When Pop Art Gets Critical: Andy Warhol

I used to dismiss Andy Warhol as “shallow”–that is, until I dug a little deeper and discovered the underlying coherence of his work. Warhol’s two most famous pieces, the Marilyns and the Campbell’s Soup Cans, highlight the persistent theme of his body of work: the dehumanizing effects of media.  He didn’t target pundits; his critique was that mechanistic production and proliferation of an image erodes its meaning and value.  In other words, if you see something enough times it doesn’t matter or mean anything to you anymore.

The Marilyns are the first and most famous of Warhol’s Celebrity series.  They are silk screened prints on canvases, the same image but different colors each time.  Warhol chose silk screening because it was mechanistic rather than personal.  These screens could create hundreds of nearly identical prints if maintained well, but he was more interested in the machine-like process than the mass of products it could produce.  He allowed the silkscreens degrade with use, meaning that each successive image was slightly more garbled than the one before, culminating in blocks of color that can barely be recognized as a face.  The result?  A mechanism that, when repeated, resulted in eventual loss of meaning.  That’s the basic process, but that doesn’t explain the subject matter.

Why celebrities?  Same idea: images of celebrities are so pervasive that they destroy our notion of the celebrity as a person; the human is replaced by a photo increasingly detached from the reality of their humanness, reflecting instead a projected persona.  Why Marylin?  Because she was destroyed by the machine.  Warhol developed the process before he chose the subject; when asked why he used Marylin, he answered that he “got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face” from the news of her recent suicide.  The images he created only recapped what had happened in her life: meaning was destroyed by mechanistic production.  Other celebrities in the series include Elvis Presley, Jackie Onassis, Michael Jackson, and Mao Tse-Tung, among others.

The Campbell’s Soup Cans are another approach to the same issue.  He painted a vast series of cans, each a little different from any other, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly.  As he made them he paid close attention to their differences, and if you were to examine each can individually, you would see the subtleties.  But you see dozens of cans at once, and however intricate each one might be, all you see is a bunch of identical cans.  Warhol repeated this process with other prolific objects, like dollar bills and Coca-Cola bottles.  Asked why he painted such repetitiously mundane material, he answered  “I just paint things I always thought were beautiful . . . things you use every day and never think about.” (quoted in Victor Bockirs’ book The Life and Death of Andy Warhol)  One image, or one object can be interesting, unique, and beautiful.  Hundreds can only be a stack of something, whether it’s a stack of cans or a stack of pretty pictures.

Was Warhol’s critique limited to the culture’s treatment of pictures?  I doubt it.  ‘Image’ can be understood in many ways; broadly defined, celebrities, archetypes, heroes and leaders are all images.   The fact that he applied the mechanistic process to pictures is interesting, but I think the real impact lies in his selection of subjects.  Mao Tse-Tung, Marylin Monroe, soup cans, coke bottles, car wrecks.  What do these things have in common?  That we know, and don’t really care.  That we have seen them too often to actually perceive them anymore; that proliferation has annihilated meaning.

Warhol aimed to draw attention to the mechanism by imitating and parodying it.  He called his studio ‘The Factory’.  He set up assembly lines.  He insisted that “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine.”  The very absurdity of embracing dehumanization was his social critique.  The tragedy is that no one noticed.

Think about it.  Where have you seen Warhol’s art?  Have you seen the originals?  Probably not.  Most likely you’ve seen posters, T-shirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, calendars, neckties, purses, you name it, mechanically emblazoned with the images Andy created.  This time, there is no human pretending to be a machine- it’s actually pure machinery.  This time, the images do not critique mechanization- they have been subsumed by it.

Minimalist Contemplation

“I once taught art to adults in a night course. I had a woman who painted her back yard, and she said it was the first time she had ever really looked at it. I think everyone sees beauty. Art is a way to respond.”
—Agnes Martin

As a painter, I understand a number of paintings more readily than most museum visitors. Yet there are still some that are challenging to appreciate. I’ll be honest: Agnes Martin’s work is hard for me to access. She paints and draws in a minimalist style, invoking meditation, repetition, and concepts of the infinite. I’ve never been very good at meditation, but I think that we miss something if we dismiss challenging pieces without trying to understand them. So bear with me while I relay to you the results of my grappling with Martin’s painting, ‘Leaf in the Wind‘ (graphite and acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 72″, 1963).

'Leaf in the Wind', Agnes Martin

The 1950s-70s were a period in art history steeped in theory. Many artists wrote to explain their theory of art, or to provide a frame of reference for the viewer. While she does not present a robust philosophy of aesthetics, Agnes Martin’s writings and comments are still helpful as a starting point. Her work is clearly non-representational; she means for it to evoke a response, not to image some foreign object or setting. When questioned about her work, Martin explained,

“When people go to the ocean, they like to see it all day. . . . There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall. It’s a simple experience, you become lighter and lighter in weight, and you wouldn’t want anything else. Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my painting. Nature is like a curtain; you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this. . . . Not a specific response but that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature– an experience of simple joy. . . the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”

Detail of the graphite grid

Seeing Leaf in the Wind is a carefully controlled experience. You cannot look at it from across the room: the lines melt away, and all you behold is a blank white square. It is difficult to view it just inches away: you see the ridges of brush marks, the erasures, the unevenness in the pencil lines–but you cannot see the whole image. To actually see the whole piece, you have to stand between one foot and five feet back. Within this narrow window you may move around, examining the workmanship. Seven feet back the image begins to blur; if you have already seen it, you can meditate on the piece from this distance. The piece is difficult to photograph; it demands your physical presence.

Why is it white? Because of the purity and humility of the color. White is unassuming. Why is the grid drawn in with pencil? Because of the shimmering and fragile quality of a graphite line. Why is it a grid? Definitely not because grids are systematic, removed, or in any way mechanistic. Martin clearly uses a ruler, but just as clearly draws every line by hand, leaving them wavering slightly, sometimes not quite straight, sometimes drawn in and erased again where the line would break the pattern of the grid. These erasures are my favorite parts of the painting- traces of the artist’s hand, carefully, thoughtfully, slowly creating the image.

Why name it ‘Leaf in the Wind’? The title certainly recommends a meditative visual experience. Have you ever watched a leaf twisting in the wind? There is a graceful repetition, a motion apparently infinite, a twisting and returning. Martin particularly liked the veins and interwoven lines visible in the back of leaves. She writes:

“The underside of the leaf, cool in shadow, sublimely unemphatic, smiling of innocence. The frailest stems quiver in light, bend and break in silence. … [T]he paintings [are] not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.”

Is the painting successful? Perhaps. I do not think it my duty to approve of everything simply because it is in a museum. After you have considered it carefully, after you have done due diligence to understand a piece, after you have seen it in person and grappled with it–if it still fails to move you, then it did not succeed. Painters with lofty aims do at times fail to achieve them. Personally, I am still unsure about Martin’s work. I am inclined to approve, but I need to spend more time in front of the painting before rendering a decision.

If you are interested in reading more about Agnes Martin, the Guggenheim has an excellent introductory page. If you want to read a more sophisticated art-critical discussion of Martin’s approach to drawing/painting, I recommend the book ‘3x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing (Hilma of Klint, Emma Kunz, Agnes Martin)‘, edited by Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher.

Paint & Portraiture: John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent may rightly be considered the king of portrait painting. He worked in a style that loosely filled in figures’ backgrounds, while carefully depicting their faces. Most of his portraits were commissions, made either for the person pictured or else someone who loved them. “Portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw”, is a case in point: commissioned by the lady’s husband, the 49″ x 49″ canvas carefully states the face, while suggesting the details of everything else.Portrait of Lady Agnew, Sargent

Sargent’s strokes are bold and fluid. Once he settled on a composition, he would practice the particular brushwork until it was perfect; only then would Sargent touch the canvas. His paintings come in and out of focus, materialize into an object and dissolve again into broad strokes of pigment. His paint application is primarily thin; these portraits read more as images of people than as recognizable swathes of paint.

However, if you look closely at the highlights of Lady Agnew’s skirt, you can see the white brushwork, unblended, sitting on top of the slightly darker white of the garment. Similarly, if you closely examine any aspect of the chair, the floral print dissolves into a series of dashed off blotches of blue and red, the buttons look like so many daubs with a dull grey paint, and the wooden edging becomes four long strokes of thin, dark paint. Look away for but a moment, and everything resolves itself again: your mind accepts the cues, and fills in all the gaps in the paint.

The sitter’s face is, naturally, the focal point of the portrait. She looks straight at us, tilting her head down slightly and raising her eyes. One eyebrow is raised interrogatively. A half-smile plays about her lips. Her expression is friendly, but bemused. Her right eye seems languid while the other challenges our gaze. Her face is difficult to read; it is complex, offering confidence and relaxation, intrigue and, perhaps, boredom. Sargent prided himself on capturing intelligent and complex expressions, and this portrait is no exception.

The similarities between the poses of this “Portrait of Lady Agnew” and Bonnard’s portrait last week are striking. Each figures a young woman in an arm chair, one arm folded into her lap, the other extended at her side, legs crossed, shoulders facing forward. Each wears a white garment, a pendant necklace, and her hair up. Both compositions emphasize a vertical axis, while offsetting it with occasional diagonal elements.

The differences between the two painters, however, could hardly be more staggering. Sargent’s pieces are show pieces: they display what can be done with a brush and pigment, and trumpet the confidence of the artist. Bonnard’s are sustained and almost timid investigations into the color and shape of particular bits of the world. Both were excellent painters, but their own attitudes towards the model and material world are embodied in their paintings. ‘

Paint & Portraiture: Pierre Bonnard

So far we’ve talked a lot about narrative paintings, compositions which are based on or tell a specific story.  For the next couple of weeks, we’ll focus more on portraiture.  Today, we’ll spend the day with Pierre Bonnard’s “Portrait of Leila Claude Anet”.  Painted in 1930, the work is a little over four feet tall, and a little under three feet wide.
Portrait of Leila
Oil paintings are traditionally painted on a neutral base, like burnt umber or grey, to prevent the bright white of an untreated canvas from interfering with the painter’s color judgments.  Bonnard’s painting, however, leaves the white of the canvas untreated.  He was a master of color, and frequently used color rather than line to show the contours and movements of forms.

Ah, the careful color web in which he traced his subject.  Paint applied so thin it was translucent.  This is why he used a white background–his paintings are liquid color shining through to the white base.  His subject in this painting is a young woman with a level gaze, legs crossed, in a white blouse and blue striped skirt.

It is primarily a composition in blue and orange, but not without some red and purple hues.  He left the canvas primer exposed to speak for her blouse in the light, laying thick paint in pale tones to mention its curves in the shadows.  (And such tones!  Zoom in on her stomach: there is green, blue, pink, mauve, grey, and even some brown.)

Her face is textured, heavily worked over, mostly orange.  A cool green marks where the left edge of her brow shifts glancingly away from the light.  The bridge of her nose is the sole feature marked out in crisp outline– carved by a thin but precise line of white.

The rest of the paint is so thin, and so lightly applied, that Bonnard’s loose sketch in pencil shows through.  It is no more anatomically or geometrically correct than the painting.  That, of course, was never the point of this portrait.  An image can represent its subject in ways never dreamt by a mirror; why should it always imitate one?

Bonnard works at the intersection of watercolor and oil; he updates John Singer Sargent with a humble and meek daubing of paint.  The lighting is simple: a single warm source from the upper right, somewhere above the sitter’s head.  It casts a shadow on the left side of her face, and her head casts a small shadow on her shoulders.  The chair’s colors change to blue and orange where it is hit by the light, retreating to red, brown and purple in shadow.

Typical of Bonnard’s work, the sitter’s head is delicately painted, a touch too small, and the jaws undefined.  It seems vulnerable and lost, but simultaneously grounds the whole composition with its steady gaze and built up texture.

Sargent, too, painted loosely all the surroundings of the sitter, reserving the fixed detail work for the head.  For him the fluid brushwork was a musician’s flawless performance, to be rehearsed until the final gesture appeared effortless as it suggested the turn of an arm, a twist of silk, or the recesses of a shadow.  All these strokes, however magnificent, were only stage and set for the real star, the head.  These were carefully built up, and polished to an insane finish.  We’ll look at Sargent next week.

Bonnard eschews polish.  For him, paint is still paint, not a glittering window to a second world.  More still, the edges are clearly diluted paint- visible strokes and scumbling.  The gaze, which in Sargent is always so direct, is deferred or obscured in Bonnard.  you know where the eyes are by where the shadows fall, but you can’t quite make contact.  The sitter looks forever just past you, in an ephemeral world always coming into being and simultaneously about to dissolve.  In short, in a world not unlike our own.

Fear of the Elements: Tsunamis, Typhoons, and Turner

Recent tsunami warnings in Hawaii brought to mind a powerful painting by JMW Turner. He was a good painter, but not gifted with pithy titles. Proof? This one’s named: ‘Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—typhon coming on.’ He didn’t misspell ‘typhoon'; that’s just how the English spelled the word back in 1840.

Let’s start with the basics. The painting is oil on canvas, approximately 3 feet high and 4.5 feet wide. At that size, your computer monitor simply can’t do it justice; if you’re ever in Boston, visit the Museum of Fine Arts and see it in person. Its surface is heavily textured by thick paint application, primarily in the lighter-colored areas. The color palette is reminiscent of sunset–in fact, at first glance only the troubled shock of blue on the left suggests that this is not a peaceful scene.

Click on the image to see it larger

Subject Matter

Now look a little more carefully at what Turner painted. The top half of the painting depicts an evening sky with a storm moving in from the left. Close to the center, the sun sets while a ship with all sails furled (except the jib) heads toward the coming storm.

Below the ship, we can make out several birds, some white capped waves, and what appears to be human hands. The image in the bottom right corner is gruesome: a chained foot thrashes in the midst of a dense crowd of apparently ravenous fish or sharks, accompanied by a few more gulls. The skintones, chains, and title of the piece identify the unfortunate humans as slaves-in-transit, tossed to lighten the ship as it faces a typhoon.

Composition: Spectacle of Action

The sharpest color contrast–a red-orange abutting a light blue–occurs at the left edge, suggesting the typhoon’s violence. It also draws the eye to the ship, the only feature the described with precise, sharp angled lines. From there the eye is drawn to a tension between two whites: the vertical setting sun, and a whitecap below the hull. Following the sun, we are plunged into the ocean by the red-orange streak that marks the sunset’s reflection. Here, tossed and jostled, our progress is arrested by several hands thrusting up from below the water’s surface. The eye drifts right, discerning with ease the ungodly marine feast on human flesh.

This corner (bottom right) is a gripping horror; a macabre spectacle that magnetically draws the eyes to its presence. Turner links this horror to the ship by painting each with a clarity and detail not seen elsewhere in the image. You both know and viscerally feel that the fleeing ship is responsible for the awful deaths in the lower right corner.

Metaphors: Red as Guilt

At this point you’ve looked more carefully at this painting than most who see it in person, but there is more. The way a painter depicts a subject is not accidental. Especially in oil paintings at museums, it’s a good bet that every mark has meaning: artists whose pieces find their ways to a museum don’t mistakenly toss colors and strokes around a canvas.

Here’s a good question: why is Turner’s painting so very red? It certainly didn’t have to be. First off, it’s a seascape–those are usually blue. Second, Turner didn’t have to make the typhoon red; usually they are depicted just as darker clouds.

As a color, red-orange suggests anger, danger, passion, fire or destruction, even guilt. Physically, it raises anxiety levels by causing tension in the viewer’s retina, an effect is amplified by the presence of its complement, blue-green. The redness condemns the action, depicting it as a bloody and guilty business. The title claims that those thrown overboard were already ‘dead and dying’, but the painting does not therefore excuse the slavers. Rather, it asserts the victims’ humanity, shows their desperation, and condemns those responsible.

Historical or Art-Critical Background

The image is easily read as anti-slave trade–the title can be as well. It comes from an unpublished poem, ‘Fallacies of Hope’, which hung alongside Turner’s painting when first displayed:

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying–ne’er heed their chains.
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?

Obviously the image’s overt content supports the abolitionist movement. Yet the painting is concerned not just with the hopelessness of the slave’s condition, but with the poverty of the human condition. Terror permeates the painting as the weak are tossed overboard in the crew’s desperate attempts to prepare to face the elements. While grasping hands express the agonies of the slaves under water, those still on board the vessel are far from safe. They sail into the oncoming typhoon, with uncertain results.

The horrific practices of the slave trade are a far cry from the conditions in Hawaii.  Still, Turner’s painting is an eloquent statement of human helplessness and terror in the face of the elements. ‘