Monday, January 5, 2009

The Smile in Warhol

My success? It’s magic. I never want anything. I used to be sort of crushed. When? In childhood maybe. You want then, but not now. I thought people in New York were detached, but they really care. In Paris it’s great. They are detached. They laugh at you. I thought that maybe they didn’t know anything, but now I think they know everything.

—Andy Warhol, from an interview with Polly Devlin for British Vogue, 1965.

From the utter vacuity of the camera-oriented smile of the wife of an international banker to the startling disclosures of moods fit for a private diary, these painting snapshots add up to a Human Comedy for our time, in which pictorial surface and psychological probing are combined in differing proportions and in which the very existence of not one but two or more variations on the same photographic fact add to the complex shuffle of artistic fictions and emotional truths.

—Robert Rosenblum, in Andy Warhol: Portraits of the 1970s, 1979.

The Jew as Celebrity: it is of a piece with the ruling passion of Warhol’s career, the object of his fixated attention—the state of being well known for well-knownness. That was all Exposures [1979] was about—a photograph album of film stars, rock idols, politicians’ wives, cocottes, catamites and assorted bits of International White Trash baring their teeth to the socially emulgent glare of the flash bulb: I am flashed, therefore I am.

—Robert Hughes on Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century (1980), “Andy Warhol,” in The New York Review of Books, vol. 29, no. 2, February 18, 1982.

ANDY WARHOL: What color are your eyes?
RUDOLF NUREYEV: The interview is canceled.

—Bob Colacello, notes on an interview for Interview magazine, May 1972.

These glimpses into the dark heart of the Warhol literature serve to illustrate what is best described as the problem of critical construction that has always beset the artist himself, his subject–collaborators, his powerful advocates and detractors alike.

To shore up what he saw as the artist’s formidable credentials, for example, the late Robert Rosenblum found it necessary to plot the unabashed commercialism of the later portrait production against a stave that descends from the shrill high notes of “utter vacuity” to resonant chords of psychological depth. This is great art, not merely good business.

By contrast, when summing up the same species of portrait, Robert Hughes gathered into the corral of Andy’s portraiture film stars, rock idols, “cocottes, catamites, and bits of International White Trash,” where necessary dismissing otherwise un-dismissible historical subjects such as Sarah Bernhardt, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, Albert Einstein, and Associate Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court by instead impugning Warhol’s motives in choosing to portray them. In other words, this is cynical, shallow stuff.

To some extent the scholar and the critic gaze down at Union Square from the opposing mountain-tops of the Institute of Fine Arts and Time, but in each case the unnamed “wives” of the banker or politician are the convenient, limping antelopes at the edge of Andy Warhol’s herd, the easiest of targets, whereas in purely social and economic terms one would be hard pressed to discover a material difference between those sitters and the gilded-age socialites who paid a much larger fee to sit for John Singer Sargent 100 years earlier.

In fact, somewhat paradoxically, numerous automated photo-booth strips from the mid-1960s reveal moments of great candour, intimacy, even joy, which do not always vanish from the finished portraits screenprinted afterwards.

In retrospect, Gary Indiana described these as “a kind of photo morgue that portraits could be made from. The ones that got made were the ones of people who could buy the portraits”. No doubt, but the language used to describe those sittings tends to be condescending and misogynistic, notwithstanding the special status of insiders such as the pouting, cigarette-fondling Edie Sedgwick.

Of a strip of four shots of Lita Hornick, for example, David Riminelli remarks: “She doesn’t move. She just stood there [sic]. This time she moved a little bit, she moved her head, she opened her mouth. I think she’s warming up. She acts up more for the camera each time.”

If “she” sits still, she is a dummy; if she responds to off-camera prompting, she is acting up.

Meanwhile the artist himself made an unconvincing show of not caring about “what people think”—a confidence he shared with the readers of Vogue—while, obviously, he cared desperately and bitterly: for decades, in fact, creating a pattern-book of duly contorted, lonely selves, the better to excise or even tear out the pages.

It was not merely that, in the self-portraits, Andy said he “left out the pimples because you always should”. From the apparently playful batterings of 1963, which were staged (with dark glasses) in the photobooth “confessional,” to the 10-canvas “strangulation” self-portraits of 1978, and, finally, the “fright wig” heads overlaid with murky Reagan-era camouflage (1986), Andy continually offered up a vitiated, unknowable artistic personality, and to some degree it is the drag self-portrait polaroids of 1980–81 that yield some of the most direct, disarming and, incidentally, beautiful moments of self-fashioning.

The irony is that this supremely masked self should have become the lodestar of fame for other people, a source of covers for Time magazine, and an uneasy partner in the cutthroat game of modern celebrity. Yet Andy’s ego found neither the inner resources nor, in fact, the will to master that game, except inside the gradually accreting cocoons of the Factory.

The thread that joins these initial, disparate remarks is the smile and laughter. Warhol told Polly Devlin he thought “it’s great” in Paris because they laugh at you, and in so doing display omniscient detachment; Andy rarely allowed himself to be seen smiling: only rarely in other people’s snapshot photographs, and never in any self-portrait.

Equally, for Rosenblum and Hughes, the self-serving smile of the “wives” is merely fodder tossed at the hungry maw of the camera, and in this sense it is a trope of total meaninglessness. So there is a case to be made for looking a little more closely at the fluctuating barometer of the smile in Warhol, if for no other reason than that it forms the bedrock of the four crucial series directly prompted by sensational events in the turbulent years of 1960–63: Elizabeth Taylor’s nearly fatal bout of pneumonia, early in 1960, from which she was rescued by means of an emergency tracheotomy; the sudden death of Marilyn Monroe at home in Brentwood, California, on August 5, 1962;

the brief appearance early in the following year of Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a loudly trumpeted event of international significance, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, later that year, on November 22, 1963. In each of the subsequent series of Lizzes, Marilyns, Monas, and Jackies, the smile for Warhol became a powerful memento mori.

All the
Marilyns were based on a single, cropped, open-mouthed, glossily-lipsticked ad vivum publicity photograph, but straight away Andy began the process of boiling down the image still further. In Two Marilyns, from August–September 1962, the left-hand head has already shed all facial features except the eyebrows and the shapely, parted lips. But in Marilyn Monroe’s Lips, 1962, the actress–icon is drastically reduced to what has been described as her “single most salient feature…a synecdochal detail”, the grid of eighty-four floating mouths, held in the suspended animation of a photographically frozen smile. The lips-only idea continued to hold Andy’s interest into 1964, when in Basel E. W. Kornfeld published in the unbound book 1¢ Life a related lithograph entitled Marilyn Monroe I Love Your Kiss Forever Forever.

Andy once remarked: “What makes a painting beautiful is the way the paint’s put on, but I don’t understand how women put on make-up. It gets on your lips, and it’s so heavy. Lipstick and make-up and powder and shadow creams. And jewelry. It’s all so heavy.” While the earliest
Marilyns followed the actress’ death by a matter of weeks, and to some degree at first conveyed a rictus-like chill, by the voluptuousness of their colouring they also persuade us that, in this instance, it is more prudent to believe the tale than the teller.

The Silver Lizzes of June–July 1963, meanwhile, are even more strategically labial, the screened lipstick applying a slight but distinct upturn to the corners of the mouth that was not present in the original publicity photograph. Moreover, the origins of these cosmetically enhanced Silver Lizzes were quasi-obituary.

As Andy himself recalled: “I started those a long time ago, when she was so sick and everybody thought she was going to die. Now I’m doing them all over, putting bright colors on her lips and eyes.” The publicity still was taken from Butterfield 8, in which “she”, Elizabeth Taylor, had been forced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to fulfill the concluding terms of her contract by playing the role of a call-girl.

Although that performance won her the Oscar for Best Actress in 1961, it was well known that, having recently re-married in the Jewish tradition, to Eddie Fisher, she never wanted to play the part.

Monas followed closely upon the Butterfield 8 Silver Lizzes and the earliest Marilyns. By alighting upon this rapidly degrading totem of “great art”, especially at a moment when it was also deployed as a pawn in cold-war Franco-American diplomacy, much assisted by the personal intervention of Mrs. Kennedy in the White House, Andy now harnessed an even more famous, in fact endlessly lionized, and, this time, long-dead smiler, whose enigmatic qualities were largely invented by French critics in the nineteenth century, and raised to exceptional prominence in the twentieth. hIS source was the Met’s widely circulating Mona Lisa publicity brochure. In his far more complicated assemblage of Jackies, meanwhile, Andy carefully created a pathetic antithesis between the charming, youthful, cultivated châtelaine of the White House, and the “Roman widow” or “modern Agrippina” who so impressed the nation by her stoic dignity and self-discipline in the weeks and months following her husband’s assassination.

The “post mortem” flavour of the Red and Blue Jackies of July–August 1964, in particular, largely derives from the fact that Andy started with the cover photograph of an undated official 50¢ White House souvenir booklet entitled Jacqueline Kennedy, First Lady: Her Fashions, Her Home, Her Words. That photograph was actually taken by Jacques Lowe at Hyannisport in the summer of 1960, well before that year’s presidential election.

As Senator Kennedy’s official campaign photographer, Lowe had exclusive access to the family at home, and wherever else they went. From the gloomy post-assassination vantage point of summer 1964, the cold air of loss which Andy captured in these otherwise serene heads, set against fields of bright cadmium red and cerulean blue, could not have been more economically attained than by choosing to doctor an original image so laden with pre-election optimism.

Rosenblum once wrote that, compared with the jet-set portraits of the following decade, the smiling Lizzes, Marilyns and Jackies of the early to mid-1960s “smacked of the New York Post or Screen Romances and almost made us feel that our fingers might be stained with cheap newsprint if we touched them”, but this is surely misleading because in each case Andy’s sources were not only devised with unapologetic glamour in mind, but also frequently carried into the final work the related quality of an apparently perfect toilette by means of pure, saturated colour: especially that of red lipstick, undulating extravagantly beyond the natural edges of the lips, as was frequently the custom forty years ago. By arranging a selection of one 40 by 40-inch canvas plucked from each series—a
Shot Orange Marilyn, a Liz, and a Red Jackie—on the wall of his bedroom at home in the expensive, “five-towns” suburb of Lawrence, Long Island, the collector Leon Kraushar not only compounded the allure of each subject, but by forming a kind of funerary polyptych for the sleek modern boudoir, surely also heightened the varying degrees of frank sexuality Andy applied to the eyes and lips of all three.

A host of other, more unequivocal smilers exist in Warhol and, while none are as important as Liz, Marilyn, Mona and Jackie, they stretch from early drawings such as the intriguing perfume bottle with cupid’s bow lips and a question-mark stopper, c. 1953, to the late skulls and disembodied, grinning dentures. To the handlist may be added such strategic subjects as the tooth-baring “news foto by Tarrington” set against the headline of Pirates Seize Ship, 1961; the ebullient Bobby Short, 1963, for which the photobooth strip survives; the vigorously animated, newly-elected
Jimmy Carter III, 1977, as against Jimmy Carter I and II (in repose); Pele, 1977; Howdy-Doody, 1980; Mickey Mouse from the portfolio Myths, 1981; Michael Jackson, 1984, and Lee Iaccoca, 1985, both commissions for the cover of Time magazine; and Van Heusen (Ronald Reagan) from the portfolio Ads, 1985. The existence of other political smilers such as Senator Edward F. Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy III, 1986, even a surprisingly sympathetic 1981 photograph of Nancy Reagan, is noteworthy because Andy came to suspect with anxiety bordering on paranoia that the close interest in his finances that was shown throughout the 1970s by the Internal Revenue Service resulted from his unusually demonizing portrayal of President Richard M. Nixon for the doomed McGovern campaign of 1972.

(In November of that year Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, and the partisan hostility of Andy’s ill-judged work was surely accentuated by the nearly contemporary, hugely successful sequence of images of an apparently more statesmanlike Mao. Judging from President Nixon’s amply documented willingness to exploit the taxation system as a weapon against his opponents, Warhol’s suspicions may well have been correct.)

By contrast, the ranks of subjects whom Andy represented, like himself, occluded and determinedly not smiling, is equally revealing, as if to conjure not so much by passive aggression as by vaguely sexualized sullenness, even vacancy, the dominant mood of international fame in the 1970s and early to mid-1980s.

Celebrity was a serious business, as the images of Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Dennis Hopper, Liza Minnelli, Debbie Harry, Joseph Beuys, and a host of others amply demonstrate. It was enough for Andy simply to ask the great Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev the colour of his eyes to bring to an abrupt close that brittle encounter between two frightened homosexual men, each fiercely protective of his public persona, each wary of intrusion. Upon both was impressed the importance of staging a meeting for the benefit of Interview. It was neither sought nor even desired by either. Not surprisingly, it did not work.

Against the conventional line on fame and celebrity that is generally adopted in relation to portrait encounters such as these, it is worth pointing out from the vantage point of 2007 that many of Andy’s subjects were famous for good reasons, as anyone who was lucky enough to witness performances in their heyday by Marilyn Monroe, Bobby Short, Liza Minnelli, Mick Jagger, or even Elizabeth Taylor, now so unfortunately overshadowed by the memory of terrible later roles, will gladly attest. In the depressing moment of Posh, Becks, Britney, JLo, Anna Nicole, and Paris (who happens to be the granddaughter of Elizabeth Taylor’s first ex-husband), Warhol’s pantheon takes on considerable weight.

Finally, a cursory glance at the multi-volume catalogue of the estate sale of April–May 1988, which followed Andy’s sudden death in the New York Hospital on February 22, 1987, an awful consequence of medical malpractice in connection with routine gallbladder surgery, further suggests a measure of private preoccupation with smile imagery: from the cover lot in the sale of his contemporary art collection, Roy Lichtenstein’s tondo
Laughing Cat, 1961; through the remarkable collection of American Indian Tlingit ceremonial dance blankets, with their bared-teeth mask motifs; the grotesque figure of Punch by the folk artist “[New] Jersey Jim” Campbell, c. 1870–80; a terrible 1963 portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy by Norman Rockwell; to the enormous collection of “down-home” cookie jars—thirty-seven lots comprizing 164 objects, most of them cheerfully anthropomorphic, and grinning from ear to ear.

As if to underline the point that the smile itself, a fleeting phenomenon in time, inherently resists static portrayal, in 1972 Claude Picasso asked Andy why he collected cookie jars so voraciously. “Andy whispered back, hiding a naughty-little-boy’s smile, ‘They’re time pieces’.” In the circumstances, it is hugely suggestive that at the end of his life Andy Warhol owned no fewer than 286 wrist-watches, while his “time capsules” are only beginning to see the light of day.

No comments:

Post a Comment