Johns and Warhol (Again)
In recapitulating the death of painting, as well as further buttressing their assumptions as to what constitutes vanguard art, critics often construct a narrative bracketed by the dates 1958 and 1962, from the year that Jasper Johns first showed his hand-painted encaustic “flags” and “targets” at Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, to the year that Andy Warhol stopped painting and began using silkscreens for the majority of his output. Based on a model of progress that espouses the need for each generation to make significant formal advances over the previous generation’s achievements, the “death of painting” narrative advances the view that an epochal shift was completed when Warhol’s machine-made paintings superseded Johns’s reliance on painting by hand. According to this viewpoint, Johns’s early encaustic paintings are seen as forming a crucial bridge between the spontaneous marks and turbulent surfaces of the Abstract Expressionists (Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning) and the ready-made compositions and impassive surfaces of the Pop artists (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist). To further support the argument that Johns didn’t completely shed an old-fashioned standard, while Warhol embodied the future, critics define the former’s art as hermetic and elitist, further tying it to Abstract Expressionism, and the latter’s as immediately legible and democratic, pointing directly to the present and artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Elizabeth Peyton.
Valorizing Warhol’s legibility tilts art toward the marketplace, which thrives on consumerism, as well as marks the initial triumph of content over form. By form, I am referring to the means by which an artwork gets made. In Warhol’s case, the silkscreen process enabled him or someone he directed to enlarge and transfer a photographic image onto a canvas; it was an efficient and easy means of production and, in that regard, an extension of capitalism into fine art studio practice. In retrospect, Warhol’s elevation of content over form can be read as the beginning of the reversal of form over content, which was how formalist critics characterized Jackson Pollock’s breakthrough poured paintings (1947 – 1951), and those of the artists he influenced, Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler, for example.
By emphasizing the importance of content over form, critics were able to replace the model of what they called heroic or elitist art (anything having to do with an individual making a painting, and thus using craft) with the paradigm of “institutional critique” and efficient production, as well as preside over what constituted the correct approach. It was only a matter of time before a critic, in this case Benjamin Buchloh, was able to theorize this reversal in accordance with his Marxist principles. By introducing the term “de-skilling” into the critical discourse, which emphasizes legible, politically-oriented content, Buchloh was able to further denounce form (any kind of craft), which he saw as being unequivocally bourgeois and obsolete.1 Again, Johns is seen as a bridge between the obscure, high art content of the Abstract Expressionists and the populist art, mass media-derived images of the Pop artists.
The mainstream validation of the widespread use of legible images derived from the mass media and disseminated through mechanical (photography, video, and film) or ephemeral (performance) means is evident in the recent exhibition Pictures Generation 1974 – 1984 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 21, 2009 – August 2, 2009). Named after an exhibition at Artist’s Space (1977), which was originally organized by Douglas Crimp, the museum’s photography curator Douglas Eklund not only appropriated the title and left out an artist who was in the original show (Phil Smith), but he also argued that this generation proved that “appropriation was the only game left.” (Smith’s sin is that, in addition to drawing and painting, he doesn’t appropriate in the accepted manner.) As Ecklund all but declared, the “death of the author” is a fait accompli and, as Crimp stated in the essay which he revised and reprinted in October, vanguard art relies on the “processes of quotation, excerptation, framing, and staging,” and that “underneath each picture there is always another picture.” The origin of this, of course, is Warhol’s use of mass media images and his oft-stated desire to become a machine. It is his easily imitated process that is regarded by influential historians as being central to vanguard art.
What is common to both Johns and Warhol is their use of ready-made subjects, which appear to eliminate certain choices from the artist’s control. The American flag and Campbell’s soup cans are said to signify a withdrawal on the artist’s part, implicitly acknowledging that painting cannot address the post-Holocaust world. This withdrawal can be read as impassive and stony (Johns) or passive and machine-like (Warhol), as well as suggest that creativity has been awarded a reduced role. This follows the reductive approach taken by Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman, in which nearly everything seems to have been left out of a painting, as well as the commonplace that modern society, particularly as it is relentlessly disseminated by mass media, is too much with us, exceeding traditional painting’s ability to address it. In his machine-like passivity, Warhol seems to have found an efficient way to put everything back into a painting, albeit one that is machine-made and reproducible.
“Somebody said my life has dominated me,” Warhol stated in a 1963 interview with Gene Swenson. “I liked that idea.” This is how Hal Foster understood Warhol’s remark: “If you can’t beat it, join it; more, if you enter it totally, you might expose it; you might reveal its enforced automatism through your own excessive example. Deployed critically by the Dadaists vis-à-vis the military-industrial catastrophe of World War I, this strategy of ‘capitalist nihilism’ was performed ambiguously by Warhol vis-à-vis Cold War consumerism after World War II.” 2 Conscious of the implications of his interpretation, this is what Foster states in his footnote to the previous observation: “Cynical artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have since exhausted it vis-à-vis our own hyperconsumer-ist moment.” Whereas Foster sees Warhol’s excessiveness as innovative and disturbing, he assesses the excesses of Koons and Hirst’s work as empty gestures that fail to expose the dark side of our “hyperconsumer-ist moment.”3 Warhol represents a culmination which, in Fosters’s eyes, Koons and Hirst do not supersede.
The critical failure of well-known, media-celebrated artists doesn’t, however, deter the inexorable narrative of progress. According to Nancy Spector, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Guggenheim Museum, the next epochal step after painting’s death is best exemplified by Tino Seghal’s questioning of the “false hierarchy between the actual event and what becomes a substitute for that event.”4 Paintings, sculptures, photographs, and even film and video, for that matter, are thereby reduced to nothing more than souvenirs, palpable signs of capitalist acquisition and hoarding.
In Spector’s view, Seghal’s project, which consists of a set of instructions (choreographed “situations”) that is sold to museums for huge sums of money, is about “finding a way to make something that is inherently ephemeral, repeatable, commodifiable, collectible, preservable.” Spector’s observations advance the idea that, along with being commodifiable, advanced art must be immaterial, immediate, and interactive because art is no longer capable of creating a space for reflection and contemplation. Currently, as demarcated by the Tino Seghal show in the winter of 2010, the ideal artwork exists as virtual entity that needs to be perfected by subsequent versions. Over the past 50 years, we have progressed from hand-painted objects to machine-made paintings to objectless art, and from art that was all on the surface to a world without interiority. This narrative is marked by its dismissal of things, which critics equate with capitalism, but, curiously enough, not the body, which, from a Marxist perspective, is presumably the source of all labor.
Spector’s remarks make it abundantly clear that Foster is not alone in tying an artist’s work to a particular analysis of the historical moment, in order to determine the relevance of his or her accomplishment. By elevating technical innovation above every other consideration, narratives based on models of progress enshroud the artist’s work in a historical viewpoint, which effectively removes it from the pressures of real time. It’s as if reality no longer plays a role in contextualizing the artist’s intention, success, or failure. In fact, the constant pressure of real time is seldom, if ever, acknowledged by any historical discussion, which emphasizes verifiable progress and measures time in periods, phases, and epochs.
Whatever era this now is (late modernist, postmodernist, after the death of history, globalist), it’s as if artists can make art only in relationship to art and its theory-defined circumscriptions, and that it is impossible to be concerned with things and experiences that exceed the long grasp of social conditioning. I would go further and say that while some artists consciously “join it,” others make work which, if it doesn’t explicitly expose society’s attempt to indoctrinate its citizens into the belief that sanctuary through consumerism or any other religion is possible, does go a long way toward recognizing that any promise (or premise) to elude or manipulate the pressure of real time is an illusion. Although society tries to convince its citizens otherwise, we cannot shape time. This is where capitalism and other ideologies fail. And if one of art’s purposes, starting with Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” (1862), is to expose the deceits upon which every society, out of collective necessity, is built, then it is the critic’s task to examine the different and distinct ways that certain artists expose the central illusion of a particular culture, from the marketplace to the political. I am speaking of the innumerable illusions that assert that one can preside over, escape from, or defer the passage of real time.
I believe the achievements of Johns and Warhol extend beyond the limits of a historical viewpoint, and that the deeper meaning of their work can be better understood when seen in relationship to real time, and in the way they deal with their inescapable passage from form to formlessness, how they do or do not acknowledge time’s annihilating embrace. We all live in real time, poised on the threshold of infinity, while simultaneously inhabiting a historical period. How does one scrutinize both without privileging either? By infinity I mean a vast purposeless universe that eludes comprehension, and over which no god or gods preside. Being an artist does not gain the individual sanctuary from this constantly churning chaos toward which reality is pulling us all. In the 18th century, during the rise of industrialization, the nation state, and the sovereignty of the individual, William Blake exhorted his fellow beings to “see infinity in a grain of sand.” At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, which has witnessed the continuing erosion of the individual’s sovereignty, as well as a return to tribalism and fundamentalism, I would implore us not to retreat into false securities, but to become more deeply conscious of our existence as grains of sand floating in a yawning infinity. This is what it means to exist after the death of God, which I do not equate with the death of painting.
Art can mark time, but it cannot escape, stop, alter, or shape its passage. Admitting to this state of constant vulnerability, some artists consciously and coolly face the larger situation and do not avert their eyes, while others swiftly turn away from it, seeking comforting solace in approved historical viewpoints and sanctioned goals. They want to be part of history, which in the postmodern era often means electing to become part of an academically approved narrative. I am not referring to artists who claim to make art that is timeless, timely, or transcendent—generic options full of highly predictable, empty gestures—but rather about how certain individuals conceptualize their understanding of time and make it integral to their work. How do they live in the present while acknowledging that infinity is approaching?
For the purposes of this essay, I am focusing on two works—a sculpture, “Painted Bronze (Ale cans)” by Jasper Johns and a black-and-white painting “Before and After by Andy Warhol” (both dated 1960). It is significant to my argument that both Johns’s sculpture and Warhol’s paintings consist of a pairing, and that they were made during the period regarded as leading to an epochal shift. Johns has affixed two ale cans in close proximity, while Warhol has replicated two abutted profiles of a woman from a newspaper advertisement. Both artists have selected two images, which are related but different, in order to convey change, which is a central condition of time passing.
As I will detail, the distinct perceptual narratives that are synonymous with these early yet canonical works convey a very different reading of what occurred between 1958 and 1962. Instead of locating their work within a mono-linear narrative marked by instances of historical progress, I am advancing that in response to their historical circumstances, Johns and Warhol defined two distinct paths. Johns’s path is marked by the belief that reality reveals its purposelessness through glamourless things that are most familiar to us, while Warhol’s path focuses on glamorous appearances and society’s idealization of beauty, on the goals and states that individuals must attain to gain success.
In 1960, Warhol finished a series of loose, brushy paintings of Dick Tracy, Batman, Superman, and Popeye, male figures that neither age nor have sex. Like the mythological characters in 19th century, French academic paintings by such artists as William-Adolphe Bougereau, Alexander Cabanel, and Jean-Léon Gérome, Superman and Popeye are the modern world’s ageless heroes. The difference is that unlike the profligate Jupiter (or Zeus), these comic book figures remain pure and virginal, their untarnished bodies beyond reproach.
It is also in 1960 that Warhol, having learned that Roy Lichtenstein was using comic strips as a source, changed his subject matter. Understandably, he wanted to find something that was his own. In “Advertisement” (1960), Warhol incorporated a number of images he found in a newspaper, including an ad for plastic surgery with the banner, “Before and After.” Shortly afterwards, he did the first of his paintings, focusing solely on the ad’s pairing of two graphic images of a woman’s face in profile. By 1962, he had completed three versions of “Before and After,” each a more perfect copy of what preceded it.
On the left side of “Before and After” is a woman with a large hook nose, while on the right side is the same woman with a conventionally beautiful nose. The ad’s obvious subtext is that the right amount of money enables you to effectively overcome your ethnicity, and go from being a hated outsider to a beloved insider. You can, if you have the means, “join it,” effectively cutting all ties to your past. In this regard, Warhol believes in assimilation, that by removing overt markers of difference one can become like the idealized “Other.” He also believes that you can shape time, and determine its outcome. In this regard, he is perfectly aligned with the tenets of capitalism, particularly in the manifestation of the beauty industry, which is based on the myth that one can shape time.
With the aid of plastic surgery, the woman in the ad has gone from the “before” of rejection and self-consciousness to the “after” of acceptance and self-confidence. In seeking to become a physical manifestation of what society claims is a timeless ideal, the woman has succumbed to what Charles Baudelaire, in his seminal essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” called the “despotic perfecting process,” which is “borrowed from the store of classical ideals” It is this very process to which Warhol willingly succumbs, in both his paintings and his life. As he tellingly put it: “Somebody said my life has dominated me. I liked that idea.”
Repression and the denial of time passing are central to a society’s construction and, I would advance, to understanding much American art. Is it simply coincidence that Warhol and Georgia O’Keeffe, two of America’s most treasured producers of iconic images, are repulsed by flesh’s unavoidable decay? As the French poet and critic Yves Bonnefoy pointed out, neither the “New Mexico sun nor shimmering desert horizon could free [O’Keeffe] from a horror of the flesh.” 5 She liked to depict an animal’s gleaming white skull, its empty eye sockets, against the infinite blue sky. By joining an obvious, cleaned-up, symbolic artifact of life’s fleeting nature to a timeless moment of pure blue, O’Keeffe devolves Charles Baudelaire’s groundbreaking definition of modernity as the twinning of the “eternal and the fleeting” into an easy to read sign and visual cliché.
In 1960, the same year Warhol finished the first “Before and After.” Johns finished two sculptures, both of which he titled “Painted Bronze.” The first, “Painted Bronze” (Ale cans), is a painted sculpture of two Ballantine Ale cans cast in bronze, one open and presumably empty and the other closed and most likely full, which have been screwed into a bronze base. The artist has painted the cans so that they correspond with their real-life counterparts, but do not perfectly mimic them, because they are not meant to be perfect copies. The reason they are not perfect is because Johns recognizes that reality is unstable and changing, that nothing is fixed.
Johns explained in his 1964 interview with Gene Swenson: “I am concerned with a thing’s not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment, with any moment seeing or saying and letting it go at that.” Johns recognizes that time and change are linked and inevitable, that reality is swift and fleeting. In contrast, Warhol wanted the world to be stable, and was willing to go to great lengths to convince himself that reality could be controlled. In POPism (1980), he wrote: “I don’t want it to be essentially the same—I want it to be exactly the same. Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel.”
By examining the ale cans closely—something the sculpture’s painted surface encourages—the viewer discovers they are neither exactly the same nor are the differences the result of the artist’s expressive decisions. Both are painted with the brand name and the company’s logo (three overlapping rings), but the open can on the left is slightly smaller and has the word Florida “stamped” on it, while the closed one on the right has a slightly dented rim. It is not a substitute for an event, as Nancy Spector might assert, but an alternative way of framing a common experience, which is that of someone sitting alone, drinking and passing away the time. Johns isn’t reconstructing a thing (or things, i.e., the ale cans, the way Warhol later reconstructed Brillo boxes); he is constructing his perception of a familiar activity, a thing often seen but never looked at.
In contrast to Warhol’s framing of time as having a beginning and an ending (a happy one, no less), Johns reverses the conventional understanding of time by framing it as the inseparable pairing of the after (as in after something—in this case, the can of ale—has been experienced) and the before (as in before something—the unopened can—has been experienced). No matter what we are doing, we exist between these two states. This is very different from Warhol, whose division of time into a “before” and “after,” elides a painful experience, as it points to a paradise of beauty and acceptance that awaits those who can pay their way there. Warhol reifies the existence of an attainable, timeless zone of beauty. His portraits of movie actresses are true icons, like the religious variety, where time doesn’t exist. They are about the ageless appearance of an infinitely reproducible image rather than the thing itself, whose solitary, time-bound existence ultimately registers time’s inescapable effects.
In “Painted Bronze (Ale cans),” Johns reveals his vision of time passing, which is that we live between what we have done and what we have yet to do, between birth and death. The unopened can, which will exist in its latent potential after we have gone and will not lament our demise, is dented. In Johns’s work, everything experiences time’s effects; there is no after, no paradise, no refuge or relief. We live in time and, like the dented can, are susceptible to its constant pressure.
In “Before and After,” Warhol’s assertion that you can manipulate time, particularly the future, and consequently avoid scorn and rejection, operates in the realm of social matters, which he believed are the most important aspect of our experience, with one’s appearance counting for more than anything else. Social matters mean little to Johns, who focuses on the inherent solitariness of one’s existence. His work is radical because it rejects society’s dominion over him.
By placing two cans of ale in the site reserved for art, Johns clarifies his recognition that no matter what we are doing (drinking beer or making art), we are marking time, rather than shaping it. The bond between consuming and making is revealed once we recognize that the sculpture and its material condition are synonymous. Bronze, like wax encaustic, exists in one of two states: liquid or solid. In order to make a bronze sculpture, the artist heats the metal in a fireproof container until it liquefies, and then empties the molten bronze into a mold where it hardens. Similarly, beer, which is heated in the brewing process and cooled for consumption, is also poured into a container, the can, but the outcome is different.
Despite these obvious distinctions, Johns’s recognition of bronze’s inherent material properties underscores the unbreakable bond between beer drinking (or the unbreakable cycle of consumption and waste) and art making (consumption, destruction, and creation). “Painted Bronze (Ale Cans)” does not evoke an either/or world in which one is either drinking or making art; it embodies a condition of both/and. One drinks and creates waste (it doesn’t have to be beer) and makes art. As ways of marking time, there is nothing heroic about either drinking or making art. Certainly, one can see “Painted Bronze (Ale Cans)” as a rejoinder to the generation of Abstract Expressionists and their supporters who believed in the myth of the heroic artist, but that is hardly all it is.
In Johns’s non-hierarchical vision of reality, time is passing no matter what the individual is doing, and there is no sanctuary from this condition. Johns has never lost sight of this understanding of reality. Bracketed between the after and the before, he examines the way time shapes him, even as the inspiration for his work comes from his immediate experience.
In extricating “Before and After” from “Advertisement,” Warhol registers his lifelong preoccupation with glamour and standards of beauty. This is another of the fundamental differences between him and Johns. There is something conventional about Warhol’s vision of a social domain. By focusing on beauty, which can be regarded as society’s definition of the intersection of the timeless and the timely (Baudelaire’s twinning of the “eternal and fleeting”), Warhol seemingly suppresses his awareness, even dread of time passing, and he certainly refuses to examine its effects. This is not to say that he ignored mortality; he was in fact haunted by death, which his “Death and Disaster” paintings attest to.
These paintings attempt to turn the fact of death into an unfortunate and newsworthy event that happened to others. His use of newspaper images, such as the front page of the now defunct New York Mirror (June 4, 1962); “129 Die in Jet (Plane Crash)”(1962) or the two silkscreen paintings titled “Tunafish Disaster”(both 1963), seem to be an attempt to convince himself that death happens to other people. But, as with his “Before and After” paintings, the experience that we endure as we pass from “before” to “after” is missing from the equation.
If we apply Warhol’s before and after to these and other “Death and Disaster” paintings, it is clear that the reader/viewer exists in the before, while the victims exist in the after, and the passage between the two is suppressed. While his electric chairs might be read as protests against the death penalty, they are also things which exist in the before (as in before being used) and the after (as in having just been used). Meanwhile, it registers nothing of the experience. The reader/viewer is the survivor, the one who walks away once his or her fascination has been temporarily sated. A chilling glee, as well as voyeuristic curiosity, reverberates through these paintings.
Warhol’s denial of experience is taken to its furthest most disturbing point in the three paintings titled “White Burning Car”(all 1963). Based on a photograph by John Whitehead that appeared in Newsweek (June 3, 1963), the silkscreen painting, which was done on a silver background, shows an overturned car burning in the foreground, smoke rising and obscuring much of the painting’s right half. Just to the left of the burning car, parallel to the painting’s left edge, is a utility pole upon which the driver of the car has been impaled, his arms extending stiffly downward, his head bent forward. The image seems like something out of a drive-in movie about sacrificial rituals in modern suburbia (think really bad George Romero clone, and you get the idea). In the distance, and about to disappear behind the impaled figure’s dangling legs, is a pedestrian casually walking away, as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening around him.
In “White Burning Car III,” Warhol stacks five similar images in two rows, so that there is a blank space in the bottom right of the painting where the next version of the same image would presumably go. Warhol’s repetition, suggestive of something seen on a black and white television with bad reception, is an attempt to empty death of meaning, to neutralize it. The pedestrian is Warhol’s alter ego as well as his ideal art viewer; he or she walks away after looking at something they have already seen a million times before.
In “Painted Bronze (Ale Cans),” Johns addresses the different ways we exist in time, ranging from consumption to creation. We cannot shape time, but we can mark it. In returning to subjects such as the ale cans, which he has repeatedly done throughout his career, Johns slows time down in order to better understand how it shapes him. Living between the “after” and the “before,” Johns recognizes that he and the art he makes are poised on the brink of infinity. Though there are no guarantees, his art will presumably survive him.
Vulnerable to extreme heat, and thus capable of being transformed from solid back to liquid, “Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes)” (1960) is a thing in his studio, no different from the other artworks nearby. Meanwhile, when the artist leaves his studio, he places the brushes in turpentine, a dissolving agent. This is what it means to be alive in time, and conscious of what awaits you and all you have made. In both of the “Painted Bronzes,” Johns recognizes that if a thing can go from being solid to liquid to solid, it can go one step further and become liquid once again. “Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes)” starts out as a work of art that he made. In time, however, it will become the thing that survives him when he departs his studio for the last time. Meanwhile, before the artist leaves his studio at the end of the day, he cleans up and places his dirty brushes in a coffee can full of turpentine, a dissolving agent. At no point will it lament his absence.
- Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Hans Haacke: Memory and Instrumental Reason,” in Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge:The MIT Press, 2003), p. 210
- Mark Francis, Editor, Hal Foster, “Survey,” POP (New York: Phaidon Press, 2005) p. 30
- Ibid. p. 41. The footnote ends with: “On ‘capitalist nihilism’ see Benjamin Buchloh, ‘The Andy Warhol Line,’ in Gary Garrels, ed., The Work of Andy Warhol (Seattle: Bay Press, 1989) and my “Dada Mime,’ October, 106 (Fall 2003).”
- Yves Bonnefoy, The lure and the truth of painting: selected essays on art (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995) p. 142