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December 15, 2008

Christie Davies revels in the joys of surface and the rejection of the abstract at the Andy Warhol exhibition: Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms at the Hayward Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms
Hayward Gallery, London
7th October 2008 - 18th January 2009

The great achievement of Andy Warhol and of pop art generally was to undermine the hideous monopoly of the artistic world in America held by the abstract expressionists. Even today they hate Warhol for having exposed the utter meaninglessness of their work, which had receded from the world of human experience to the point where it looked like a cross between a Hermann Rorschach inkblot and a trigonometry text book. I gained more pleasure and insight from this smallish exhibition of Warhol's work than from the entire A and E floor of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.

The worst of the Reina Sofia rubble was a huge piece of nonsense that consisted of only a white cross on a white background, La Bandera Italiana 1937 What possible meaning could it have?

Andy Warhol took us back into real life. Just as Monet, Cezanne and Lowry in their different ways had taught us how to look at scenery and townscapes, so too Warhol taught us to look at the packaging and images around us with his Campbell's soup cans and boxes of Brillo and his multiple colour-shifting versions of well-known icons such as John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Mao Tse-Tung. Looking at Warhol's Mao, I could feel Vivian Solomonsky's champion song running through my head,

Any old icon, any old icon, any, any, any, old icon?
Mao looks neat – what a Commie treat,
His face is bland and you never see his feet
But resist the urge for another purge
Or there'll be no more left.
Thanks to Warhol we now look at the banal everyday world differently. We see beneath the banality a mass of colour and shape and texture, much as we can with a cliff or a forest.

The problem with abstract expressionist art is that, though it may possess these properties, nothing about it is transferable to our everyday aesthetic experience of the world. It sometimes works with sculptures which we know would be tactile if we were allowed to stroke them. But what is there to feel with a flat board on a wall. Which of us did not laugh when the Tate Modern recently hung a stripy picture first upside down and then sideways, finally admitting that they did not know which way it went? How Picabia would have laughed. You might want an any side up rug like that, but why a painting? Truly a case of the Empress' knickers.

Warhol above all understood surface and transience, the very qualities that were at the core of his Ruthenian parents' religion. It is no wonder that he was liked by Dr Norman St John Stevas MP, who took him on a personal tour of the House of Commons, the sleek and studied guiding the wonderfully dishevelled.

When Jordan Crundall asked Warhol, "Do you look at yourself in a mirror", Warhol replied "No it's too hard to look in the mirror. Nothing's there". Having spent my formative years peering into mirrors and adjusting and lining up the positions of pins to gauge their optical qualities, I can assure you that Warhol is right. Only human beings and chimpanzees look at themselves in the mirror; cats have more sense.

Warhol's intellectual counterpart was the sociologist Erving Goffman who saw that everyday human interaction could be seen as a series of presentations in which people intuitively manipulate and rapidly adapt their social appearance with considerable skill to shape the perceptions of others. It is particularly marked in the behaviour of those who possess a hidden stigma that must be concealed and yet also when appropriate revealed such as the neighbour's tidy wife who has a day job as a whore in another town or the two lives of a gay church organist.

Visible stigmas such as a deformity by contrast require strategies of distraction. That is why ugly women do intelligent conversation better than gorgeous blondes do. It is obvious when you know it but it took a Goffman to show us.

Just like Warhol, Goffman displaced the arid abstract formulations of Talcott Parsons who dominated American social thought with models of society as a system or a set of signals and never deigned to mention anything as vulgar as a fact. Were it not so disastrous for us all, would we not be laughing at banks, now bankrupt, that were into algorithmic trading. Apply mathematical models to hedge funds and your money will vanish down a black schole.

Abstraction is central to a proper understanding of the natural world but it is utterly misleading as a guide to human affairs. Humans have minds of their own and social and economic life is fuzzy and its risks unpredictable, Hedge all you like, the ditch awaits. The love of abstraction that characterized the decades after World War II proved to be a disaster in life as well as in art. Life can not be abstract, so how can art be abstract? When Warhol says, "I am a deeply superficial person", he has gone right to the heart of our world and his art.

Warhol also said, "I like boring things" but his genius was to transform them into something unboring by changing their dimensions, as with a giant soup-can or by multiplying and changing an image of them in his studio aptly known as ‘"the factory".

Much of the exhibition is taken up by videos and DVDs of Warhol's old TV programmes and the showing of his films. Fifty or so television sets sit in a single room all playing different items. You can if you wish put on headphones and sit and listen but it is better just to wander among them at random, a sort of channel switching by perambulation.

It is far more inspiring than lounging and using a remote control. In the 1980s John O’Sullivan CBE, then living in Washington DC, gained an encyclopaedic knowledge and unparalleled understanding of American life through two hours channel hopping every evening. A society reveals itself most fully through its distinctive superficialities. That is why tourism is so profound.

One of Warhol's TV items remains vivid in my mind, an interview with David Hockney who is dressed in a cap divided into bright red and white segments but with a hard red peak, like a cross between Douglas Jardine playing for the Oxford cricket club Arlecchino and an Australian truck driver. Likewise Hockney's accent is a grating mixture of pre-Muslim Bradford and metropolitan gay America. The peak on the cap even o'ershadowed Hockney's trademark, his vast spectacles like two plate glass windows in a shopping mall. Behind Hockney sat a stuffed lion. Warhol’s genius emerged through his ability to let Hockney emerge in a way that engaged our sympathy; a difficult feat indeed. Poor old Hockers.

The film section is heavily labelled with notices suggesting that they might be unsuitable for children but the only thing there that might corrupt a child was the sight of people smoking cigarettes in the films, a filthy and dangerous habit of those times, now abandoned by all except our depraved underclass. You can always tell the location of a book-maker's or a brothel in the main street of your town by the density of the cigarette ends in the gutter. Children must be shielded from tobacco, preferably by removing all images of cigarettes from old films.

The most famous and notorious film shown is Warhol's Blow Job, 1963 but a child would not understand it, since it consists only of a young man's face showing contortions of interest and ecstasy, supposedly induced by an erotic experience off screen. But to a child it is just funny faces. Even to adults it is ambiguous, since we can not tell whether the "blower" is a woman, a man, a Hokusai octopus or a vacuum cleaner or even an imagined source of suction. The fame of his film so enraged some feminists that one of them produced a counterblast based on a crafty Irish airline, the one whose name is a real tongue-twister.

Another feminist, Valerie Solanas of SCUM, the Society for Cutting up Men hated (fella te odio as she said in Castellano) Warhol so much that she tried to kill him. The best photographs in the exhibition are not by Warhol but show him being loaded into and out of an ambulance after he had been shot. We see him passive and crumpled being loaded into the back through a thicket of New York policemen's caps. New York's finest to the rescue of America's finest. The exhibition is a must for Warhol fans.

Dr Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations.

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When you say:

a cross between a Hermann Rorschach inkblot and a trigonometry text book.

is the emphasis on the trigonometry or the textbook? If the latter, then I am in accord with your sentiments. Over 2000 years ago, Euclid set a standard of presenting beautiful mathematics in a dull way from which the subject has still not fully recovered. As the song goes:

We'll make a bonfire of our textbooks, And we'll watch them blaze away ....

But if you are comparing the execrable modern style of painting with the glorious art of trigonometry, brought to us through the labours of Regiomontanus and Abu'l-Wafa Al-Buzjani, then:

"Young man," quoth Bulbul, "has life grown so dull,
That you're anxious to end your career?
Vile infidel! Know, you have trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir."


Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 19, 2008 10:58 PM

Nice Post....keep it up !!!! Good job

John Lochrie

Posted by: John Lochrie at January 8, 2009 07:48 PM
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