"You're a killer of art, you're a killer of beauty, and you're even a killer of laughter," Willem de Kooning shouted at Andy Warhol, across a party, just months after the 1968 assassination attempt that placed Warhol in a painful corset for the rest of his life and secured, by the perverse logic of the era, his status as a giant of the 1960s.
De Kooning wasn't the only one to see Warhol's frank painting as a frontal assault. In the years since his first Soup Cans show in 1962, Warhol's paintings have acquired a remarkable mythology: they waged a victorious battle against abstract expressionism, introduced a mass audience to fine art, and made American painting truly democratic, shattering category distinctions and reshaping aesthetic criteria as dramatically as Marcel Duchamp had with his Fountain. The Soup Cans were, Gary Indiana proposes in his engrossing forthcoming Andy Warhol and the Can That Sold the World, "the first shots of a total revolution in American culture."
But that Warhol hagiography—outlined and underscored in three enthusiastic new books on the aphasic artist—is as simplistic as de Kooning's Warhol horror. Andy was no great iconoclast. What was good in his work was derivative of precedent pop and its precedent, dada. What seemed innovative was not just bad but insidiously so—his work at the Factory, with Interview, and in his voyeuristic films, which simply replaced the macho-Romantic cult of the New York school with a substitute cult of antinomian downtown entitlement. And to laud Warhol as a prophet of the saturated media culture we inhabit today is to apportion praise according to the perverse logic of our own era, by which we lionize the first person to do anything, even a bad thing.
Pop did represent a revolution in American taste, but Warhol was anything but its vanguard practitioner. Jasper Johns had exhibited his Ballantine--beer-can sculpture, Painted Bronze, in 1960 (and had worked with colloquial imagery through the '50s). The following year, Roy Lichtenstein exhibited his first paintings—large-scale re-creations, faithful down to the Benday dots, of images drawn from the rich trash heap of newspaper advertisements and comic strips. That fall, Claes Oldenburg opened his Store, a trompe l'oeil tchotchke shop, on East Second Street in Manhattan, selling plaster casts of consumer goods—underwear, a jacket, an ice-cream cake—like those he had been exhibiting since 1958. By the time of the Soup Can show, The Store had already been restaged as part of a pop retrospective in Dallas. While Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were inventing pop, and Oldenburg and Lichtenstein refining it, Warhol had been conquering the world of advertising as an illustrator—"the Leonardo da Vinci of Madison Avenue," Women's Wear Daily called him. His 1962 paintings were—as even his deferential biographers Tony Scherman and David Dalton admit in Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol—"a last-minute leap onto a bandwagon that was threatening to leave without him."
He couldn't even get a show for the Soup Cans in New York. The 32 "varieties" were first unveiled at the small Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, at the absolute periphery of the American art world, in the middle of summer, when no one was looking. There was no opening, and Warhol himself didn't bother to visit. Those who did come "tended to shrug," dealer Irving Blum later recalled, and critics were no more impressed. "The initial shock," opined Art International, "wears off in a matter of seconds, leaving one as bored with the painting as with the object it presents." The hand-painted canvases were priced modestly, at $100 apiece, roughly what Warhol had charged a decade earlier for the muddled paintings he produced as an anonymous junior studying commercial art at Carnegie Tech; Blum could sell only five of them.
Warhol wasn't just a latecomer to pop; he was a lightweight. The paintings of the abstract expressionists were personal, arcane, confrontational, and, it was said, shamanistic. Pop made that Romanticism look silly, self-serious; its most radical feature was its whimsical accessibility. The pop artist had no inner secrets; he addressed himself not to the esoteric Western tradition but to the ecumenical contemporary world. And yet it was "philistine," the poet Frank O'Hara declared, "to decry as childish the content of Pop and junk art," because its treatment of vernacular culture was lathered in ironies and far from politically neutral; as the critic Hilton Kramer put it then, the pop artist seemed determined to "out-bourgeois the bourgeois, to move in on him, unseat him, play his role with a vengeance."
But there was no vengeance in Warhol. His work was too flat for that. Earlier pop amounted to cultural criticism, but Warhol offered only cultural indulgence—pop emptied of critical content. "Whether the Soup Cans, and the staggering quantity of works that followed, signified contempt or reverence, love or loathing, a mixture of feelings or an absence of any feelings at all could not be gleaned from the paintings themselves," as Indiana writes. Those paintings were vacant—not images that would reward our scrutiny but that, inscrutable, transfixed us anyway. "This enigmatic quality infused all his work with a kind of empty secret," Indiana writes, giving Warhol's commercial, naive painting the apparent depth of genuine folk art: "The Soup Can effect was not to rescue American banalities from banality but to give banality it-self value." Warhol turned Arthur C. Danto into a philosopher of art, Danto proclaims in his reverential new study, by practicing art as philosophy. But what might that philosophy be, one wonders, if not a magpie nihilism?
One answer, given by scholar John Richardson at the artist's funeral, was Catholicism. Warhol was raised in the strict but sumptuous Byzantine church, and throughout his life attended weekly mass with his mother. (They lived together, the near-illiterate Slovakian immigrant and her superstar cosmopolitan son, until her death in 1972.) As critic Dave Hickey has argued, Warhol's best paintings—the sloppy, silk-screen memento mori of screen stars, singers, and other American celebrities and grotesques—illustrate powerfully the distinction between secular images, which underlie the artwork and express the terrible absence of the depicted, and true icons, the painted figurations that express their immanent and intoxicating presence. It is a compelling account of the paintings' beguiling effect, but the fact that Warhol applied this same technique to commissioned society portraits—portraits that dominated his output after 1968—suggests that he was, at best, indifferent to, and perhaps even ignorant of, the source of its power. If those devotional silk-screens constitute a gallery of sacred American icons, Andy is our holy fool.
Warhol's true faith, of course, was in the Factory—that "travesty of religion," Indiana calls it, in which "devotees 'confessed' to a godlike camera and were 'absolved' by inclusion in a community of dysfunction." Admirers of the Factory frequently invoke the precedent of the Renaissance atelier, but, as Indiana points out, the industrial hierarchy whose formal name was Andy Warhol Enterprises owes far more to the studio system of Irving Thalberg. Like Thalberg and Walt Disney, Warhol conjured a market for his own work through savvy farming of talent, business instinct, and relentless oversight. Like them, he wrapped an industrious creative culture in a cloak of casual glamour. Like them, Warhol benefited from the historical accident of film—the superstars were hardly the first artists and outcasts to embrace a subversive hedonism, simply the first to be captured doing so on celluloid. And like Thalberg and Disney, Warhol demonstrated a selfishness and self-absorption so severe, it seemed to those around him a serene charisma implying an ethical order. But Warhol sat idly by as his Factory superstars disappeared and despaired, as they drugged out, deteriorated, and died. And "there is no evidence," as Hickey notes, "to suggest that his overriding project was anything more profound than to make the art world safe for Andy Warhol."
But in making the art world safe for himself, he made the avant-garde dull for us. Before Warhol, the poet and art critic John Ashbery wrote in 1968, "to experiment was to have the feeling that one was poised on some outermost brink" and "to gamble against terrific odds." That doubt element, he wrote, is what makes religion beautiful and art vital. But it was missing in Warhol, whose work was a measure instead of what the market might bear. "Today," Ashbery lamented, "the artist who wants to experiment is again faced with what seems like a dead end, except that instead of creating in a vacuum he is now at the center of a cheering mob." Warhol was—and remains—at the secure center of that vicious circle, the besieged ringleader of that mob. "I should've just kept painting the soup cans," he would say throughout his career, uncomfortable in the unavoidable spotlight. But he chose instead to live by another of his wry dictums: "Always leave them wanting less."