the art of ballOOn-painting

by uwe kurz

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

born: 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
died: 1987 in New York


Andy WarholPractically from the beginning, standardization was the subject of Andy Warhol's art. In 1962 he transferred banknotes, soup cans, match covers, paint-by-numbers paintings, and celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to canvas, and rapidly became the quintessential Pop Artist. In his hand-painted works Warhol usually limited himself to reproducing banal things from the commercial realm.
   Yet it is remarkable how often he showed traces of human use of these things: the dollar bills wrinkled, the matchbook (as in the version in the Museum Ludwig, Cologne) with scratch marks on the sandpaper striking surface, the paint-by-numbers landscape partially filled in. Warhol quite faithfully reproduced his chosen motifs, without alienating them, except as regards enlargement. He seemed to have a sympathetic attitude to such trivial everyday things. Even the dubious activity of producing an oil painting by matching premixed, numbered paints to the numbers printed on a canvas board - entailing a suffocation of creativity, if not the end of art per se - turned in Warhol's hands into a landscape that is not without its charm and humor.
    In the case of his silkscreen works we are confronted with an entirely different world. Repetition lends the banal motifs an anonymous and somehow threatening character. They become less real, as if the artist had consciously placed them at a farther remove from reality. When we compare the color schemes of the hand-painted imagery with those of the serigraph-printed canvases, we see that the colars in the matchbook and the landscape are bright, warm, and saturated, while those afthe silkscreens seem coal, faded, and without body. Form is no longer determined by colour; rather, the form appears to dissolve in the translucency of the colour. Whether you take the pale green of the doilar bills or the theatrical red merging into cloying pink of the Race Riot, the colour heightens the unreality of the image, which now is no longer depicted from reality or nature but is based on a reproduction, and thus can be considered a »second-hand reality« at best.
    The perversion of human values in a mechanized world is implied particularly in the portraits Warhol began making after he adopted the serigraph technique. All af these were based on photographs, usually made for public-relations purposes, and the printing method only served to heighten the cool, impersonal, idol-like character of the person represented. Warhol's silver Two Elvis shows no flesh-and-blood human being but the product of a commercialized society. A series of motifs related to violence and death began with 129 Die in Jet, a canvas that was still painted freehand. The newspaper article describes the death of 129 American tourists as a result of a plane crash at Paris-Orly. The huge, blatant headline and the word »Final« which cold-bioodedly bracket the illustration contrast to its painted rendering, whose mood of despair and hopelessness recalls the Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. By comparison, the serigraph work Red Race Riot resists emotional empathy despite the equally disturbing nature of the event depicted. The image, based on two newspaper photos of a police action against black demonstrators, is composed like a film sequence. Yet there is no political statement implied. As Susan Sontag said, pictures consume reality; the more often one is confronted with pictures, the less real the event concerned appears. It is precisely this loss of reality that Warhol addresses in his oeuvre.


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Andy Warhol:
Rorschach Paintings


by Mia Fineman


Andy Warhol's Rorschach paintings, produced in a giant spurt of activity in 1984, have the kind of star quality that Warhol always admired. Liquid, protean and seductively vacant, they reflect your own desires and fantasies right back at you. Conceived in the spirit of superstar Nico's beguiling promise (»I'll be your mirror«), these pictures will be whatever you want them to be.
    The entire series of Rorschach paintings, many of which have never been shown before, were put on view in a massive show at both Gagosian in Soho and up on Madison Avenue. There are 38 paintings at the uptown venue-upstairs are medium-sized symmetrical black stains on bright white backgrounds, while downstairs are smaller works, including a wall of paintings made with multicolored, butterfly-like blots in gaudy tones of pink, yellow, sea-green, violet and cobalt blue. Seven huge canvases, each about 10 by 14 feet, fill the lofty downtown space, including two on the west wall composed of glitzy gold blots that verge into the brash decorative register of rococo wallpaper. But many of the paintings-especially the large ones-have a queer sort of carnal presence. Aside from the undeniably genital imagery, the symmetrical networks of thick, syrupy veins of paint left behind by Warhol's pour-and-fold technique conjure up the fleshy physicality of lungs or kidneys.
    Hermann Rorschach, the Swiss psychiatrist, who invented the eponymous test, was himself a frustrated artist whose high school buddies prophetically nicknamed him Klecks, meaning »inkblot,« because of his interest in sketching. In a real Rorschach Test, a patient is asked to describe what he sees in ten standardized blots-some black and gray, others with patches of color. Trained professionals then measure the responses against a set of established norms, interpreting the interpretations to unearth dark secrets about the subject's personality, intelligence and sexual proclivities.
    Although Warhol professed ignorance about the standardized blots of the official Rorschach Test, he was obviously intrigued 
by their serial repetitiveness and formulaic impersonality. In his brilliant faux-naive deadpan, he explained:

I was trying to do these to actually read into them and write about them, but I never really had the time to do that. So I was going to hire somebody to read into them, to pretend that it was me, so that they'd be a little more...interesting. Because all I would see would be a dog's face or something like a tree or a bird or a flower. Somebody else could see a lot more.

Warhol never actually got around to hiring an analytical ghost-writer, but Gagosian managed to snag critic extraordinaire Rosalind Krauss to say something interesting about the paintings. In her rather highbrow catalogue essay, Krauss reads the Rorschach series as a »parodic vision of Color Field abstraction,« as a sassy corruption of the »stain painting« practiced by Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. If the Color Field painters wanted to transcend the carnal messiness of Abstract Expressionism, to move painting into the disembodied realm of pure opticality, as Krauss says, then Warhol »pulled the plug« on these sublime aspirations by reminding us that there's no form so innocently abstract that it can't be turned back into literary content-like a tree or a bird or a flower.
    And it's true-these are abstract paintings without the heavy air of cryptic obscurity and vague profundity that hangs around a lot of abstract art. There's a democratic, do-it-yourself quality to the Rorschach paintings: you can read whatever you want into them, there are no wrong answers. Go see the show when you're a little tired, when you're defenses are down, when you need to sort out and discard some of the odd junk lying around between your ears. That's what I did, and this is what I saw: a blooming iris; a solar plexus; a sinister jack-in-the-box; Jimmy Durante's nose; a couple of flamenco dancers in a bowl of Cheerios; a schematic portrait of Groucho Marx; a pouncing black cat; the Lone Ranger with a bad skin disease; a grimacing clown's face; a startled elephant; twin fetuses with coiled tails; a grizzly bear with hishead lodged in a guillotine; a mutant Mickey Mouse licking his own tail; two facing seahorses kissing a penis; a vampire bat swooping down over a headless male nude; a giant insect crawling up a wall and extruding a rooster-shaped turd; an atom bomb exploding over the man in the moon.

Any further analysis is best left to trained professionals.

MIA FINEMAN is a New York writer.


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