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What Is an Andy Warhol?

Andy Warhol

by Arthur C. Danto
Yale University Press, 162 pp., $24.00

Joe Simon-Whelan et al. v. the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., et al.

Joe Simon-Whelan, Individually and On Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated, Plaintiffs v. the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., the Estate of Andy Warhol, Vincent Fremont, Individually and as Successor Executor for the Estate of Andy Warhol, Vincent Fremont Enterprises, the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc., John Does 1a?20, Jane Does 1a?10, and Richard Roes 1a?10, Defendants, United States District Court, Southern District of New York


In his entertaining memoir Younger Brother, Younger Son (1997), Colin Clark, a son of the art historian Kenneth Clark, recounts a story from his time working as a production assistant on the film The Prince and the Showgirl. To explain why Marilyn Monroe came across far more vividly on screen than her classically trained costar Laurence Olivier, Clark observed that, in front of the cameras, she knew how to speak a language an actor trained for the stage simply could not understand. To Olivier’s fury and frustration, the less the Hollywood goddess appeared to act, the more she lit up the screen. “Some years later,” Clark continues,

I experienced a similar situation when I took my father to the studio of the Pop artist Andy Warhol in New York. My father was an art historian of the old school, used to the canvasses of Rembrandt and Titian. He simply could not conceive that Andy’s silk-screened Brillo boxes were serious art.

Just as Monroe understood that you don’t have to act for the camera in the way the stage-trained Olivier defined acting, so Warhol realized that you don’t need to make art for an audience brought up on film and television in the way Kenneth Clark defined art. Actress and artist grasped that in the modern world, presentation counts for more than substance. The less you do, the greater may be the impact.

What defeated Kenneth Clark about Warhol’s paintings was not only their banal subject matter but also the means he used to make them. Before it is anything else, Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe is a silk screen, a simple reproductive technique in which the artist or craftsman stencils a design onto an acetate plate and then fits the plate into a meshed screen. When ink or paint is forced through the mesh, the design is transferred onto fabric or paper.1

Late in 1962 Warhol started to transfer silk-screen images onto canvas to make paintings. Other American artists, notably Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, were already painting images they found in comic strips and on billboards. It was not, therefore, Warhol’s subject matter that constituted the significant breakthrough in his early work but his decision to make fine art using a technique primarily associated with printmaking and with cheap commercial products such as T-shirts and greeting cards. Warhol’s friend Henry Geldzahler, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recognized that the artist’s two great innovations were “to bring commercial art into fine art” and “to take printing techniques into painting. Andy’s prints and paintings are exactly the same thing. No one had ever done that before. It was an amazing thing to do.”

After his early experiments painting cartoon characters and Coca-Cola bottles in the loose, drippy style of the Abstract Expressionists, Warhol liked the grainy, slightly out-of-register images produced by a silk screen because, he said, “I wanted something…that gave more of an assembly-line effect.” Warhol’s new paintings didn’t look as though they were painted by hand; they looked like mechanically reproduced photos in cheap tabloid newspapers.

A silk-screened image is flat, and without depth or volume. This perfectly suited Warhol because in painting Marilyn Monroe he wasn’t painting a woman of flesh, blood, and psychological complexity but a publicity photograph of a commodity created in a Hollywood studio. As Colin Clark’s anecdote suggests, you can’t look at Warhol’s Marilyn in the same way that you look at a painting by Rembrandt or Titian because Warhol isn’t interested in any of the things those artists were—the representation of material reality, the exploration of character, or the creation of pictorial illusion.

Warhol asked different questions about art. How does it differ from any other commodity? What value do we place on originality, invention, rarity, and the uniqueness of the art object? To do this he revisited long-neglected artistic genres such as history painting in his disaster series, still life in his soup cans and Brillo boxes, and the society portrait in Ethel Scull Thirty-Six Times. Though Warhol isn’t always seen as a conceptual artist, his most perceptive critic, Arthur C. Danto, calls him “the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced.”

Silk screen also enabled Warhol to produce serial images—that is, to choose a motif and then reproduce it repeatedly by silk-screening it in different color combinations. In a conventional printmaking process like etching, the artist makes a limited number of impressions, then destroys the copper plate. But Warhol’s series are not finite in this way. The number of finished works he made depended on how many he needed, or thought he could sell.

In Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, their fascinating study of Warhol’s rise from commercial artist to the most celebrated painter and filmmaker in 1960s America, Tony Scherman and David Dalton are clear that Warhol’s move from painting his pictures by hand to photo silk-screening was at the heart of his artistic achievement:

Traditional, manual virtuosity no longer mattered. The fact that Warhol could draw had no bearing on his art now: how an artwork was made ceased to be a criterion of its quality. The result alone mattered: whether or not it was a striking image. Making art became a series of mental decisions, the most crucial of which was choosing the right source image:—as Warhol would contend some years later, “The selection of the images is the most important and is the fruit of the imagination.”

Throughout the 1960s Warhol was personally involved in choosing, mixing, and applying the paint in most of the silk-screened works. But it was also his frequent practice to delegate the manual task of silk-screening an image onto canvas to his assistants Gerard Malanga and Billy Name. Malanga has said that in the summer of 1963 he was responsible for painting several canvases, including some Electric Chairs, entirely by himself. The following year Warhol told a journalist from Glamour magazine, “I’m becoming a factory,” and of course the building he worked in wasn’t called the “Studio” but the “Factory.”

Those who witnessed Warhol at work on a daily basis in these years—Malanga, Billy Name, his manager Paul Morrissey, and his primary assistant from 1972 to 1982, Ronnie Cutrone—all attest that, just as you’d expect from a mind as restless, inventive, and original as Warhol’s, the degree of his intervention in the creation of a painting varied—not only from series to series, but also from painting to painting within the same series.2

By the 1970s Warhol no longer had any sustained involvement in the mass production of his paintings. In his book about Warhol, Holy Terror, Bob Colacello quotes Warhol’s longtime printer Rupert Smith:

We had so much work that even Augusto [the security man] was doing the painting. We were so busy, Andy and I did everything over the phone. We called it “art by telephone.”3

One person they were calling was Horst Weber von Beeren, who was responsible for painting many of Warhol’s later works in a studio in Tribeca (and not at the Factory in Union Square). He has said that Warhol’s primary role in the creation of these paintings was simply to sign them when they were sold.4 The artist had come to realize that a painting could be an original Andy Warhol whether or not he ever touched it.

In fact, Warhol had long been familiar with this arm’s-length working method. In his days as a successful commercial fashion illustrator, his job was simply to make the drawing and hand it over to the art director, not to become involved in the layout. Scherman and Dalton quote Tina Fredericks, the art director at Glamour who gave Warhol his first New York job: “He didn’t care about that stuff—’Will my drawing be displayed big enough? Are you going to shrink it down?’ You could say to him, ‘We want this,’ and he’d just do it, he’d understand.”

Moreover, in his early fashion drawings Warhol developed a technique of blotting his initial design onto high-quality paper in such a way that his pen nib never touched the final drawing. “In fact,” Scherman and Dalton continue,

the original mattered so little to Warhol that he didn’t even draw it—his longtime assistant Nathan Gluck made the first sketch, rubbed it down to make the tracing, and hinged the tracing to the Strathmore [a brand of high quality drawing paper]. Andy entered only for the coup de grâce, the inking and blotting…. What remained constant throughout Warhol’s career, whether he drew, painted, or silk-screened photographs, was his fascination with the simulacrum, the copy, the second-generation image. In commercial art, the division of labor is the norm. When Andy began using it in fine art in the sixties, he undermined the myth of the auteur, the sole, and solitary, fount of art.

In this conceptual approach to making art, Warhol inherited the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, an artist he knew, admired, painted, and filmed. Like Duchamp’s ready-mades, the ultimate importance of a work by Warhol is not who physically made each object, but the ideas it generates. As the son of immigrants, Warhol in his early works returned again and again to the theme of America itself. What else are the paintings of cheap advertisements for nose jobs and dance lessons concerned with if not the American dream and the price of conformity it exacts? As soon as he’d examined the American obsession with celebrity and glamour in the portraits of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, he was quick to show its race riots and electric chair. Unlike Duchamp’s, his was a highly public art, one that criss-crossed between high art, popular culture, commerce, and daily life.

Everything that passed before Warhol’s basilisk gaze—celebrities, socialites, speed freaks, rock bands, film, and fashion—he imprinted with his deadpan mixture of glamour and humor, then cast them back into the world as narcissistic reflections of his own personality. This is what makes him one of the most complex and elusive figures in the history of art. As Danto explains in his brilliant short study of Warhol, the question Warhol asked is not “What is art?” but “What is the difference between two things, exactly alike, one of which is art and one of which is not?”


That is very like the question at the heart of a class-action lawsuit brought by the film producer Joe Simon-Whelan and other yet-to-be-named plaintiffs against the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., and the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc., which is the committee that was set up eight years after the artist’s death in 1987 to pronounce on the authenticity of his work. The case revolves around a series of ten identical silk-screened self-portraits from 1965 (Red Self Portraits), one of which is owned by the plaintiff and all of which the authentication board has declared are not by Warhol. The background to the case, which has become something of a cause célèbre among dealers, curators, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic, is discussed in detail in I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon), Richard Polsky’s breezy memoir of the art market before the economic crash. New developments can be followed in Simon-Whelan’s crusading Web site www .myandywarhol.com.

  1. 1

    Until the twentieth century the stencils used for silk-screening had to be cut by hand, but around 1910 a new technique of photo stenciling greatly expanded the usefulness of the silk-screening process in commercial design. Warhol would clip a photo from a newspaper or use a photo he’d taken himself. This would be sent to a lab to create a “negative” that Warhol would work on. When finished, this was sent to a silk-screening lab to create the screens that were use to print the image on the canvas. Multicolored prints required multiple silk screens.

  2. 2

    Of Warhol’s increasing reliance on assistants, Malanga says:

    In 1965 Warhol stepped up his film making and as Andy advanced with his work he came more and more to rely on a less “hands on” approach, at least he made an attempt. He was early on often quoted in the press as wanting to be a “machine.” It was a metaphor for eliminating authorship. It was also his way of shedding attachments, both physical and emotional. He gradually moved away from the physicality of painting; the silkscreen would in a way erase all vestiges of the human touch….

    Long Day’s Journey into the Past: Gunnar B. Kvaran speaks with Gerard Malanga,” in Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol (Rizzoli, 2009), p. 163, catalog from the exhibition at Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, 2008.

  3. 3

    Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up (Cooper Square Press, 1990), p. 478.

  4. 4

    BBC1 television program “Imagine,” January 24, 2006.

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