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.