictures would then have to appear as variants of earlier work, though inevitably backward in their handiwork. Down to the individual brush stroke, Thiebaud’s reverence for Morandi reveals itself, an artist with whom no one from Pop (or Proto-Pop) wished to speak because of the fact that he painted banal bottles. Like Morandi, Thiebaud created an atmosphere of contemplative peace, which sought to capture the ‚quiet life‘ of things, while the pastose brushwork round the objects served to evoke both their materiality as well as their ‚fraternal‘ togetherness. The contrast with Warhol’s diptych on Campbell’s Soup Cans (Chicken with Rice, Bean with Bacon) of 1962 could not be more distinct, not only on account of the absence of the painted object but also from the point of view of composition. The two cans, one on each table, float without any atmospheric embedding on the white primed surface. Even the most miniscule indication of location, which no still life omits, is left out: the horizontal line, which depending upon the picture means a desk or the edge of a room. Whilst every connection relating to situation is missing, there still remains the question as to why the right can is so much smaller than the left one. Without place or time, without reference to the picture surface and the beholder and without making any determinable statement, the simultaneously banal and epiphanic cans remain encapsulated in nothingness.
The ambivalence between singularity and mass-production that Warhol sought has left the argument still unresolved as to whether his view of the new world of things turned out to be subversive or affirmative, pessimistic or optimistic. The question ought for that reason to be unanswerable, because Warhol in a ’scandalous‘ manner seemed to find no difference between free choice and necessity, subjectivity and standardisation. ‚I’m just the opposite,‘ said Warhol, ‚ I don’t want it to be essentially the same – I want it to be exactly the same.‘ The Campbell’s cans and the Brillo boxes announced that Warhol wanted it just as it already was and wanted to make it just like it had already been made. That was Warhol’s caustic test of subjectivity and, simultaneously, what made him ‚American‘ in such a provocative way.
|Consumer article in the Art World as print version (PDF with illus. and fn. 2.500 KB)|