The Down Side of Pop

by Blake Gopnik
The Washington Post
Saturday, September 24, 2005

Some museum exhibitions put up disclaimers about sex. Others warn about violence in their art. The impressive Andy Warhol show that opens today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art ought to begin with a big sign that reads something like this: "The following exhibition may cause depression or anxiety in visitors -- viewer discretion advised."

For all the bubble gum colors and crisp commercial graphics in much of Warhol's art, its larger vision is profoundly grim. It's that austere underpinning to the Warhol glitz that gives this exhibition so much weight and depth.

People talk about Warhol's art as ironic, or cynical or maybe as satirical -- all of which implies a certain good humor, or at least a distance from the things it talks about. I think his project goes much further than that. I think there's profound, considered despair in it. Taken as a whole, Warhol's art seems to portray a world so thoroughly sold out that there's no hope for it.

"Warhol Legacy" was chosen from works in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, filled out with a few loans. Most of his signature series are represented. The early Campbell soup cans are there, along with a stack of his giant Brillo boxes. There are his trademark silk-screen paintings of Marilyn, Liz, Jackie and Warhol himself. A gallery titled "Death and Disaster" shows Warhol riffing on news photos of suicides, car crashes, the electric chair and botulism-laden cans of tuna. Other galleries concentrate on fascinating works -- some of Warhol's best -- that may not be well known to the general public: his grim little Polaroids of guns and knives; his "abstract" images derived from shadows, Rorschach blots and camouflage; his gripping "Screen Tests," in which one subject after another stares into a movie camera's lens for four long, uneventful minutes.

And almost all of the more than 150 works in the exhibition seem to point to a culture of consumption that, in one way or another, has broken down.

As art historian Thomas Crow pointed out in a famous article, the "Pop" side of Warhol's art, which can feel like a celebration of American consumerism, is more than counterbalanced by a tragic side. There are the crashes and suicides and executions, even that lethal tuna, that suggest not everything is right in big-box America.

Even Warhol's most famous celebrity images aren't so much celebrations of Hollywood values as records of their failure. Warhol's first Marilyns were painted right after her breakdown and suicide. His Liz Taylors were made after her very public illness and many scandalous affairs, and they don't exactly show her at her best. Every one of the Warhol Jackie pictures that render the first lady in her stylish heyday, when she was a symbol of American optimism and energy, was painted after her husband had been gunned down.

But the truly tragic side of Warhol's imagery, even at its grimmest, is that for all its touching subject matter, it has so little power to touch us. Repeated in relentless series, in every color and size, Warhol's pictures can feel like almost random dips into the stream of stuff and images that float by us every day. Even when his pictures have shock value, it's the kind of shock you get from the pictures in a tabloid, the kind of shock that leaves you once you've left the checkout aisle.

Warhol's appropriated imagery feels so heavily pre-processed by the pop culture industry that it is left with all the bite and tooth of a Kraft single.

Popular culture doesn't just consume big news and celebrity; it swallows its icons whole. Warhol's art documents how their meaning gets dissolved and digested -- with his pictures as the end result.

Even when Warhol himself has taken the photograph that a silk-screen portrait is based on, as in the relentless flow of commissions he received from figures such as Cheryl Tiegs and Debbie Harry, there's a strong sense that the sitter has become just one more interchangeable product turned out by the Warholizers at the Factory. The value of these portraits, and maybe of their sitters, too, depends on the branding that Warhol's trademark technique and color gives to them. The saddest thing is to imagine each of these sitters paying something like $35,000 to be turned into part of someone else's product line. You might as well pay to become a Pez dispenser head.

It's not clear that Warhol's almost interchangeable sitters are meant to have any more significance -- to him, to us, maybe even to themselves -- than all the different shoes he drew in his earlier career as a commercial artist.

In Warhol's art, that is, consumer culture doesn't come up short only when it's seen failing -- in its suicides and accidents and assassinations. It also fails when it succeeds. As plenty of studies have suggested, the fundamental premise of consumerism -- that happiness grows in tandem with wealth and ownership -- is a failure from the start. The eerily empty commodities depicted in Warhol's art, and produced by it, can feel like illustrations of that failure.

There are only rare moments in this show when we aren't face-to-face with the all-consuming maw of commodity culture. In the single gallery of (almost) abstract pictures, we see Warhol hunting for imagery that is so inconsequential, so beside the point in what it says, that it can resist the pull of outside forces.

Warhol's almost indecipherable images of random shadows cast onto a wall feel so trivial and incidental that they manage to float free of any use the larger world could put them to.

Ditto for a series of "abstractions" that Warhol based on standard camouflage patterns. After all, indeterminacy is what camouflage is all about: Its explicit goal is to remain unseen and unseeable, to avoid coming together into any kind of meaningful, even recognizable image. Warhol's camouflage paintings are icons of meaninglessness.

Warhol's paintings that mimic Rorschach blots have some of the same force. They're built around patterns that are meant to be absolutely empty of meaning until someone reads some into them.

This makes them just the opposite of Warhol's celebrity images, which had been overstuffed with meaning -- if only of the most superficial kind -- long before the artist got to them.

But it's those four-minute "Screen Tests," which come at the close of the Corcoran exhibition, that feel most like they've escaped the prepackaging and pre-processing of consumer culture. Their sitters, whether famous or not, seem to have some kind of power and authenticity that don't depend on roles they've taken on within the world outside. These film clips are so foursquare in their point-and-shoot technique, their content so willfully ungussied up with style and a fancy look, that they seem to let their sitters withdraw, for a few minutes at least, from a culture of consumption, spectacle and self-presentation. The "Screen Tests" are kind of boring, and their sitters seem bored in them. But there's a sense that withdrawal into boredom can provide a refuge from involvement in a buzzing social world that will only swallow up your individuality.

It's a bleak take on life, and I'm not sure I buy it. If there's pleasure to be found in things -- and those of us who love art had better think there is -- then it's hard to do without consumption of some kind, and the culture that it brings with it. A view of Warhol as a radical ascetic does make more sense of how it feels to see this exhibition, however, than one that casts him as the happy, holy fool of mass culture.

Just take your Prozac before heading to the show.