Andy Warhol’s “Before and After” (1961) at MoMA (via David Seguin’s Google+ page)

In his essay “Cool: Roy Lichtenstein & Andy Warhol,” (The New York Review of Book, June 21, 2012) – one of the best things on these two artists that I have read in a very long time – Martin Filler recounted the first time, “late in 1961,” that Leo Castelli, the period’s most important dealer, went to the “Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse-cum-studio of Andy Warhol.” Years later, as Filler writes, Warhol “recalled his crushing disappointment when Castelli coolly told him, ‘Well, it’s unfortunate, the timing, because I just took on Roy Lichtenstein, and the two of you in the same gallery would collide.’”

At the time, unbeknownst to each other, both Lichtenstein and Warhol were working on paintings based on cartoon characters. In Lichtenstein’s case, it was Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, lovable bundles of centrifugal energy. In Warhol’s case, it was Superman and Popeye, virginal males who could change themselves into forces of nature.  (Bruce Lee, who is de-sexed just enough to make him palatable to Western audiences, is the Chinese counterpart to this model).

Lichtenstein and Warhol might have been using the same source material, but they were hardly after the same things, as the latter’s subsequent work would quickly make clear.

Filler’s article got me thinking once again about the three versions of the painting “Before and After” that Warhol did between 1960 and ’62, each a more graphically tight version of the original source, a newspaper ad for plastic surgery.

I was also reminded of an observation about Warhol that Hal Foster made in POP (Phaidon, 2005):

“‘I want to be a machine‘ is a famous utterance of Warhol and it is usually taken to confirm the blankness of the artist and art alike. But it might point less to a blank subject than a shocked one, who takes on what shocks him as a defense against this same shock. ‘ Someone said my life dominates me, ‘Warhol told Gene Simpson in an important interview of 1963. ‘I liked that idea.” In this conversation Warhol claims to have had the same lunch every day for the past twenty years (what else but Campbell’s soup?). Together, then, the two statements suggest a strategy of pre-emptive embrace of the very compulsive repetition that a consumerist society demands of us all. If you can’t beat it, Warhol implies, join it; more, if you enter it totally, you might expose it; you might reveal its enforced automatism through your own excessive example.”

(Foster believes the individual is confronted with two choices, either trying to “beat” the capitalist system and failing, or joining it in a way that is all-consuming. Here, I must demur because this model presumes these are the only choices, and that they are available to everyone.)

*   *   *

“Before and After” is about ethnicity. The subtext is that if you have the right amount of money, you will be able to erase any telltale signs of your origins — your Semitic nose, for example — and join white, privileged society. Warhol believes in assimilation. All you need to do to join is remove the overt markers of difference that stand between you and the idealized other, the white god or goddess you worship and want to become. In order to join, you must have enough money to pay the membership dues. (Is this the reason why so many people consider Warhol the quintessential American artist?)

One reason Warhol might have wanted to become a machine is because it must have been painful to have been Andy Warhol, who was extremely shy, sensitive, gay and the offspring of poor immigrants. When he was a child, he sent notes to the child actress Shirley Temple, and later in life he came to view Hollywood as the place where you could change your name and get rid of your past. As Filler writes, Warhol had a “deep-seated obsession, from childhood onward, with celebrity and publicity that he developed from precocious juvenilia — tracings of movie star advertising endorsements and the like — to the mesmerizing images he created in the early Sixties of megastars such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elvis Presley … ”

* * *

Warhol’s arc travels from painting superheroes (ordinary looking men who can transform themselves into all powerful alter-egos), to copying an ad for plastic surgery (acceptance through changed appearance), to depicting movie stars (whose appearance became their brand) based on publicity shots and other photographic sources.

The ideal of beauty and his inability to possess it dominated Warhol’s life. This doesn’t mean he never tried to attain it for himself: In his twenties, he had plastic surgery and began wearing a silver wig. He wasn’t being ironic. In his portraits of movie actresses, he is both obsequious and full of rage — a little too much lipstick and a little too much eyeliner are his trademark signs.

*   *   *

Warhol knew that in order to join — to gain further celebrity and publicity — he would have to ingratiate himself with niche markets as well as targeted audiences. In the 1980s, he did many sets of prints, including “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century”(1980) and “Cowboys and Indians” (1986), which contain images of Franz Kafka, Golda Meir, the Marx Brothers, John Wayne, Geronimo, Teddy Roosevelt, a Plains Indian shield and an Indian Head nickel.

In her essay “The Prints of Andy Wahol, which appeared in The Prints of Andy Warhol (Flammarion, 1990), Riva Castleman wrote: in “a series called “Cowboys and Indians,” [Warhol] portrayed nothing less than the universal view of America’s once enchanted and powerful past.” Following Castleman’s Hollywood-cum Disneyland view, it is no wonder that Warhol didn’t do a series titled “Ten Famous Chinese Laundry Men” or “Ten Famous Negro Seamstresses.”

*   *   *

This happened in the days before James Frey. During the mid-1950s, while Warhol was working as a commercial artist in New York, he printed up a folder to accompany a promotional gift he made for one of his clients. Its gold-stamped text stated boldly: “This Vanity Fair Butterfly Holder was designed for you by Andy Warhol, whose paintings are exhibited in many leading museum and contemporary galleries.”

 *   *   *

In his seminal essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire characterized the kind of dress-up painting he despised — Ingres is his example — as being engaged with the “despotic perfecting process” (improving the sitter’s looks), which is “borrowed from the store of classical ideals.”

Is Warhol a “painter of modern life” or a painter of stars (America’s substitute for royalty)? Is he forward-thinking or reactionary or, in my opinion, both? I don’t think the question has been settled.

The domain of flattery, which Warhol occupies, is a postwar tradition defined and occupied largely by men. Alice Neel, Sylvia Sleigh, Joan Semmel, Catherine Murphy and Ellen Altfest have quietly defined a different, largely unacknowledged realm of non-flatterers, which isn’t the same as being unflattering.

Filler gets it right when he states: “Lichtenstein’s sobbing, tear-stained gals seem trapped in some hermetic space where they exist, as one of his dealers observed. ‘untouched and untouchable.’” Perhaps it is time to reconsider what it means to have been a Cool Artist in the 1960s, and think about the women of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and even Alex Katz. In the hands of these men, style is the plastic surgeon’s cosmetic scalpel turned into silkscreen and paintbrush.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...