Adman: Warhol Before Pop

April 21, 2017
Andy does Madison Avenue
Andy does Madison Avenue

In the catalogue for Adman: Warhol Before Pop, at the Art Gallery of NSW, Thomas Sokolowski finds it “astounding that after so many years of exhibitions and publications, critics continue to find value only in Warhol’s early 1960s work.”

As a former director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg, and the man behind a groundbreaking show of the early work, it’s understandable Sokolowski might feel this way. That show of 1989 – Success is a Job in New York: The Early Art and Business of Andy Warhol – is the precursor to Adman. It featured many of the same items and was a revelation for viewers who never imagined the frosty King of Pop had been such a talented draughtsman in his younger days.

Adman extends the investigation, presenting a large volume of graphic work and memorabilia, including never-before-seen tidbits retrieved from the Warhol archives. A labour of love for AGNSW curator, Nicholas Chambers, whose previous employer was the Warhol Museum, it’s a busy display backed up with an excellent catalogue.

The only problem is that the exhibition confirms me in the invincible critical prejudice that Sokolowski deplores. The work Andy Warhol made in the early 1960s has ensured his immortality. The Death and Disaster series, the Electric Chairs, the Campbell Soup tins, the Maos and Marilyns – these images packed a punch that makes the rest of Warhol’s career look like a postscript, albeit a very lucrative one. His early work is little more than a preface.

No matter how much of a hullaballoo is made about Warhol’s post-60s work one always gets a sinking feeling in the surveys and retrospectives. The studied superficiality, the artist’s egregious obsession with celebrity, becomes boring if not faintly repulsive. What could be more cynical than those large silk-screen pictures of dollar signs? Or a day-glo reproduction of Leonardo’s The Last Supper?

Visitors to the AGNSW show will not have to negotiate such banalities. Adman concentrates on Warhol pre-Pop, when he was one of the most successful graphic artists in the advertising business. The catalogue tells us this rarely-seen work is “crucial” to an understanding of Warhol’s achievement, but it mainly serves to humanise a figure who cultivated a public image of stupendous blandness.

Robert Hughes once called Warhol “an absence conspicuous by its presence”, which perfectly sums up the lack of personal affect combined with a feverish desire to be in with the in-crowd. Warhol understood the value of publicity and craved it with the longing that a medieval mystic might have felt for God’s Grace. He also recognised that in a society of extroverts and egomaniacs, he could stand out by being as neutral as a mirror. When everyone else was expressing their individuality, Warhol said “I want to be a machine”.

This wasn’t the case with the young tyro who moved to New York in 1949 at the age of 21. This Andy was an ambitious graphic artist with ample reserves of wit and charm. He had already developed a signature style that drew inspiration from Ben Shahn, Paul Klee and Saul Steinberg.

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The Warhol of the 1950s seems altogether more likeable than the guru in the silvery wig who would preside over a tribe of freaks and disciples at the Factory, watching his work being made by others.

There is a striking visual intelligence in the drawings the young Warhol made for a vast range of products and publications. His major client was shoe manufacturer, I.B.Miller, and the show is awash with spindly pictures of footwear, but he would also design record sleeves, book covers and showroom window displays.

During these years Warhol made his own limited edition gift books, held a series of minor exhibitions at commercial art galleries, and filled notebooks with quick, idiosyncratic sketches – his muses being Matisse and Cocteau. He was camp and playful, willing to flaunt his homosexuality in a way that his later blankness did not permit. In the 50s he filled a notebook with drawings of male genitalia, in the years to come he’d take polaroids.

One of the most original features of Warhol’s graphic style was the use of text, although the characteristic handwriting came from his mother, Julia Warhola, who lived with him for 20 years in New York.

The important point separating Warhol from the other artists of his generation was that most of them saw commercial art as a necessary evil that paid for time in the studio. Warhol seems to have decided early on that he wouldn’t draw a line between his advertising illustrations and the stuff he made for art galleries. In his view, all art was “commercial art” – or to use his mature coinage: “business art”.

We can see the way things are developing but nothing prepares us for the conceptual leap from an elegant drawing of a shoe to a silk-screened picture of an electric chair. The work of the 50s is a lot more fun but it seems trivial compared with what came next. If Warhol had been run over by a bus in 1959 he’d be no more than a footnote in the history of American advertising.

As a survey of one aspect of a significant artist’s career, Adman is the kind of exhibition that rarely makes its way to Australia. It’s the very opposite of a blockbuster so don’t expect anything conventionally associated with the Warhol ‘brand’.

Rather than being astounded that critics have preferred the early 1960s to every other moment in Warhol’s career, I’m amazed at some of the critical claims made for the early and late work. The images in Adman are clever, campy and entertaining, but not exactly memorable. Much of the later work is dull and opportunistic. Warhol began and ended by producing advertisements, but the later works are only advertisements for himself.

With at least four pictures having sold for more than US$100 million it’s an inflated art market that has most to gain from portraying Warhol as an untouchable icon of modernity. An effective piece of criticism needs to separate the aesthetic and historical value of his work from the ephemeral dollar value that transforms all culture into a commodity.

Adman: Warhol Before Pop
Art Gallery of New South Wales, 25 Feb.-28 May, 2017

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 April 2017