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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

SOCIAL NOTES, CONT'D.: LUNCH W. ANDY AT THE MET

Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1957). Big Campbell's Soup Can, 19¢ (Beef Noodle). 1962. Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 72 x 54 1/2 in. (182.9 x 158.4 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston. (c) 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The media preview for “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was mobbed—old, young, male, female, flash bulbs popping, cameras rolling (or whatever video cameras do). But the real news was the lunch after the preview, hosted by (who else?) the Campbell Soup Company and held in the Patrons’ Lounge on the fourth floor (where mere journalists are otherwise only very rarely admitted).

You see, Campbell’s has come a long way from its roots in the 19th century. When the fabled Andy was a boy, back in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression of the 1930s, his thrifty mother, Julia Warhola, a Slovakian farm girl who had borrowed $180 from her parish priest in order to emigrate and rejoin her husband in 1921, practically raised Andy and his 2 older brothers on Campbell’s soups. Although Andy’s father made a decent living as a construction worker, the family had little money to spare, and Campbell’s soup was the best buy because, although it still retained its flavor and nutritive value, it was condensed: one little can did the work of two because its volume would be doubled by the addition of water.

SECRET FORMULA FOR BUSINESS SUCCESS

The secret formula for this initially unique distinction had been developed in 1897 by John T. Dorrance, a nephew of the president of Joseph Campbell & Co. who had acquired a doctorate in chemistry in Germany and gone to work in the company’s kitchen laboratory. Joseph Campbell & Co. had been founded 28 years earlier (in Camden NJ) by a fruit merchant and an icebox manufacturer to can & sell French peas, fancy asparagus & beefsteak tomatoes, but after the introduction of its condensed soups in 1897, sales skyrocketed clear across the country, and Dorrance was made a vice-president. He later became president & bought out the company, which in 1922 was renamed the Campbell Soup Company.

What was so radical about the condensed soups was that the extraction of water before they were shipped made the cans slightly lighter, thereby meaning they cost a few pennies less in freight charges. The savings Campbell’s thoughtfully passed along to the consumer--since it enabled the company to undersell the competition, and expand their own markets. This very interesting information was passed along to us media types after the juice & soft drinks were served in the Patrons’ Lounge, but before the soup was on, by Archbold (“Archie”) Dorrance Van Beuren, a sometime executive and board member of the company and a great-grandson of John T. Dorrance.

MOVING ON UP….

Another thing that Van Beuren told us was that to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Warhol’s iconic artwork, “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, “ Campbell is releasing a limited edition of real Campbell’s tomato soup cans colored with the odd colors that Warhol used in some of his renditions of the subject. These cans cost 75 cents apiece and are available at most Target locations, but that is not all the news that Campbell’s is making this fall. Just in time for the soup season (fall & winter as opposed to summer) it is introducing soup in microwavable bags as well as new gourmet flavors, including “Creamy Gouda Bisque with Chicken” and “Thai Tomato Coconut” (made with shallots & kaffir lime).

Served to us journalists were small cups of three different flavors of tomato soup at three different elevated serving tables (you had to stand at them to eat). We were invited to try all three flavors, and each cup was accompanied by a small triangle of what I’d call grilled cheese on toast, but which bore fancy labels such as “Cheddar Pesto Onion Panini on Pepperidge Farm Honey Wheat Bread” (Campbell’s also owns Pepperidge Farm and V8). Also offered were miniscule portions of similarly exotic salads.

For dessert there was coffee, tea and Pepperidge Farm cookies. I understand there was also a red velvet cake, but it ran out long before I got around to that stage of my meal. For company (in addition to our colleagues), we had legions of communications experts from Campbell’s &/or the PR company they retain to interface with journalists, plus at least one senior chef from Campbell’s high-tech research & innovation kitchens. All were eager to underline the message that Campbell Soup is no longer only for the masses, but also for the more affluent & discriminating members of a world-wide upscale society. Truly, the company has moved right on up from Julia’s kitchen table. As has her darling boy, Andy.

NOW, ABOUT THE EXHIBITION ….

Officially, “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” presents 49 examples of paintings, sculpture and films by “Saint Andrew” (to use the title accorded to him by Newsweek back in the 60s, when it was doing its damndest to appeal to the still-youthful baby boomers). These are juxtaposed with about 100 works by some 60 other artists, mostly more recent.

Organized for The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mark Rosenthal, guest curator, along with Marla Prather, Ian Alteveer, and Rebecca Lowery, all of the Met, this large & slightly ungainly show (on view through December 31) aims to demonstrate that (according to the museum’s press release) Warhol’s influence “is dominant in contemporary art.” In other words, since his untimely death in 1987 at the age of only 58, he has ascended to the position of Zeus, the all-seeing, all-powerful king of the gods in the pantheon of pop .

The press release further claims that all of the other artists in its show "in key ways reinterpret, respond, or react to his groundbreaking work.” In other words, that all of these other artists are or were influenced by Andy (though most of the time today, it’s considered gauche to use the term “influence.” The polite way to refer to copying another artist’s shapes, colors, and/or ideas in our pomonian world is to speak instead of “appropriations”).

Now, I really can’t object to the visual qualities of this show. I mean, we’re not talking about a Pollock or Morris Louis retrospective here, but if you fancy pop art, with its determinedly slick & shallow forms, simpleminded colors and equally determinedly emphasis on the figurative – or even if you are just feeling mildly sentimental about what you think of as the Swinging Sixties --- there is more than enough bright, bland, bouncy, & slavishly appealing stuff to amuse you here.

It is all so deliberately appealing that I was reminded of a comment on popular contemporary art made back in the 70s or maybe the 80s by Jules Olitski, to the effect that such art is trying so hard to be appealing that it lies down and rolls over for you (wish I could remember where I saw this quote, so I could get it word for word correct and credit the author of the book in which it appeared—if anybody can point me in the right direction, I’d be grateful).

A GALAXY OF MARQUEE NAMES

In any event, we have more than enough not only of Warhol, but also Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Hans Haacke, Robert Gober, Barbara Kruger, Richard Avedon, David Hockney, Alex Katz, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and legions of other marquee names from the past 40 or 50 years (actually, only the last 15 or 20 years—the 70s & especially the 80s are less well represented--I particularly miss the British Richard Hamilton here, with his clearly Warhol-influenced images of "Swingeing London").

With its prevalence of large, simple forms, elementary colors, and devotion to advertising, package design, and mass-media journalism, the general impression created is of a convocation of pop art as a whole from the early 60s.

What’s missing from such a concept here is the presence of the other big pop names from the ‘60s: Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselman, and James Rosenquist, to say nothing of minimal and conceptual artists who came to the fore in the later 60s, like Robert Morris, Walter de Maria and Joseph Kossuth.

A SYNTHESIS OF INFLUENCES

Their omission (though perfectly understandable in a show devoted to Warhol) makes it appear as though Andy had had all the ideas in the 60s, and everybody since has imitated only him. The fact is that the more recent work in this show mostly represents either a synthesis of different influences from the 60s, or even a more direct line of descent from other stars of the 60s.

Admittedly, there are some pieces that scream “we are Andy’s children,” but they’re really in the minority. On the other hand, Haacke’s giant packages of cigarettes owe as least as much to Oldenburg’s “Giant Fagends” (1967) as to Warhol’s Brillo boxes, or even more. The “Untitled (Head)” by Jean-Michel Basquiat owes as much to Lichtenstein as it does to Warhol, and that goes double for the cartoon painting of Takashi Murakami.

Robert Mapplethorpe is a lot closer to Avedon than to Warhol. The “two-dimensional” surfaces with lettering on them by John Baldessari have more to do with Kossuth than with Warhol, too, while Gober’s piles of newspapers and the piles of candies by Feliz Gonzalez-Torres trace back more to the piles of dirt that graced Manhattan galleries in the 60s, courtesy of de Maria and Morris (both now virtually lost in the mists of history--how soon they forget).

Similarly, the medicine chest by Damien Hirst and the shampoo polishers & vacuum cleaner by Koons recall to me Wesselman’s kitchen assemblages (to say nothing of Rosenquist’s academic oil paintings of such subjects). And the artfully kitschy Koons statue of a large, clean, pink hog being led on parade by three equally kitschy small children stylistically resembles Boucher and/or Bouguereau infinitely more than anything Andy ever made (its only claim to inclusion in this show seeming to be its title, “Ushering in Banality”).

PARALLELS NOT INFLUENCES

Moreover, those less obviously pop-oriented artists from the 60s who are included in this show were really contemporaries of Warhol, coming up with similar ideas at about the same time, and really not indebted to him. Here I am thinking primarily of Katz, Avedon, Hockney, Ed Ruscha, and Bruce Nauman (whose use of neon owes more to 50s Rauschenberg than to anything Warhol ever staged).

STRUCTURAL QUESTIONS

I also demur about the credit given Warhol in at least two of the five “thematic sections” which lend structure to the presentation. True, the section entitled “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster” hangs together well enough, with its various magazine covers (by Barbara Kruger, Vija Celmins and Alfredo Jaar) complementing Warhol’s drawings based on magazine advertisements.

Nor do I have any problem with the last section, which features Warhol’s cow wall paper & silver inflated pillows, and is labeled “No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle.” What better illustration of this theme could one ask for than that delicious luncheon at the Met, courtesy of Campbell’s Soup?

BUT I really think one is giving too much credit to Warhol for the section labeled “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power.” I mean to say, portraits are and have been for centuries a very central theme in Western art, and the biggest and most prestigious portraits have always been those of celebrities of one kind or another -- dukes or cardinals or high society ladies in other eras.

Certainly Warhol was a brilliant portraitist, but that doesn’t mean that Katz or Chuck Close were relying upon his precedents--particularly when they were immortalizing personal friends or relatives (neither of which Andy ever did).

The section labeled “Queer Studies: Camouflage and Shifting Identities” proceeds as though Warhol were the only gay in the firmament in the 1960s. Not so. Rauschenberg & Johns were pretty gay, too, & so were some stars in literature and the theater, including Truman Capote and Edward Albee.

Moreover, the 60s were a period of broad social upheaval, when many different underprivileged groups began their long journey to acceptance, including gays as well as women and African Americans. True, the 70s would see a much broader campaign for homosexual acceptance in the US, but a more permissive attitude toward the subject was already beginning in the 60s.

With the fifth section, entitled “Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality,” I am perfectly prepared to credit Warhol with seriality, the replication of many of the same images in single paintings (his influence being particularly well documented here by the inclusion of multi-paneled work of Gilbert & George).

However, let’s face it, “appropriations” was the name of the game with all the pop artists, the use (and abuse) of styles and techniques inaugurated by commercial artists & popular cartoonists, along with incorporating every sort of mass-produced object from automobiles to mattresses to refrigerators to stuffed birds to mannequins.

As for “abstraction,” Andy was not exactly the only abstractionist working in the 60s, and the only novelties that he introduced into this genre were making “abstracts"
out of urine and Rorschach blots—neither innovation having been adopted by any other abstractionists that I've ever seen.

Artcritical.com currently has a review of a Los Angeles show of contemporary abstractionists who supposedly are descended from Warhol, but from the descriptions of their work it sounds t0 me like this was more nearly an attempt to gain publicity for an exhibition by linking it to the name of a super-famous artist.

STILL AND ALL….

It’s a fun sort of show – at least, if you have any tolerance for this type of art at all. I will give Andy much if not all of the credit for introducing film into gallery settings (however dull or irritating his movies themselves may be, and in addition to the prestige that serious film had long enjoyed in theaters).

Also, he introduced a dreamy sort of laid-back, cool and somewhat whimsical character to the decade. Whatever his art may or may not have to offer, as an individual he was certainly one of a kind.

I have long liked Warhol better than any of the other pop artists. I mean, if you’re going to be vulgar and populist, why not be REALLY vulgar and populist? Why try to pretend that you’re into High Art, the way Johns & Rauschenberg did?

With the soup cans, multiple images, and jazzy, jazzy colors, I see also a faint sense of humor in Warhol (in his art AND in his verbal pronouncements).

Also, with all the emphasis on culture heroes like Marilyn, Jackie, Elvis & Liz, to say nothing of social issues personified by car crashes, electric chairs, & soup cans, I see a rudimentary form of social comment.

It’s true that when I resolutely fought my way through the reverent & extended Warhol retrospective at MoMA in 1989, a moment came (in the midst of the wallpaper & silver pillows) when I said to myself, “God, he’s thin! He’s just so awfully THIN!” Still, as I see it, even with this thinness, he may still survive better than other pop artists -- as a minor figure, sort of a Daumier for the 20th century: amusing and socially conscious, albeit practicing a lesser form of art.


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