Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola (1928-1987), a prominent feature in the art world ever since he decided to exhibit his work at the end of the ’50s. I think – however – many people are unaware of his incredibly notorious behavior. Perhaps his fame stands in the way of people thinking twice what they are actually looking at when they are standing in front of a pile of Brillo boxes. They think: “Oh that’s a Warhol. I know him. He’s the guy that paints soup cans. His work sells for like millions.” And that’s it.
Warhol’s work is misunderstood not only because he is so famous and therefore people don’t think twice. He himself was so – intentionally? – vague. His explanations are almost per definition lacking clear reason. Why would you depict a soup can? I refuse to believe he just did so simply because he liked soup. But that’s the reason he gave.
Since Warhol himself did not provide the rationale for his work, art critics have been diligent to unravel the oh so ambiguous Warhol. For instance, Arthur C. Danto has questioned if the Brillo boxes could be considered as a work of art. The Brillo boxes are looking exactly the same as the Brillo boxes containing laundry detergent you can find in the grocery stores. Danto believed this was actually a highly philosophic act because it exemplifies and instantiates a theory of the kind of nature art has; meaning it provides an instance of or concrete evidence in support of a theory of the nature of art. So exhibiting something that looks exactly like something you can find in the grocery store – so outside the art world – is an act of questing the nature of art and thereby we can consider it as art.
Another brilliant endeavor to interpret of Warhol’s intentions is the one provided by Thomas Crow. He argues that Warhol positioned himself in three – contradicting – ways.
- a superficial, nonpolitical dandy. Warhol has tried to convince us by stating: “I’m a deeply superficial person.”
- a mainstream artist who just wants to show his own interests.
- an avant-garde experimental artist.
If you would address these positions you can recognize three interpretations:
- a naive, enthusiastic endorsement of the popular culture
- cynical, canny appropriation of images of the popular culture in order to intentionally gain commercial success.
- a critique of popular culture through showing its shortcomings.
I believe that it the third interpretation was his intention all along. Why would you depict an enormous car crash? Why would you depict an unhappy looking Marilyn Monroe the year she committed suicide (yes she looks sad at the infamous picture of her – you probably have never noticed it because it is – again – super famous). Why would you depict a riot? Why would you depict an electric chair? And if you’re still not convinced he is more than a superficial artist, this quote will expose his critique of popular culture:
“You’d be surprised who’ll hang an electric chair in the living room. Especially if the background matches the drapes.”
Andy, you workin’ it, dude!
See Andy Warhol’s Brillox Boxes and electric chair – amongst others – at the Ludwig Museum Cologne (they have the largest Pop Art collection outside the United States).