Warhol: Empty, Critical, or Optimistic? Pt 1.

Numerous Christians think modern and contemporary art is worth very little. But I’m not convinced this has to be. I’m also not as convinced as many that this type of art is inherently acidic and detrimental to a society. Granted, some pieces of art are not worth reflecting on. But, to throw everything out is also unhelpful. I think a lighter-handed approach is needed; this is far more difficult than standing in opposition to the entire movement, especially if you’re not trained in art. But this doesn’t mean you can never understand modern/contemporary art; it just takes hard work.

It seems as though the Christian’s job in this field is to wade in, bring order to chaos, and help interpret pieces of artwork as true to the artists’ intention as possible while also pointing to the deeper connections beyond the art itself. I’m going to attempt to demonstrate this with the artwork of Andy Warhol. This could take an entire book. I’m  attempting to do it in two blogs. I also have no formal training, so my thoughts are by no means authoritative, nor are they the only interpretation of Warhol’s work. This is one interpretation, but I think it’s a feasible one. And even if you decide to do your own research and come to the conclusion I’m wrong, notice that you have done what my main point is: you’ve interacted with pop art rather than dismissed it.

A more popular interpretation of Warhol is that he was an opportunist who emptily did things without reason. This interpretation points to quotes of Warhol such as “I’m a deeply superficial person,” and “If you want to know about Andy Warhol, just look at the surfaces of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” On the surface, these do seem to imply a sort of empty-headed motivation for Warhol. Another interpretation is to think that when Warhol said he liked everything, he meant it. Or when he said everything was great, he meant that, too. This interpretation says “. . . that’s Warhol’s message, that’s what he’s been saying all along: Here is the modern world – and it’s great.”

I think these are an overly simplistic view or a simplistically positive view, respectively. The former view doesn’t take into account such things as his deeply held religious beliefs; the latter doesn’t take into account some of his darker work, such as the death series. Neither of these views seems to fit the entirety of his work and an aspect of his personal life. I’ll now try to interpret his work differently from both of these, and I’m hoping to give a more accurate view.

Since Warhol had such a vast amount of work, I am going to interact only with two of his works. In part 2, I will interact with his Marilyn paintings. Below is the example of his diptychs of Troy Donahue, a celebrity of the 1960’s.

TroyAuto 62-Troy-s Troy

The picture on the left is the original, the pictures on the right are the Warhol versions; both are close-ups of this painting. Warhol reproduced the image of Donahue numerous times on one canvas. None of these were hand-painted. This is important. Warhol used a method known as silk-screen printing. To do this, the artist places a stencil (in this case, a stencil of a photo) into a piece of silk, then uses a squeegee to drag paint over the silk, depositing ink onto a canvas underneath. This allows for miss-printing at times, as the ink of two different stencils don’t line up. This is a highly mechanical process, with the artist not leaving his touch on the canvas.

How the mechanical process (such as pictures being reproduced in magazines) affects an image is a central element to allot of Warhol’s work. Notice that the image becomes smudged in places. The mechanical process is ok when applied to things like soup cans (which Warhol also did); but even in that context it pointed out that mechanical reproduction reduced what it touched to less than it once was.

But something dark and tragic happens when this process is applied to a human (similar to how Charlie Chaplin represented a mechanistic workplace in his film Modern Times). We lose the ability to relate to Troy Donahue as a person when he is reproduced in this fashion. But, when a newspaper or magazine reproduces an image, it is a better reproduction, so we don’t notice what it has done to him, or how it has affected the way we see him. In essence, Warhol has made a potentially damaging medium become non-transparent; we can see how this affects the humanity of Troy Donahue. He becomes distorted as the process continues. This only becomes more painful with Warhol’s Marilyn paintings, as we’ll explore in the next blog.

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