Art: Man for the Machine

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Inevitably, any of his shows becomes an event bordering on theater. So it is with his current "retrospective" at the Whitney Museum, which, when it opened last week, proved to be no retrospective at all but a tiny sampling of his work on canvas from 1962 to 1971, hived off from a larger, more systematic show that Critic John Coplans organized for the Pasadena Art Museum last year and has since been touring Europe to near-hysterical acclaim. The Whitney show starts with a series of the soup cans that propelled Warhol into notoriety. But earlier sequences are not present, which is unfortunate, since it denies viewers the chance to follow Warhol's extraordinary range in his exploration of impersonality, and one gets little sense of the roots of his style. For instance, the Do It Yourself pastiches of painting-by-number-kits are excluded. These, with their sharp colors and cunning placement, are among the most formally beautiful things Warhol has made—besides providing added testaments to Warhol's literal belief in the endless reproducibility of art.

Instead, at Warhol's own insistence, the towering walls of the main gallery are hung, floor to ceiling, with Warhol's fuchsia cow wallpaper, in whose garish and assertive surface the paintings all but drown. A gesture of contempt for his past work? Not quite. This is Warhol's aesthetic of noninvolvement and repetition shoved to another extreme, to the suggestion that a hierarchy of images with a particular "masterpiece" perched on top makes no sense to him. The gross mooing of those cows in the Whitney china shop may also remind viewers of how insulated is the environment, somewhere between chapel and hothouse, in which art is normally presented.

Disappearing Act. Warhol's historical importance is beyond question, if such things are measured by a man's effect on other artists. The use of multiple and serial images, of mechanical reproduction, of systematic banality seen as an absolute—most of this either originates in Warhol's paintings or passes through them en route from Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg. But to a wider public, which still measures art in terms of sensuous enjoyability and a man's claim to be an artist by the vim with which he "expresses himself," Warhol is a baffling creature—mainly because his message is that he has no self to express. He names, rather than evaluates. His work is thus one long strategy of self-effacement, a disappearing act behind the gaudy colors and aggressively banal subject matter. Hence the paradox of his enormous fame. He is "a personality" with no personality, transparent as air, and no artist today can be sure he is not breathing him.

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