The Rise of Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol: Das Graphische Werk, 1962-1980

catalogue by Hermann Wünsche
distributed by Castelli Graphics (New York), 173 color plates, unpaginated pp., $35.00

Andy Warhol: A Print Retrospective

an exhibition at Castelli Graphics, November 20 to December 22, 1981

Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol; drawing by David Levine

To say that Andy Warhol is a famous artist is to utter the merest commonplace. But what kind of fame does he enjoy? If the most famous artist in America is Andrew Wyeth, and the second most famous is LeRoy Neiman (Hugh Hefner’s court painter, inventor of the Playboy femlin, and drawer of football stars for CBS), then Warhol is the third. Wyeth, because his work suggests a frugal, bare-bones rectitude, glazed by nostalgia but incarnated in real objects, which millions of people look back upon as the lost marrow of American history. Neiman, because millions of people watch sports programs, read Playboy, and will take any amount of glib abstract-expressionist slather as long as it adorns a recognizable and pert pair of jugs. But Warhol? What size of public likes his work, or even knows it at first hand? Not as big as Wyeth’s or Neiman’s.

To most of the people who have heard of him, he is a name handed down from a distant museum-culture, stuck to a memorable face: a cashiered Latin teacher in a pale fiber wig, the guy who paints soup cans and knows all the movie stars. To a smaller but international public, he is the last of the truly successful social portraitists, climbing from face to face in a silent delirium of snobbery, a man so interested in elites that he has his own society magazine. But Warhol has never been a popular artist in the sense that Andrew Wyeth is or Sir Edwin Landseer was. That kind of popularity entails being seen as a normal (and hence, exemplary) person from whom extraordinary things emerge.

Warhol’s public character for the last twenty years has been the opposite: an abnormal figure (silent, withdrawn, eminently visible but opaque, and a bit malevolent) who praises banality. He fulfills Stuart Davis’s definition of the new American artist, “a cool Spectator-Reporter at an Arena of Hot Events.” But no mass public has ever felt at ease with Warhol’s work. Surely, people feel, there must be something empty about a man who expresses no strong leanings, who greets everything with the same “uh, gee, great.” Art’s other Andy, the Wyeth, would not do that. Nor would the midcult heroes of The Agony and the Ecstasy and Lust for Life. They would discriminate between experiences, which is what artists are meant to do for us.

Warhol has long seemed to hanker after the immediate visibility and popularity that “real” stars like Liz Taylor have, and sometimes he is induced to behave as though he really had it. When he did ads endorsing Puerto Rican rum or Pioneer radios, the art world groaned with secret envy: what artist would not like to be in a position to be offered big money for endorsements, if only for the higher pleasure of refusing it? But his image sold little rum and few radios.…

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