Art: A Caterer of Repetition and Glut: Andy Warhol: 1928-1987

Andy Warhol: 1928-1987

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Then in 1968, one of Warhol's hangers-on -- a crazed actress named Valeria Solanis -- shot and wounded him with a .32. Neither his health nor his talent would fully recover. There had been one Warhol before the shooting; another would emerge after it. The former had been the onlooker, both fascinated and wounded by media culture and its power to dictate desire and nostalgia. You could not look at early Warhol (Marilyn-as-virgin, in full drag-queeny apotheosis on a gold ground; Golgotha, envisioned in repeated views of an $ execution chamber with its electric chair and its sign enjoining SILENCE) without sensing that the pressure behind such images of abased sanctity came from a Byzantine Catholic boyhood.

But this intensity began to leak out of his work after the shooting, and by the end of the '70s it was gone. His energy last flickered in the hieratic images of Mao Tse-tung (1973) and perhaps in the 1976 paintings of hammers and sickles. The rest was mostly social portraiture, liquor endorsements and bathetic collaborations with junior burnouts like Jean-Michel Basquiat, along with one single-theme edition of prints after another. But even in decline, Warhol remained indicative.

In a sense, Warhol was to the art world what his buddy of the discos, Roy Cohn, was to law. Just as Cohn degraded the image of the legal profession while leaving no doubt about his own forensic brilliance, so Warhol released toxins of careerism, facetiousness and celebrity worship into the stream of American culture. He was the last artist whose cynicism could still perplex the art world, which may explain why -- even after he said that art was just another job -- people continued to scan his latest efforts for signs of "subversive" credentials. In fact, his work was no more subversive than a catering service, and as such it fit the age of Reagan nicely. But the Warhol who will survive, the artist of authentic inspiration, died when he was shot 19 years ago, not last week. And that artist, in his tragic concision and awful openness, will haunt us for some time yet.

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