Where is Warhol himself in his apparently affectless, neutral pictures and films?
Figurative art regarded the body as commercialised – something chopped up and sold for parts. Abstraction claimed to reflect the artist’s inner state, but it has been much criticised for lacking an essential human quality: the reality of human relations, which are often described as messy and even bloody. Andy Warhol did not praise the human figure, indeed, he buried the human body in his flat, affectless art, such as his silkscreened paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup cans.
These works of Warhol suggested that for Warhol, people were only another advertised commodity. An example of Warhol’s impassionate pop aesthetic is Birmingham Race Riot (1964), his silkscreened painting of a newspaper photo. The tonal values of the painting’s surface gives equal emphasis to the black stubble on the policeman’s cheeks and the dark colours of the black man’s slack, which were being ripped apart by an attack dog.
Abstraction emphasized the mythology of the artist as solitary genius merely expressing the inner states of mind. Pop art, as embodied by Warhol, clearly speaks of Warhol’s scorn of high art – that commercial art and subjects were no less important than high art, and that artists could use the figure of the human body to explore new ideas with new media.
Warhol himself was quoted in saying that all he ever wanted to mould his life into was a vacant, vacuous Hollywood – something plastic, white-on-white. In understanding where the author is himself in his apparently affectless, neutral pictures and films, art critics such as Flatley (1996) argues that the use of Pop aesthetic actually allowed Warhol to gain access to the public sphere and to bring himself and his colleagues inside it as active participants. In other words, Warhol’s affectless style, and his counter-Hollywood attitude actually allowed Warhol, previously snubbed by the art world for being a commercial illustrator and thus considered as an outsider, to acquire a public persona and to participate in the growing concept of self-abstraction. His work has not exactly been entirely affectless, as with the case of his In the Still Life (1975) and Hammer and Sickle (1977) paintings, where the artist confronted shadows as a subject in their own right, and where the artist himself described their genesis in “a photo in my studio”, his studio assistant pointed out that Warhol asked him to take photographs of shadows generated by maquettes devised expressly to create abstract form. Thus, the artist’s presence in his affectless art is apparent in their very affectlessness, since this was a style the artist practiced, and it was the style he became known for.
Warhol produced both comic and serious works, and used the same techniques – silkscreens, reproduced serially, and often painted with bright colours – whether he painted celebrities, everyday objects, images of suicide, car crashes or disasters. The unifying element in the artist’s work is his deadpan Keatonesque style – artistically and personally affectless. This “affect” was mirrored by his own demeanour, as Warhol often liked to play “dumb” to the media and refused to explain his work. The artist was famous for often saying that what anyone needed to know about him and his works was already there, right on the surface of his work. The viewer of Warhol’s work is tempted to read beyond the surface of his work and to try and discover what the artist thought – and this was often difficult since his work embodied a certain blankness or lack of signifiers of sincerity. For example, his images of suicide would make one wonder on whether the artist is horrified by death or perceives it as funny. His depictions of the Campbell’s Soup cans was received with similar mixed reactions – was he making a cynical joke on the cheapness of American mass culture, or are the soup cans homage to the simple comforts of home? Warhol’s refusal to speak to how his work ought to be read made them all the more interesting. With Warhol’s affect, the interpretation of his works was left entirely up to his audience.
What is affect?
Our culture is glutted with information. Most people experience most things at second or third hand through TV, print, and other forms of media, through images that have become banal and disassociated by repetition. Warhol’s affect can best be described as a slightly frosted mirror, where the viewer need not be full of feeling and can view something coolly, almost dispassionately. The collective American state of mind is that celebrity – be it the image of a famous person, or a famous brand name – had completely replaced sacredness and solidity. Affect is about sameness – such as with Warhol’s 32 soup cans which show the same brand, size, paint surface, fame as a product, albeit with different labels. Affect is deadpan, like the 32 soup cans which mimic the condition of mass advertising out of which Warhol’s sensibility had grown. It is a fascinated yet indifferent take on the object. Thus, affect is taking things at their face value, and to not look beyond what was on the surface of an artistic work. In Warhol’s affect, there was no provocation to read the artist’s hidden meaning or inner mind beyond the surface of his canvas. Affect represents not just being deadpan, but being almost numb to an image which has been made prominent, repetitively, in the public sphere through mass reproduction or advertising. In making popular subjects become part of the artist’s palette, Warhol pared down the icon itself – the brand names, celebrities, dollar signs – and removed all traces of the artist’s “hand” in his paintings.
What is the role of the actors Warhol depicts?
The affectlessness that characterised Warhol’s work is there in the repetition of stars’ faces, such as Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor, who became subjects of the artist’s work. These actors did not represent self-portraiture, but were the mediums used by Warhol to emphasise affectlessness. They represent a record of the condition of being an uninvolved spectator who views an image with which he or she has been bombarded with in a media-saturated culture. Warhol extended this perception by using silkscreen, and not bothering with cleaning up imperfections of the print, such as uneven inkings of the roller, and general graininess.
On the contrary, Warhol used actors and popular media icons in his work not to further emulate them, but to show how emulation of these famous personalities was something that was drilled into our unconscious by mass media. For the actors in his film, Warhol preferred to focus on their “humiliating particularities” rather than any performance of self-abstraction. His intention was to project himself and his stars into publicity through a transcendence of particularities. His use of white-on-white connotes neutrality of a social group, wherein there is difficulty in telling people apart, whether they be famous or not. In 1962, Warhol reproduced cinematic beauties in several of his Female Movie Star Composites. For instance, he edits together he head and forehead of Greta Garbo, the eyes of Joan Crawford, the nose of Marlene Dietrich, and the lips and chin of Sophia Loren. Only their initials identified these various facial elements of these popular movie stars. Their unfinished appearance suggests they were meant to serve as studies or sketches for larger projects, instead of being taken as individual pieces in themselves. Yet even though Warhol tries to indicate the “whiteness” of these subjects, as neutral objects difficult to tell apart, the artist himself recognised both the requirement for inclusion in the elite Hollywood circles while at the same time conforming his own personal life into achieving that impossible ideal of Hollywood beauty and perfection. He even went so far as to drop the A in his name, which was originally Warhola, since the extra A sounded too clunky and ethnic. In propagating the philosophy of maintaining an affectless, neutral attitude towards art and its appreciation, there is actually a seamless continuity between the surfaces of Warhol’s body and his images, as the products of the artist’s self-abstraction which was designed exactly to avoid “any rupture of self-difference between ordinary life and publicity.”
In creating portraits at his Factory, Warhol became a medium through which these faces took on a recognizable identity and became in many ways his superstars. Yet his affectless element still persists. For in stance, in his portraits of Liza Minelli (1978) and Debbie Hairy (1980), the dramatic effect produced in these silkscreen portraits resemble an obliteration of features of these famous faces, rather than an increase in contrasts, with only their hairstyles distinguishing the faces. In addition to the eyes and lips, the faces are marked by an overwhelming whiteness. In creating celebrity portraits, Warhol drew attention to the construed, anonymous identity of all and showed that celebrity is actually merely an endless proliferation of sameness.
It has been argued however that Warhol’s constructedness of celebrity does not necessarily suggest that anyone can be famous or become identical to the stars, under Warhol’s hands such as with his Ladies and Gentlemen portfolio. If Warhol’s portraiture were to be treated as “giving face” then this would imply recognisability of an individual. This is hardly possible as Warhol’s portraiture of the ladies and gentlemen pictured have no proper names, and thus have little hope of attaining fame. In the absence of specific names, unlike stars who are known to the public, the other sitters of Warhol remain nobodies by the absence of specific names. Their anonymity is of an entirely different nature than the anonymous identity of all the stars portrayed in Warhol’s works.
What is the role of apparently absent visual pleasure?
The role of apparently absent visual pleasure is that these visuals – paintings or pictures – allow them to be whatever you want them to be. Warhol’s Rorschach paintings (1984) for instance, look liquid, protean and vacant, yet they have been described as reflecting back each viewer’s own desires and fantasies. They merely thus appear to be absent of any visual pleasure. It is however this apparent absence that leaves room for the spectator’s own interpretation, and from such interpretation, the spectator can derive his or her visual pleasure without the headache of trying to figure out what the artist intended. These visual pleasures may not always indicate apparent visual pleasure, but actually holds some implied pleasures available to the spectator. Warhol’s Rorschach paintings, for instance, have been described as possessing a strange sort of carnal presence. Apart from the undeniably genital imagery, the networks of thick, syrupy veins of paint conjure up images of the fleshy physicality of lungs or kidneys. In using the Rorschach Test, Warhol was known for saying that he did the paintings for him to actually read into the Rorschach Test and to write about them, but instead preferred someone else to read into them since they would probably see a lot more to them than he did. Warhol’s philosophy of the abstract has been much criticized by Krauss, for being a parodic vision of Color Field abstraction or a corruption of stain painting as practiced by Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Krauss pointed out that Color Field painters aimed at moving painting into the disembodied real of pure opticality, but Warhol pulled the plug by reminding people that there is no form so innocently abstract that it can’t be turned back into literary content – such as trees or flowers.
To a certain extent, Krauss’ criticisms have been true, since Warhol’s Rorschach paintings, though abstract, do not have that air of vague profundity that surrounds most of abstract art, and leaves an almost do-it-yourself invitation for the spectator – they can read whatever they want into them, and there are no wrong answers. Thus, though apparent visual pleasure is absent from Warhol’s work, visual pleasure is still nevertheless available to the spectator – at their own time and bidding, and subject to their own interpretation on what each individual spectator may happen to find visually pleasing in Warhol’s work.
Was Warhol representing himself as an absent auteur – an author who isn’t there? Is this aim realized or not?
To a certain degree, Warhol has been able to represent himself as an absent auteur since his work does not scream out his own personal and expected interpretations that are forced upon the spectators. His spectators are invited to interpret his work on their own, and at their own terms. Yet this very style of affectless art is precisely stamped with Warhol’s signature all over it. His mockery of the sameness of popular names and brands as advocated by mass media is a philosophy that is readily identified with Warhol himself. Being affectless and deadpan in fact characterise Warhol as a person, as seen from his interviews, behaviour and statements to the press and the public.
In not apparently representing himself in his work, confusion between the famous personality of the artist himself and his artistic achievement arises. Although he refined and expanded the idea of what it means to be an artist, despite his affectless body, Warhol himself became, and continues to be, the public face of a company, and a brand. From the gossip magazine Interview, and the stage for celebrities he indorsed, Warhol cannot be removed from his work as he “produced” people, endorsed products, appeared in commercials, and made frequent celebrity guest appearances on television shows and in films (Warhol appeared from everything from Love Boat to Saturday Night Love to the film Dynamite Chicken with Richard Pryor). For Warhol, art was a business, and this radical new stance became a trademark for Warhol, especially since artists have traditionally positioned themselves as against commercialism. Even though Warhol himself was not apparent in his work, his presence elsewhere and by the very nature of his work made him a very visible, and apparent, force to reckon with. He redefined the artist’s position as professional, commercial, and popular by the methods, imagery, and talents he used which were available, or seemed to be available, to everyone else.
Warhol, as an icon, is the face of his artwork. Even though his whole life was a vanishing act, albeit dramatic, ahistorical, and asexual, there can be no denying the fact that his presence and influence remains immortal and looms larger than his affectless work. In fact, the Warhol boom manifests itself outside the realm of art, such as when a new first-class postage stamp featuring a 1964 self-portrait by the artist was released, with the Warhol quotation: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There is nothing behind it.”
In conclusion, even though Warhol represented himself as an absent auteur, his presence loomed larger and beyond his works. According to Sedgwick, the people with the most powerful presence are the ones who aren’t all there, and this is true of the artist. Warhol’s presence was revelatory – not in the sense that it revealed him per se – but that he could use his presence to redefine and reshape traditional boundaries and philosophies associated with being an artist.
Andy Warhol. (2007), Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, [Online], Available from:
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Warhol> [February 4, 2007]
This article contains a background on the life of Andy Warhol, providing a summary and compilation of various related literature about the artist, such as from Wayne Koestenbaum’s book (Andy Warhol, published by Penguin Books in 2003), and Richard Meyer (Outlaw Representation, published by Beacon in 2003). This general information website was used for a starting point to gather general data about the Warhol and to help in directing the researcher to primary materials on Andy Warhol.
Carson, J. (No date), Artforum-ism, or the Mythical Andy Warhol, [Online], Eastern Illinois University, Available from: <http://www.eiu.edu/~modernity/carson.html> [February 4, 2007]
This was an academic paper submitted to the Eastern Illinois University analysing the influence and impact of Andy Warhol on Artforum-ism, as well as providing some discussions as to his works.
Cooke, L. (No date), Andy Warhol, [Online], DIA Art Foundation, Available from: <http://www.diacenter.org/exhibs_b/warhol/essay.html> [February 4, 2007]
This database, created by an art foundation, provides for a review of Andy Warhol’s works.
Cutrone, R. (1988). Interview with Patrick Smith. Warhol: Conversations About the Artist. Ann Arbor; London: UMI, pp. 343 – 361.
This interview of Ronnie Cutrone, one of Warhol’s studio assistants, provides valuable insights about the artists and the methods he used in creating his works of art.
Flatley, J. (1996). Warhol Gives Good Face: Publicity and the Politics of Prosopopoeia. Pop Out: Queer Warhol. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p. 102.
In this book, the author analyses Warhol’s private and public persona, and seeks the connection between the Warhol’s personality, personal life, and his works as an artist.
Fineman, M. (2004), Andy Warhol: Rorschach paintings, [Online], Artnet.com, Available from: <http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/fineman/fineman10-15-96.asp> [February 4, 2007]
This article, published online in an art website, provides a review for Warhol’s Rorschach paintings on exhibit.
Hughes, R. (February 1, 2002), Andy Warhol 6/8/1928-22/2/1987, [Online], American Visions, Available from: <http://members.tripod.com/arlindo_correia/020102.html> [February 4, 2007]
This article contains quotes by Andy Warhol and cites relevant primary data on Warhol that were further examined by the researcher.
Keats, J. (September 28, 2001), The opposite of sex, [Online], www.salon.com, Available from: <http://members.tripod.com/arlindo_correia/020102.html> [February 4, 2007]
This article contains a description of the life and works of Warhol, and provided supplemental and secondary data to support research derived from primary data gathered by the researcher on Warhol.
Koestenbaum, W. (2001). Rupture. Andy Warhol. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp. 113 – 136.
Koestenbaum in his book analyses Warhol’s pop icon status and explores facets of the artist’s sexuality as expressed through his behaviour and some of his works.
Kofoed, K.F. (March 31, 1999), Bodies of Work: The Henry puts on quite a show-figuratively speaking, [Online], Seattle Weekly, Available from: <http://www.seattleweekly.com/arts/9913/visual-kofoed.php> [February 4, 2007]
This online version of a US-based newspaper reviews some of the critical works of Warhol.
Krauss, R. (2001). Carnal Knowledge. Andy Warhol. Ed. Annette Michelson. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Printing, pp. 111 – 118.
Krauss in her book provides for critical arguments as to how Warhol has corrupted abstract art contrary to the ideals of traditional painters belonging to the same school. Her criticisms on Warhol provided for valuable insight on Warhol which, for a change, did not sing his praises, and thus allowed for a more balanced view of the artist for the researcher.
Maroney, T. (January 2002), Much More Than Fifteen Minutes, [Online], ART news ONLINE, Available from: <http://members.tripod.com/arlindo_correia/020102.html> [February 4, 2007]
A review of Warhol’s paintings on exhibit posted in an art newsletter online.
Nettleton, T. (Spring 2003), White-on-white: The overbearing whiteness of Warhol being – Andy Warhol, [Online], Art Journal, Available from: <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0425/is_1_62/ai_99377974/pg_1> [February 4, 2007]
An article in an art journal posted online analysing the white-on-white paintings of Warhol, and the way he treated or viewed his celebrity and non-celebrity subjects.
Sedgwick, E. K. (1996). Queer Performativity: Warhol’s Whiteness/Warhol’s Shyness. The Artist’s Body. Ed. Tracey Warr. London: Phaidon, pp. 271 – 273.
Provides insights as to the revelatory nature of Warhol’s personality and how it relates to his work.
 Kofoed, K.F. (March 31, 1999), Bodies of Work: The Henry puts on quite a show-figuratively speaking, [Online], Seattle Weekly, Available from: <http://www.seattleweekly.com/arts/9913/visual-kofoed.php> [February 4, 2007]
 Nettleton, T. (Spring 2003), White-on-white: The overbearing whiteness of Warhol being – Andy Warhol, [Online], Art Journal, Available from: <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0425/is_1_62/ai_99377974/pg_1> [February 4, 2007]
 Flatley, J. (1996). Warhol Gives Good Face: Publicity and the Politics of Prosopopoeia. Pop Out: Queer Warhol. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p. 102.
 Cooke, L. (No date), Andy Warhol, [Online], DIA Art Foundation, Available from: <http://www.diacenter.org/exhibs_b/warhol/essay.html> [February 4, 2007]
 Cutrone, R. (1988). Interview with Patrick Smith. Warhol: Conversations About the Artist. Ann Arbor; London: UMI, pp. 343 – 361.
 Andy Warhol. (2007), Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, [Online], Available from:
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Warhol> [February 4, 2007]
 Hughes, R. (February 1, 2002), Andy Warhol 6/8/1928-22/2/1987, [Online], American Visions, Available from: <http://members.tripod.com/arlindo_correia/020102.html> [February 4, 2007]
 Wikipedia, “Andy Warhol”, 2007.
 Hughes, 2002.
 Koestenbaum, W. (2001). Rupture. Andy Warhol. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp. 113 – 136.
 Nettleton, 2003.
 Flatley, 1996; Nettleton, 2003.
 Nettleton, 2003.
 Fineman, M. (2004), Andy Warhol: Rorschach paintings, [Online], Artnet.com, Available from: <http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/fineman/fineman10-15-96.asp> [February 4, 2007]
 Krauss, R. (2001). Carnal Knowledge. Andy Warhol. Ed. Annette Michelson. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Printing, pp. 111 – 118.
 Fineman, 2004.
 Carson, J. (No date), Artforum-ism, or the Mythical Andy Warhol, [Online], Eastern Illinois University, Available from: <http://www.eiu.edu/~modernity/carson.html> [February 4, 2007]
 Wikipedia, “Andy Warhol”, 2007.
 Keats, J. (September 28, 2001), The opposite of sex, [Online], www.salon.com, Available from: <http://members.tripod.com/arlindo_correia/020102.html> [February 4, 2007]
 Maroney, T. (January 2002), Much More Than Fifteen Minutes, [Online], ART news ONLINE, Available from: <http://members.tripod.com/arlindo_correia/020102.html> [February 4, 2007]
 Sedgwick, E. K. (1996). Queer Performativity: Warhol’s Whiteness/Warhol’s Shyness. The Artist’s Body. Ed. Tracey Warr. London: Phaidon, pp. 271 – 273.
Cite this The artist’s body and Andy Warhol
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