Summer 2002

The ultimate brand manager

Warhol (text in full)

Tate Modern
7 February–1 April 2002

Tate Modern’s survey of Andy Warhol was heralded by a flurry of media excitement. The consensus – bar a few dissenters – was that Andy Warhol was a key, if not the most important, artist of the late twentieth century. Yet seeing the screenprints in the flesh turned out to be a let-down. They were not as decorative as I’d imagined. The flower prints were flat and mournful. Marilyn and silver Liz looked like transvestites, with their painted-on lips and eye-shadow. A jewel-like set of electric chair prints were among the most gorgeous-looking works in the show.

The black ink on some of the prints was surprisingly dense and cloggy so that it eliminated finer detail, giving the photographic image a blankness and deadness – appropriate for macabre subjects such as Woman Suicide (1963), Thirteen Most Wanted Men (1963) and tragic icons such as Marilyn or Jackie.

There was a gap between these large, evidently hand-crafted canvases and the Warhol familiar from postcards, posters and books. The offset printing process transforms the work, making it smoother, brighter, lighter, junkier.

The works from pre-Factory days revealed not only an elegant draughtsmanship and individual style but also an interest in print-making. The blot-line technique that became Warhol’s hallmark technique in his illustrations is a primitive form of printing. In a work dating from 1957 Warhol printed scores of matches, apparently using a match itself.

In From A to Be and Back Again Warhol remarked: ‘I wish I could invent something like bluejeans. Something to be remembered for. Something mass.’ With the screenprint, an industrial invention of the early twentieth century, Warhol performed the production of mass-produced paintings. Unlike Robert Rauschenberg, who combined screenprinted images with painterly marks and collage, Warhol used the process for what it had been invented – the production of multiple prints. There is a kind of Modernist neatness and economy of means in this project. When Warhol heard that Picasso had made 4000 masterpieces during his lifetime, he thought: ‘Gee, I could do that in a day. And they’d all be masterpieces because they’d all be the same painting.’ To some extent, Warhol did make the same painting over and over again.

Warhol said he’d started out as a commercial artist and ended up as a business artist. Warhol was a great believer in the democracy of American mass-consumer items such as Coke, because, as he put it, you got the same product whoever you were: the President, Liz Taylor or a bum on the street. Warhol may have liked to think of his work as an industrial process, but the product itself was far from a cheap mass-produced consumer item. But then art is not Coca-Cola. With the work of art there has to be an original or else the work has no market value. That is the difference between fine art and commercial art.

Warhol went out of fashion for a time after his death in 1987, but his laconic way of reflecting back the way the world represents itself is once more in tune with our times. There’s something amoral about this blankness. Read it as cynicism, chutzpah, the honesty of a visionary – or all of these.

Warhol was fascinated by fame and his work has a particular resonance in our celebrity-struck days. If anything, Andy Warhol was Warhol’s most successful work of art. The products Warhol left behind are inseparable from the man and the performance of his work. Warhol’s genius lies in the fact that he fashioned himself into a brand. Perhaps that’s the real reason why he’s so relevant to our times. You can even buy fake Warhols on the Internet, just like you can buy fake Louis Vuittons and Ralph Lauren down the market.

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