These are two very well-written paragraphs, in my opinion:
“The essence of Warhol’s genius was to eliminate the one aspect of a thing without which that thing would, to conventional ways of thinking, cease to be itself, and then to see what happened. He made movies of objects that never moved and used actors who could not act, and he made art that did not look like art. He wrote a novel without doing any writing. He had his mother sign his work, and he sent an actor, Allen Midgette, to impersonate him on a lecture tour (and, for a while, Midgette got away with it). He had other people make his paintings.
And he demonstrated, almost every time he did this, that it didn’t make any difference. His Brillo boxes were received as art, and his eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building was received as a movie. The people who saw someone pretending to be Andy Warhol believed that they had seen Andy Warhol. (“Andy helped me see into fame and through it,” Midgette later said.) The works that his mother signed and that other people made were sold as Warhols. And what he made up in interviews was quoted by critics to explain his intentions. Warhol wasn’t hiding anything, and he wasn’t out to trick anyone. He was only changing one basic rule, the most basic rule, of the game. He found that people just kept on playing.”
This is from Louis Menand’s article in last month’s New Yorker (subscription required), which also does a nice job taking on the annoying conceit that Pop Art was an entirely American idea. As I drone on about at length in my history lectures, the U.S. was a pathetic nowhere in terms of creating abstract visual ideas until a herd of Bauhaus-era designers and artists came flooding over from Europe during World War II. Rothko? Russian. De Kooning? Dutch. Gorky? Armenian. DuChamp? Not a chance. Maholy-Nagy? No way. Mondrian? I won’t even dignify that with a response. And so on. If Pop Art needed American consumerism to supply its subject matter, it also apparently needed a foreign observer to make sense of it.
This brings us to the subject of Warhol’s ancestry, which confused the hell out of me for a long time. In the U.S., you generally hear him referred to as Polish. But once I started teaching at Prague College, however, my Slovak students were quick to inform me that he’s actually Slovak– and indeed he was born in an area that now belongs to Slovakia. But, it turns out that his family was in fact Ruthenian– the Ruthenians being a teeny distinct Slavic people whose homeland was absorbed by what are now Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. So here’s to you, Ruthenia– today I salute you. I like to imagine that when you did still exist, you were a fine destination to hit for a bit of the old orientalism.
On a personal note: back in the 50s, my grandmother was an account manager with Ogilvy (something I think about a lot as I watch Mad Men, as it’s fair to presume that she probably faced a lot of the same institutionalized hurdles and general BS that Peggy faces in the show, and was probably kind of a cool, ahead-of-her-time lady). Anyway, she apparently knew Warhol back when he was a commercial artist and bought some of his sketches back then, which now must be worth a fortune. I wouldn’t know, because they were somehow stolen from her home in a manner that no one can exactly pinpoint (probably happened during a brief point when she was renting her house). So, that stinks.