Erasing Warhol

John Haber
in New York City

Andy Warhol: Rorschach Paintings

Basquiat: A Film by Julian Schnabel

I Shot Andy Warhol: A Film by Mary Harron

Andy Warhol is at work on a painting. He is transferring to blank canvas a plain red logo, a flying horse. Nothing gives away the artist's hand—nothing, unless the mechanical means alone make it a Warhol. Yet he shows obvious pleasure as puts down the stencil and steps back. This one is going to be a collaboration, and now it is the turn of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the shooting star he helped launch over lunch.

Basquiat came in right off the street with a handful of color sketches, like cards for a transparent trick. Jean-Michel BasquiatWarhol's lunch companion wanted to brush him off, but Warhol was eager and unassuming. Not that he smiled exactly. He was too spontaneous and much too knowing.

Maybe he caught the younger man's mix of flamboyance, slyness, and naiveté, so much like himself. And now he has invited Basquiat into his art. Warhol's is an art of betrayal. Now he will be, literally, a collaborator. I want to trace that act of betrayal through two new movies—Basquiat and I Shot Andy Warhol—and Warhol's late Rorschach paintings. It turns out to renew those early silkscreens for me. And it turns out to involve the drama of Postmodernism as a kind of Modernism under erasure.

Schnabel's Basquiat

The scenes are from the movie Basquiat. The director, the painter and sometimes sculptor Julian Schnabel, caught on in the same years of hype and heroin. Warhol's pleasure could be his too, a defiant statement of sober dedication to his art. He too knew cynicism in the art world at first hand, and he too could have meditated on "Warholism" and the double edge of his influence.

With his own smashed plates and painterly gestures, Schnabel wanted good old-fashioned painting as expression. At the same time, he questioned whether art could ever match a painter's outsize ego—and which was the art world to value more? Warhol's stencil is one among thousands of gestures of self-effacement, from those first famous Brillo boxes—and how long before there is nothing left to efface? Now the generations collide in Warhol's studio, and painting must once again be given the lie.

Basquiat likes simple icons and big gestures, but his icons and his gestures. Filling the brush with white paint, he takes a casual swipe at the back of the horse, wiping it out. Warhol reacts perfectly: that was his favorite part! David Bowie plays Warhol's shy outrage straight. It is part of a wonderfully funny, knowing performance.

Did Warhol discover Basquiat, or did the aspiring artist thrust himself on the East Village stage? Was Basquiat using Warhol, or was a fading idol using a younger man's instant of celebrity? Was Basquiat getting back at him now, or had Basquiat already immersed himself in Warhol's endless reproduction and obliteration of images? Can an artist approach painting with a love near to innocence and somehow never notice his erasure of its meanings?

Warhol's self-effacement

Basquiat may fit best into the glib advertisements that James Rosenquist ripped apart. Probably without knowing it, however, he has echoed the pattern of Warhol's early paintings. Those first Pop works still pack a wallop, and they do it by a gesture of effacement.

Warhol starts with frightening scenes, like an electric chair or a car crash, and with images of the things he loved. Perhaps he loved everyone in the Warhol Screen Tests as well. I imagine that Marilyn Monroe carried the same intensity for him as she did for my own mother. He was not so far after all from an artist of the past. In another age, he might have been recording the terror of a martyrdom or the eternal grace of the Virgin. Well, he might have dressed them up a bit, to look more like an Ingres.

On the other hand, he loved those images almost as much for their banality. His silk screens do not create the numbing repetition; they reproduce it. It is all too real. The automobile represents the leading unnatural cause of death in America. The deaths are as meaningless and unnecessary as in the painting. I think of the automobile fenders accepted as formal materials by John Chamberlain—or the tire hanging over Robert Rauschenberg's goat, the best-known Rauschenberg combine, only a couple of years before.

Mass culture had helped empty Warhol's subjects long before him, too. Warhol knew well the film star reduced to pop icon. He knew the divide between a murderer and a saint, the sex goddess and an eternal virgin. He acted out the anonymity of any execution: if someone remains an individual, then I cannot kill.

Reality had anticipated Pop Art. It had preserved terror and love at the risk of their loss of meaning. Warhol takes another step, however, to insist on their banality. He repeats the image as a decorative pattern, along a grid, and he adopts mechanical techniques to create it.

And still the power and personal meaning will not go away. Warhol's painterly hand shows it. One sees it in the jarring irregularities of the silk-screen reproduction. One sees it in the huge scale of his art. Like de Kooning painting on into senility or Wayne Thiebaud basing his Pop Art on lush cake icing, Warhol never gave up on on the aura of Abstract Expressionism.

Now there comes another twist—I cannot say a final twist. When Gary Simmons erases his own chalk marks or painted ones, one feels almost a sense of release. Here, however, the irregularities trivialize things further, as if the painter cared so little for his images that he could create and erase them at will or at random. Reference to Abstract Expressionism comes with an air of mockery, but the laughter is none too gleeful.

An early Warhol keeps cancelling emotions that refuse to die. Like Warhol, I want to put these things out of my mind, and I cannot. Like Warhol, I want the world to deaden my sensation so I will not have to deal with it. And that means the world can sell me back my experience all the faster, and the prospect terrifies me.

Under the eraser

Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher, has described what happens when one tries to unseat the past. A simple negation, he argues, has a way of accepting the old terms of debate: it has, after all, to grapple with them. The old categories triumph, but only because one has rejected the ideas they underlie.

Derrida wants another way to argue, one that does not try so hard to succeed. New terms can be more productive if they are asserted less strongly, if they can be read as old terms under the marks of erasure.

Warhol's art lived under erasure, and that is why it manages to live still. Egoistically but in vain, Basquiat hoped to appropriate the mark of erasure for himself. In fact, Derrida's phrase in French, sous rature, although usually translated as "under erasure," really means crossed out, like written text under revision. It encompasses the reduction of an image to a familiar sign, like Warhol's stencil. Along with Basquiat, I want to be erasing Warhol.

Make no mistake: erasing Warhol is not the same as turning him into a failed Abstract Expressionist—a Schnabel himself, if you like. Warhol made dreams of self-expression and self-assertion simply impossible. Negation is not a window on existential nothingness. The present tense of erasing is not a fancy substitute for art's ethereal presence, whatever that means. Its mark is not Cy Twombly's studied handwriting. It is about the compulsion to cancel, to repeat, and to remember.

In the Symposium, just when Socrates has taught us to raise ourselves safely above desire, Alcibiades staggers in drunk. Plato cannot help reminding us of what we are supposed not to be missing. Neither can Andy Warhol.

Rorschach tests

Not surprisingly, perhaps, art history has had trouble remembering. Critics at first saw mostly the anonymity of Pop Art, a rejection of Abstract Expressionism, and an assault on the comfortable realm of fine art. They saw factory reproduction of familiar objects. An important critic and philosopher, Arthur C. Danto, asked what happens once one can no longer distinguish Pop recycling and "real things."

An exhibition just this fall shows that the forgetting continues into Warhol's later career. The Gagosian gallery displayed Warhol's 1984 Rorschach paintings. He created them much like Rorschach's ink blots, pouring on paint and folding the canvas. At fourteen feet tall, the series in Soho was larger than life. (Easel-sized versions were simultaneously on display at Gagosian's uptown gallery.) Like totems, their symmetry and shining surface evoke an eerie human presence.

In her catalog essay, Rosalind E. Krauss describes the Rorschach paintings as an assault on Abstract Expressionism: their anonymity usurps their authority. And certainly poured metallic paint and the automatism of the fold do invoke Jackson Pollock or Robert Motherwell.

However, she recognizes only half the bargain. She does not notice that the paintings can work the other way, too. They also ask about the remains of authority in a culture of anonymity. They accept without apology the authority of a blue-chip, cut-throat dealer and a fancy catalog (with, naturally, an essay by a critic who is better known than the paintings). They challenge one to read more into them. After all, they are tests, and Rorschach tests at that.

If Danto thought the Brillo boxes in Warhol's studio were identical to the ones in the drug store, he was not looking closely. If Krauss finds only mathematical symmetry, she is not letting herself feel. They recover Warhol for the world of fine art, but at the price of denying a record of desires and fears.

Danto and Krauss see through the work, when they should be seeing it too. They see its effacement of meaning as over and done, not as always reasserted and tantalizingly incomplete. With art so obviously, confidently glib, to see through it is to be taken in after all.

Too much White-out

Erasing Warhol takes account of a depressing fact. It helps address his steady decline in interest after his first Pop paintings. Oh sure, everyone knows it. There is that boring Warhol Factory, with all the portraits of Mick Jagger and Polaroids of the Nasher family. There is the searching after celebrities and celebrity, the lifestyle that placed parties ahead of work.

Everyone knows it, and everyone, of course, knows just what to make of it. Depending on one's dedication to high art, one knows that Warhol's career either betrays his true genius or invalidates his work. Everyone is wrong. He would not miss so often without the power of his early work and its logic of self-destruction. The more often he repeats the mark of erasure, the harder it gets to read. Even the mark of abstract painters since 1970 runs less risk.

Erasure is always a twin gesture, of denial and recovery. Once Warhol became important, the recuperation of his work for art grew more and more automatic. Therefore the denials had to grow louder and louder, and the emotions got deader and deader.

He had to find bolder tokens of anonymity, such as the Factory or an exhibition of actual Brillo boxes. He had to factor his own stardom into the equation, recycling himself like any other icon. And this all took place against a background of a fearsomely efficient commercial culture, the one that had employed a young Warhol as illustrator, in which denials grow harder to hear anyhow. Marilyn Monroe had given way to Jackie O. and Lady Di—from the talented actress as celebrity to celebrity as a role.

Shooting Warhol

Erasing Warhol means that there is more to his late career than sycophants, knock-offs, discos, and TV appearances. There are, at least, the Rorschach paintings and the sympathetic character in Basquiat. Actually, the same month offered two fictional Andy Warhols, and the movies pretty much agree on what he was like.

I Shot Andy Warhol deals with his mid-1960s' fame. That falls between early Pop and the art scene of Basquiat. Jared Harris makes a decidedly forgettable Warhol compared to Bowie, as if he were still more than half deadened from his part in Natural Born Killers. Even his wig looks unconvincing.

Mary Harron, the director, does a poor job herself evoking the art. When Warhol's acolytes are at work, they look as if they were making stag films on LSD. In fact, they were taking risky moves toward an avant-garde cinema and video art, such as Empire, an eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building. And they let in women, like Thomas Eakins and his daring studio almost a century ago.

Fortunately, this is also Lili Taylor's movie. The actress lends almost too much appeal to Valerie Solanis, the woman who really did shoot Andy Warhol. Everyone insists that she is annoying and unattractive, but Taylor never lets me believe it, and that makes film sense. Solanis came to the Factory with a message—of equal parts feminism, wit, and sheer lunacy. She was peddling her manifesto for SCUM, the Society for Cutting Up Men. Reading it even now, I hardly know whether to admire it, to laugh with it, to deride it, or to run for cover.

Still, what interests me is Warhol. Exactly as in Basquiat, he projects a sincere love of his art, a childlike innocence, and a strong critical eye. He accepts the eccentric, pushy newcomer where others will not, because he runs the Factory to give creativity a chance. It was really the first alternative space! He draws the line at anything that interferes with work, whether Basquiat's drugs or Solanis's slender hold on reality.

He also leaves newcomers unsure whether he has been creating them or using them. Solanis is dead certain that Warhol stole from her—so certain that she pulls a gun. His art is above cynicism, and yet it drives others to anger and self-defeat. It erases them, too.

Block buster

It makes sense that Warhol has been everywhere at once, with a big show plus two movies. Art has recovered from the soaring prices and extreme careerism of the 1980s, but the legacy of cynicism persists. The eraser persists. Part of blockbuster is buster.

Museums still depend on blockbusters, and galleries still bank on stars. Cindy Sherman still ups the ante with each new exhibition, even at the risk of becoming more obvious than suits Sherman's prodigious talent. Jeff Koons, Andres Serrano, and Damien Hirst still get tons of publicity out of art's carnival—and Jeff Koons may be the first at the Whitney to receive an entire museum. The dilemma has driven Soho's fanciest galleries to a neighborhood a couple of miles away.

At least it has given Warhol a healthy shot of relevance. I can now re-experience Pop Art and its logic of erasure. I can almost feel myself shying away from a grand eraser as Pop sculpture by Claes Oldenburg. Stop me before I grab the electronic White-out and mark over this whole page. Modernism and Postmodernism repeat that gesture on each other every day.

The electric chairs were powerful stuff. Too bad their nature, as Warhol himself came to see it, made him the progenitor of Koons, Hirst, and others. In his Basquiat collaborations, I believe that he was trying to recover his art's former spontaneity and connection to a world outside the disco.

I think he was doing a lousy job by then. But then I never much liked to dance.

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Andy Warhol's "Rorschach Paintings" ran through September 1996, at the Soho branch of Gagosian Gallery. For the reading of Plato, I owe a debt to The Fragility of Goodness, by Martha Nussbaum.


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