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Andy Warhol's soup cans and Claes Oldenburg's hamburgers, Roy Lichtenstein's comic-book panels and James Rosenquist's mock billboards--these Pop art images leaped directly from the sprawling, vacuous expanses of America's consumer culture to the precincts of high aesthetic seriousness. And, of course, much of the art world was horrified. Serious painting and sculpture had offered, among much else, a refuge from hamburger joints and girlie magazines, and, more generally, from the pressures of advertising, the movies, and television. When Pop art appeared in the early 1960s, a second generation of Abstract Expressionists was just hitting its stride, preparing a full-scale assault on the aesthetic heights occupied by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and others. Pop art was widely taken as an insult to the hopes and values of these artists and to the modernist tradition they were trying to sustain.
It was bad enough that Andy Warhol dared to present an image of Dick Tracy as a work of art. It was even worse that certain critics were prepared to take such painting seriously, among them Gene R. Swenson of Artnews and the art historian-critic Robert Rosenblum. Worse still, Pop art was recruiting practitioners at an alarming rate. By the middle of the 1960s, images of banal objects were commonplace in ambitious art. Aggressively self-expressive abstraction came to look old-fashioned. The most stylish nonfigurative work of the 1960s had a chilly, hard-edged look that critics eventually agreed to call Minimal. Opposed to Pop art in many ways, Minimalism shared with it a cool, impersonal look--an air of detachment. It seemed, around 1965, that the painterlywarmth, the expressive passion, of the previous decade was utterly defeated. Pop art had led the assault, and Warhol looked more and more like its leading strategist. Then, in 1965, he announced that he was a "retired artist" and that he would now devote himself to making movies. There was something Garboesque about this sudden decision to abandon an audience clamoring for his paintings of soup cans and his Brillo-box sculpture; and there was a kind of logic in the way Warhol's movies drifted toward parodies of Hollywood excess--improvisatory extravaganzas featuring such underground "superstars" as Brigid Polk, Edie Sedgwick, and Viva. Warhol himself became a star, a culture hero, as he elaborated his obsession with stardom. His abiding subject has been glamour and how to generate it. He doesn't so much create images as seek them out, ready-made and shimmering with allure. Then he intensifies that shimmer.
Andy Warhol may well be America's best-known artist. Only such figures as Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth provide him any competition, while on the international scene, his aura rivals that of Salvador Dali. None of this is to say that Warhol is widely loved. Rather, he keeps the spotlight on himself by preserving the controversy that surrounded all of Pop art when it first appeared two decades ago. While Roy Lichtenstein is now recognized as a refined, ironic, serious manipulator of found images, Warhol has refused to redeem the mundane side of his art. Thus the respect accorded to him by international museums continues to outrage much of the public. In the 1970s, when Warhol turned for subject matter to the worlds of fashion and show business, he gave his bravura portrait style strong overtones of crassness--even vulgarity. He is ruthless in exposing the machinery of glamour, yet he refuses to stand in judgment. This is not his only refusal. Warhol adamantly declines to make his art a vehicle of self-revelation. We know what fascinates him, but never exactly why. This puts him in strong contrast to, say, Claes Oldenburg, who has made consumer objects into surrogate selves of a powerfully, sometimes embarrassingly expressive kind.
An artist's motives are always obscure, even if he is given to self-analysis. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975), Andy Warhol's Exposures (1979), and POPism (1980), Warhol talks a great deal about himself, but only in that flat, sometimes faintly mocking manner that has become his trademark--and a conversational style basic to the American social repertoire of the late twentieth century. Like his paintings, his autobiographical ramblings are filled with facts, empty of revelations. "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol," he said in 1968, "just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." This, we assume, is not true. In fact, we tend to believe that the more an individual, an art form, even a culture insists on its outward image, the more there is going on behind it. The seemingly absolute impenetrability of Warhol's surfaces is what gives him and his art their persistent interest. We are drawn by what stays hidden, all the more so because Warhol's Pop imagery seems to veil something basic--perhaps disturbing--about our culture, about us. Since there is no question of revealing this secret directly, we must gather what we can from the surface of the artifacts he is willing to provide us.
Notes on Technique
Author Biography: Carter Ratcliff is an art critic, professor, and poet who has written books on Botero, Sargent, and Gilbert and George. He is contributing editor for Art in America and editorial associate for Art International.