Late in 1962 Warhol started to transfer silk-screen images onto canvas to make paintings. Other American artists, notably Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, were already painting images they found in comic strips and on billboards. It was not, therefore, Warhol’s subject matter that constituted the significant breakthrough in his early work but his decision to make fine art using a technique primarily associated with printmaking and with cheap commercial products such as T-shirts and greeting cards. Warhol’s friend Henry Geldzahler, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recognized that the artist’s two great innovations were “to bring commercial art into fine art” and “to take printing techniques into painting. Andy’s prints and paintings are exactly the same thing. No one had ever done that before. It was an amazing thing to do.”
After his early experiments painting cartoon characters and Coca-Cola bottles in the loose, drippy style of the Abstract Expressionists, Warhol liked the grainy, slightly out-of-register images produced by a silk screen because, he said, “I wanted something…that gave more of an assembly-line effect.” Warhol’s new paintings didn’t look as though they were painted by hand; they looked like mechanically reproduced photos in cheap tabloid newspapers.
A silk-screened image is flat, and without depth or volume. This perfectly suited Warhol because in painting Marilyn Monroe he wasn’t painting a woman of flesh, blood, and psychological complexity but a publicity photograph of a commodity created in a Hollywood studio. As Colin Clark’s anecdote suggests, you can’t look at Warhol’s Marilyn in the same way that you look at a painting by Rembrandt or Titian because Warhol isn’t interested in any of the things those artists werethe representation of material reality, the exploration of character, or the creation of pictorial illusion.
Warhol asked different questions about art. How does it differ from any other commodity? What value do we place on originality, invention, rarity, and the uniqueness of the art object? To do this he revisited long-neglected artistic genres such as history painting in his disaster series, still life in his soup cans and Brillo boxes, and the society portrait in Ethel Scull Thirty-Six Times. Though Warhol isn’t always seen as a conceptual artist, his most perceptive critic, Arthur C. Danto, calls him “the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced.”
Silk screen also enabled Warhol to produce serial imagesthat is, to choose a motif and then reproduce it repeatedly by silk-screening it in different color combinations. In a conventional printmaking process like etching, the artist makes a limited number of impressions, then destroys the copper plate. But Warhol’s series are not finite in this way. The number of finished works he made depended on how many he needed, or thought he could sell.
In Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, their fascinating study of Warhol’s rise from commercial artist to the most celebrated painter and filmmaker in 1960s America, Tony Scherman and David Dalton are clear that Warhol’s move from painting his pictures by hand to photo silk-screening was at the heart of his artistic achievement:
Traditional, manual virtuosity no longer mattered. The fact that Warhol could draw had no bearing on his art now: how an artwork was made ceased to be a criterion of its quality. The result alone mattered: whether or not it was a striking image. Making art became a series of mental decisions, the most crucial of which was choosing the right source image:as Warhol would contend some years later, “The selection of the images is the most important and is the fruit of the imagination.”
Throughout the 1960s Warhol was personally involved in choosing, mixing, and applying the paint in most of the silk-screened works. But it was also his frequent practice to delegate the manual task of silk-screening an image onto canvas to his assistants Gerard Malanga and Billy Name. Malanga has said that in the summer of 1963 he was responsible for painting several canvases, including some Electric Chairs, entirely by himself. The following year Warhol told a journalist from Glamour magazine, “I’m becoming a factory,” and of course the building he worked in wasn’t called the “Studio” but the “Factory.”
Those who witnessed Warhol at work on a daily basis in these yearsMalanga, Billy Name, his manager Paul Morrissey, and his primary assistant from 1972 to 1982, Ronnie Cutroneall attest that, just as you’d expect from a mind as restless, inventive, and original as Warhol’s, the degree of his intervention in the creation of a painting variednot only from series to series, but also from painting to painting within the same series.
By the 1970s Warhol no longer had any sustained involvement in the mass production of his paintings. In his book about Warhol, Holy Terror, Bob Colacello quotes Warhol’s longtime printer Rupert Smith:
We had so much work that even Augusto [the security man] was doing the painting. We were so busy, Andy and I did everything over the phone. We called it “art by telephone.”
One person they were calling was Horst Weber von Beeren, who was responsible for painting many of Warhol’s later works in a studio in Tribeca (and not at the Factory in Union Square). He has said that Warhol’s primary role in the creation of these paintings was simply to sign them when they were sold. The artist had come to realize that a painting could be an original Andy Warhol whether or not he ever touched it.
In fact, Warhol had long been familiar with this arm’s-length working method. In his days as a successful commercial fashion illustrator, his job was simply to make the drawing and hand it over to the art director, not to become involved in the layout. Scherman and Dalton quote Tina Fredericks, the art director at Glamour who gave Warhol his first New York job: “He didn’t care about that stuff’Will my drawing be displayed big enough? Are you going to shrink it down?’ You could say to him, ‘We want this,’ and he’d just do it, he’d understand.”
Moreover, in his early fashion drawings Warhol developed a technique of blotting his initial design onto high-quality paper in such a way that his pen nib never touched the final drawing. “In fact,” Scherman and Dalton continue,
the original mattered so little to Warhol that he didn’t even draw ithis longtime assistant Nathan Gluck made the first sketch, rubbed it down to make the tracing, and hinged the tracing to the Strathmore [a brand of high quality drawing paper]. Andy entered only for the coup de grâce, the inking and blotting…. What remained constant throughout Warhol’s career, whether he drew, painted, or silk-screened photographs, was his fascination with the simulacrum, the copy, the second-generation image. In commercial art, the division of labor is the norm. When Andy began using it in fine art in the sixties, he undermined the myth of the auteur, the sole, and solitary, fount of art.
In this conceptual approach to making art, Warhol inherited the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, an artist he knew, admired, painted, and filmed. Like Duchamp’s ready-mades, the ultimate importance of a work by Warhol is not who physically made each object, but the ideas it generates. As the son of immigrants, Warhol in his early works returned again and again to the theme of America itself. What else are the paintings of cheap advertisements for nose jobs and dance lessons concerned with if not the American dream and the price of conformity it exacts? As soon as he’d examined the American obsession with celebrity and glamour in the portraits of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, he was quick to show its race riots and electric chair. Unlike Duchamp’s, his was a highly public art, one that criss-crossed between high art, popular culture, commerce, and daily life.
Everything that passed before Warhol’s basilisk gazecelebrities, socialites, speed freaks, rock bands, film, and fashionhe imprinted with his deadpan mixture of glamour and humor, then cast them back into the world as narcissistic reflections of his own personality. This is what makes him one of the most complex and elusive figures in the history of art. As Danto explains in his brilliant short study of Warhol, the question Warhol asked is not “What is art?” but “What is the difference between two things, exactly alike, one of which is art and one of which is not?”