Art: Man for the Machine

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To look at an image like Campbell's Soup Can, 1965, is not to see it through Warhol's eyes—he has eliminated all idiosyncrasies. There is no contagion of personality. What remains is the flat, mute face of an actuality presented as meaning nothing beyond itself. When Warhol's series of cans, dollar bills, stickers and movie stars appeared in the early and middle '60s, they were thought ironic, an indictment of consumer culture; and a Goyaesque mordancy was attributed to his silk-screen portraits. Because it was deemed improper for an artist to be so drawn to what was decadent, ephemeral or trashy, it was assumed that Warhol was being ironic. But irony is intervention, between perceiver and the perceived, and Warhol does not intervene in that way. In reality, Marilyn and Liz, with their peacock masks of off-register color, seem rather to be the products of wistful affection. They reflect the same gee-whiz obsession with glamour and stardom that led Warhol to create the legendary, shifting entourage of drag queens, raucous juvenile models and human parrot fish who, entering a room in a cloud of sequins and patchouli, take the strain of flamboyancy off the Master's back. Warhol's id vanishes behind his circus as his ego does behind his paintings.

At the same time, Warhol's sense of the ripeness of a moment is exquisite: since he lives in media and feeds off publicity, it has to be. (He has, in fact, been upstaged only once, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated just two days after Valerie Solanas shot Warhol.) His activity as painter went on over a decade when American society was expending vast energies in self-scrutiny. In 1950, a photo of a dead duck on a beach was a marine still life; by 1970, the same photo was a reference to ecological ruin.

Benumbing News. This process energized Warhol's images of disaster—the car crashes, the electric chairs, the mushroom clouds and paintings like Red Race Riot, 1963—with singular force. A distillation had been made of the benumbing repetition of bad news in order to show that one should not be numbed. Characteristically, Warhol denied any such slant. Neither approval nor disapproval: the news photographs that produced these silk screens, he claimed, "just happened to be lying around," and he did not pick them. But why were they lying around? For all his elaborations of cool, Warhol has an apocalyptic side, a vision of interminable, inconclusive and somehow masturbatory disaster to which he adds no comment beyond ornamenting it, running the electric chair through its exotic variations of turquoise, yellow, crimson and green, printing the car crash over and over until the ink grays out like a film flapping off the reel. At such moments, Warhol's objectivity assumes the character of defeat.

Victory is the province of culture heroes. One of the effects of Warhol's work that painters will need to grapple with for some time yet is his amoral transparency which has made a heroic role in art look, for the moment, inflated: maybe even impossible.

Robert Hughes

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