So, what’s the deal with Andy Warhol?
“It’s been said, highbrows so wholeheartedly depend on those who are called lowbrows they swing on the Tao back to low brow. Kind of like the wide bottom of the Pyramid holding up the peak. I don’t really know the “Idea” of the intellectual, I only knew it was fun in a very exclusive way, to play both sides of the ball. As an artist/intellectual you stand closer to the winds of change, billowing out the sails of the imaginal ship of mind, as you might say of those ’63 to ’74 years—some people call the sixties”….RD Pimpsenholtz
For a few years, I taught “Materials and Techniques” classes at UCSC—a campus that is a realization of a Valhalla-amongst-the-Redwoods. Picture a footbridge spanning a fern drenched fairy-land ravine in a slow arc connecting academic buildings. Suspended 100 feet over a gulch and still, the trees tower over a flickering green shadow land, up and up as you pass through ancient, living columns older than Jesus. Between the crisscrossed branches, the hard blue Pacific shows through in the distance. UCSC was a dream institution conceived as a place with interdisciplinary connections between the various colleges—those bridges were more than a metaphor. Marxist Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization—touting the abolition of repression) taught there as did Norman O. Brown (Love’s Body) both the intellectual heavyweights of the counterculture. They taught at the School of Consciousness from which Black Panther Huey P Newton received his Ph.D. There is a school of organic and sustainable agriculture. Their farm stand near my classroom sold the best sweet corn in the history of planet earth—flick a worm or two away and it was a no-cook, raw delight.
My students were junior college and high school art teachers, and for me, I had a summer gig that got me out of the house, and a little dough to boot—for them, it was keeping them on the pay-grade escalator—continuing education. They were two week-long watercolor classes in the summer, a couple of sessions. The only thing I thought I really wanted to do, when I began my MFA program at U Wisconsin was make world shattering art and teach grad students at Yale or Penn or maybe even CCAC…start my own damn school for pity sake. Ambition…but there I was, washed ashore and washed up from the 60’s revolution of big dreams spinning out of the surge for self-realization-California, circa 1974. My ambition was carried forward from the grad school brief to be influential, be a player on the cultural stage, be an art star. Applying for teaching jobs at the start of my academic career, theorizing and making the theory real as artwork seemed the proper career path—a teaching job anywhere to support the family and leave time for the studio. With no resumé filled with exhibits and lectures to catch the hiring committee’s eye, I was just one more of thousands dumped off the MFA conveyer. No one likes a whiner—you make the best of things. So what? As my Pop liked to say “The complaint department is sixteen floors up.” Here I was, at the lowest academic level and what was Art doing in the University anyway? In academia? Graduate degrees? A distortion for sure. Graduate programs were filled with graduate students on their way to academic disappointment, waiting for the next teaching job vacancy. A snake after its own tail, for true.
Making art was a trade, a vocation—art making was not a publishable “research subject” for those who saw themselves as maker people. After the first wave of conceptualism, the end-game in a long trail of “isms”, a yellow brick road leading to an Emerald City lorded over by the puffed-up carney clowns of the great con of “art as a commodity” stroked into tumescence by the slather-on of the grease of money. (Ooo, bitter melon for breakfast !!) The ultimate academic form of art, seemed to end the idea of the Avant Guard, the “shock of the new” ended up being neither and the air was let out of the tires leaving us with hot-house derivative expressionism, portraits splashed on broken dinnerware promoted like the next blockbuster Hollywood movie. It was Julian Schnabel’s turn at the wheel.
And then, onto strange challenges to originality as “appropriations” by Sherrie Levine who was in my Senior grad seminar. She showed heart-wrenching photos by Walker Evans reproduced as her own, taking all the heart wrench out of it. Monkeywrench, more like it. She was an arch conceptualist talking about the idea of originality—nothing is original when the whole world is just a simulation of the real, the nascent fake news world we live in today. Back in ’72 Sherrie worked at a photo lab and collected discarded piles of slides arranging them in a slideshow organized by birthdays, Christmases, back-yard bar-b-ques…as the images flashed by you were left stunned by the brilliant explication of the banality of smiling faces all doing the same thing—black, white Asian. Why bother with all this except for the marketplace and the marketplace was a roaring sideshow. Good, god, I wanted to be a carney barker myself. All very boring stuff unless you enjoy figuring out a good puzzle (which I do, in fact.)
So here I was, in Santa Cruz— I liked my groups very much and I liked teaching painting as a practice of pleasure. Most of the “students” were teachers after all—they were interested and industrious. There were always a few artists who couldn’t do any work without being lashed to an instructor providing goad and carrot. A hand full in the class were the “Dream Differed” folks who’d always had the notion they’d like to really do art but had wound themselves into lives filled with the cacophony of child rearing, bad-boss jobs that paid too well, and folks who had someone else’s painting in mind, never their own.
Living on campus in an apartment, I’d do a week and come home for weekends, a three hour drive up the coast on Highway 1 — couldn’t be a more eye-filling and relaxing drive and a nice respite from the hot-house noisy life of 2 kids under 8, and household full to the brim with marital ambivalence. My teaching in Santa Cruz was a vacation: teach all day, eat in the cafeteria, go to movies, get up do it again. Supremely relaxing. and I was being paid well enough to do it.
I ate in the cafeteria on a university meal ticket. It was Sunday night, the first night of my week. The big hall was unusually crowded. Finding a seat at a table alone so I could get my book out, make some notes, read a little, eat salad bar and steam-table meatloaf, a lone seat was not happening. I joined seven others, at a big round table in a cathedral of institutional feeding, laminated beams arch overhead—very 70’s. I check out the folks, maybe 150 in the room, not students but in school in some way, of a type—professor-y, thick glasses, the mix’n not match style of anti-style. Rumpled. No haircuts of note and shoes that’d never seen polish since purchase. The whole dining room was full of these folks 85% men. They looked to be members of a tribe.
“So, are you folks here all together?” I strike up…
Yes, we are all Topologists. This is our summer meeting. All of us who know this subject are in this room save three or four who are ill. Some are from eastern Europe, western Europe, the Philippines, Korea, South Africa too.
“You mean Klein Bottles? Möbius Strips?” The woman across from me brightens, her magnified eyes behind smeared lenses, topped off with a pile of wiry frizz. “Are you in Mathematics?”
“No, I’m teaching watercolor painting to painting teachers.” The guy next to me, glossy bald dome with a grey penumbra of frizzed-out hair himself, likes the nesting doll, the meta, the idea of teaching painting teachers to paint —turns out he was one of the originators of academic topology as a study. He’s saying, “Topology is linked to set theory, what belongs to what. How is it that a coffee mug is like a donut? The mug has no hole in what you’d think of as the basin for holding hot liquid, the hole is the handle. The basin for holding coffee looks like a hole but an actual hole is a piercing of the surface. The handle is the hole.” Teaching art to art teachers is a topology of sorts. He’d started the first PhD program and “all these people”—swinging his arm around to indicate the entire room of 150 people, “came through that original program and started their own programs. ‘These are all my children and grandchildren. These are really the only people on earth who know how to speak concerning this subject.” I say “the art world isn’t much different. There are a lot more of us, but really, not that many when you consider…”, now I wave my arm. I tell the table, “I know topology only for how it looks. The möbius strip is an unassailable form. I used it as a jumping off point in my art a long while back, as I was learning the craft of sculpture”
I had gotten the image from a LIFE magazine article years ago and made the sculpture of forged and welded copper. Later on, just as I made my move to really study art, I’d apprenticed myself to a journeyman metal sculptor. I’d learned the rudiments of welding, brazing forging and did pretty well at it. As a “graduation” gift at the end of my stint, he gave me a 30″ x 40″ plate of copper, thick as a pencil with a polished surface. It was a spoiled engraving plate. It looked like money and I was intimidated by the prospect of ruining something intrinsically lovely and costly. I sat in his summery garden daydreaming and visualized the copper cut out into a loop and half twisted into a Möbius strip. I could envision just how to do it. I saw the made thing, making itself in black space. The thing looks old-fashioned now, mid-century modern as they say, but it was my first experience of dreaming up something and actualizing it—a place marker in my journey. This’d be 1968. I sold one, made another, and the one pictured was stolen. (I colored the photo after the theft.) I gave it up because the Swiss sculptor Max Bill had made many similar objects but he’d worked in the Nineteen forties.
I said to the topologists this marker moment felt like I was discovering the topology of my own mind in the creative process of thinking up a sculpture. That moment in the garden was my first experience of dreaming up something and realizing it, making it—mind folding itself into a creative thought. Hmmmm, is that folding of thought linked to topology? I ask. The whole table affirms…YES…! The head guy asks, “So… what’s the deal with Andy Warhol, anyway?” Everyone laughs. I’m marked as some resident expert. “Yea, really, what’s the deal with Andy Warhol?” Of course, I’m a civilian in their world as they seem to be in mine. I feel a little like a shavetail second lieutenant sent out to gather intelligence and rumor. I’m feeling I’m here to dispel the pervasive feeling that the whole art world is just so much bull shit—a bunch of people pretending they like something weird so they can seem smart or maybe they just want to get laid. Or maybe it’s just a giant con. People trying to cash in on a rising bubble. “I mean, Andy Warhol with his soup cans…?” Math guy asks again. I start in—”Andy came into the world to put the whole world in quotes (speaking in a very familiar way—I had actually met him once upon a time receiving a very-limp fishy hand; he was generously signing posters, just recovering from his gunshot wounds, and he signed my draft card, (which I burned, of course—bummer for the Lang family collection). It was the advertising world that did it. Nobody “believes” in an ad. It’s like the expression “Act natural” Acting is the opposite of natural. WE live in a meta-world. Everything is spoken of using the first two fingers of each hand to wiggle out the quote sign.
When I teach art history sections I feel I am a veteran of dispelling the Emperor’s New Clothes theory of modern art (the tailors are my heroes BTW, true artists revieling the invisible structures of the world). The thrust of Hollywood stardom comes into the art world. Artists became famous, at least for a moment, in Warholian 15 minute chunks. This was new. Warhol actually made a magazine of this fame— Interview. In addition, the wall street model of money and finance came in. The abstraction of money in “instruments”—options and futures trading, credit default swaps. Like, you see a lovely woman at a party, you are smitten, you strike up a conversation, she’s fun and bubbly, you sense an ease and lightness and then you find out she’s from the Napalm making Dow Chemical fortune. What changes? That Rothko just sold for 20 million. Pieces of art become like film stars. What changes? Who is driving this juggernaut?
Marcel Duchamp exhibited a store-bought plumbing fixture, in 1917, a urinal as art. Art as a mental exercise. In the financial world think of the rise of abstract money in the 80’s. Derivatives, options puts and calls. Why bother? Think of it this way— a work of art, one that has some quiver, some shimmering cargo to be unpacked, catching attention, joining your heart to a description of its own time. Andy’s the kind of artist who is a timekeeper. His work is so closely linked to his time, it just looks like where it’s from. Andy’s subject matter was celebrity, fame, money-culture itself. His work wasn’t a picture of Jackie or Elvis or a Coke bottle. His work was a picture of time. It’s a puzzle for you to figure out.” Is it like a math problem? A little peer review coming in the media world of magazines and books, exhibits, but the real peer review was $’s. A thing like an Andy Warhol original painting can fetch 3 1/2 million bucks (1994 price). That’s different than math. Now, why is this guy Warhol himself like a picture of Marylin Monroe looking like an ad for the brand® Marylin/Warhol?
He’s selling Marylin, and He’s selling Andy. Exactly! In 100 years, it seems like you could look at a Warhol and get what it was like in 1971. In today’s terminology, you could phone “Siri—what was it like in 1971?” She’ll talk about the cults of celebrity, how celebrities had displaced the gods as points of interest. “S’why they’re called “Stars” silly”, and then she’ll show you a picture of Warhol’s Jackie. Seems true one of ’em says.
So, I go for the impertinent: “Has anything you’ve ever thought up had any practical value?” Shock, followed by a three beat pause … …. …. Gales of laughter all ’round the table. “No, this is pure math. Theoretical. NASA hired us to do some work with airfoils, it lasted six weeks. We were all excited, and it Paid! But it was a failure of communication….” Wow! I’m thinking, useless, but for the love these folks feel for their “work”. It’s the same thing I feel for making Art when I’m working from the seat of my pants, not expecting results, but the joy of just letting inspiration lead the way. Yes, they say, “We talk about elegant, beautiful solutions all the time. It’s become jargon.”
I tell them it’s worth thinking about, “I mean think about all those cave paintings in Europe from 30,000 years ago. Isn’t it a human thing to try to make a definition…whether its Math or art…This is how we define the world. How we define the invisible forces of the world” I raise my Coke in a toast: “Hail to thee, fellow travelers in the fields of the useless.”—shared laughs
We see some of each other during the week, nod and smile at the mystery of it. We don’t share another table ’til Friday morning when one asks: “How do you teach painters painting?” I say , “I’m working on a text book—Working title: 17,433 easy to follow, fully illustrated, step-by-step lessons on how to be an artist.” Stay tuned…