Thursday, September 18, 2008

Yo Andy

Some time last summer, when I was grading stacks of fifty into the middle of each night, and grading more at work, even when I had access to a nice newish mac, G4, or whatever they're called, I started playing with the "photo booth" function of the computer and noticed that I could turn my face, my stack, or any of my visitors into a number of different appearances, including a cartoonish one, and a "pop art" one, that had four brightly colored rectangle images together; this one of course reminded me of Andy Warhol and his famous Marilyns, so in my early phase of using this "pop art" function, I made my own Marilyn, but also a pop art JFK, a pop art Iowa map, and pop art Salukis. I was off and running, grabbing everything in my office and making pop art out of it; eventually I found free photo image editors on the web and started making pop art and poster art out of many of the photos at my disposal.

My curiosity was aroused about Warhol and I eventually found out several interesting things about him. He was born in McKeesport and raised in Pittsburgh; this gave me an affinity for him. When he moved to New York, he set up what he called the Factory, to mass-produce his silk screens and give him a crowd of adoring fans who also depended on him. I'm not sure if he sought fame, but his prints of Campbell's soup cans and then his famous Marilyns brought it to him. He was shot by one of his followers, and died early; he had done tons of drugs, said lots of pithy and shallow things, amassed an enormous estate (which brought great respect among the established and the powers that be), and, made his pop art so recognizable that any of us would think of him immediately, upon seeing four brightly-colored rectangles in a checkerboard on the computer.

The Marilyns have been called perhaps the most recognizable of all 20th century art, clearly famous. So, the first thing I'm curious about is this: Why did it strike such a nerve in American consciousness, just at that moment when it came out? The image, with the purple lips and all, is clearly a color distortion of her real self, but he had simply stolen it from a movie poster, and she was dead, so nobody disputed his ability to launch his career from it. Nowadays there is considerable antagonism for him, related to the fact that she never saw a penny, and he became a millionaire, all for stealing the right image at the right time. I don't take this lightly, as, so far, all I've done is steal images myself, though I'm just playing and not trying to make money. Some have said that the mass production, the mere choice of silk-screen as preferred medium, gives the images a kind of moral blankness, a repetitiveness that is empty, purposely and strongly vapid. This had been lost to me in my memory of the picture and what it had stood for; I was surprised to read this. It may be that he made and sold thousands of them, but I didn't really know this, or remember it.

Upon reflection I had considered the Marilyns to be a statement on branding. What he was saying was, if you're going to idealize someone, make them into a symbol or an icon, you might as well go all the way, make the lips purple, or orange, or neon yellow for that matter. She's no longer a person, right? Her image is simply that, a symbol, reflecting in the sun, and catching our eye; her beauty is a kind of brand, that makes us want to grab it because it is a symbol of something we like. Kind of like the Campbell's soup can.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that what propelled him into fame, at first, was the juxtaposition of the Marilyns with the soup can, which had come out earlier. The soup can paintings made people angry at the banal subject matter, the glorification of business and corporate imagery, which to most people was profane, having been developed for money and all. Artists were most angry. Calling a picture of a soup can art was degrading or banalizing all of art. Perhaps his picture was drawing attention to the beauty of a perfect logo, the success that Campbell's had achieved with its simple cursive and perfect two-color design. I did the same with the Quaker Oats quaker, but it was clear to me that Andy had gotten there first, and all I could do was copy or reflect. He was there at the time, though, and so was I; the soup can was a high fast-ball, but the Marilyn was inside, on the corner, a perfect strike. It not only became famous, it stayed that way, and now, one can make pop-arts easily, with a click of the doc-camera and photo booth.

I have just begun to study this phenomenon; I've only been doing pop-art for a few months, and have no desire to simply copy Andy or make a number of spin-offs of the soup can and the Marilyns. I did, however, make a few, just for fun. I'm curious about the Andy Warhol museum (actually there are a few, but the best is probably in Pittsburgh)- and curious about a number of other things. My sister says that she saw a documentary about the wild times he lived in, and about a guy who hung around that crowd, and then simply disappeared, never to be found again. Wild times, she said, lots of drugs and crazy things going on, according to the movie. I'm not curious about that, so much, but: what binds pop art together? Why did such a rich and healthy genre wait so long to spring up? What can the computer and its little doc-cam contribute to this picture? If the web is my medium of choice, how is that similar to or different from silk-screen?

It's been pointed out that Warhol was angry at being rejected by the art establishment, and made art trivial as a way to get back at the established art world. Make the trivial into art, make art trivial. If repetition is reputation, then he was clearly onto the way to make himself famous, because he did; he got people to mention his name, notice his art, and listen to his pronouncements (which I would like to collect). But something about this dogma strikes me as Actualist. Actualists were poets of the 1970's in Iowa City (and elsewhere) who wrote poetry about ashtrays (as it was once pointed out to me) as a way of saying, one can find poetry everywhere, in one's own personal break times, by the old table in the back porch. One should not need an education in classical mythology to understand a good poem, they felt, and wrote poetry accordingly. Warhol would agree; if people like it, it's good; if it reaches out, and grabs them, and they buy it, so much the better. Art is what you can get away with, he said (I believe), and he set about to take this everyday stuff (like a soup can) and show us how we idealized and branded even the banal things in our everyday lives.

I have worked with this idea, a little. When a copy machine was moved directly outside of my office once, in the 1990's, the sound drove me nuts, but I reconciled it by doing Xerox art and employing what I would today call cut-and-tape photoshopping. About ten of these constructions ended up on the web; I stopped scanning them, and even making them, but my proclivity toward the graphic arts had merely gone underground. I don't think I want to be famous as AW was; in fact, I can barely handle the fame I've got, being a big fish in such a small pond. I strive only to be useful (and thus use work computer to do mostly work-related salukis, pulliams, things people in this community could like and use)…and, to express myself, show an artistic edge, perhaps create a calendar or a book once in a while for family and friends. What if fame were to find me? I've thought of it, more perhaps than I'd care to admit. After all, I’m also a major local fiddler (going nowhere) and a writer (self-published), etc. blah blah blah. It's not like I don't try. What I'm saying is, obsessed with fame as Andy was, he went out and grabbed it, directly, whereas I have issues with it, and would have to sacrifice my family, which I'm not quite willing to do, so I'm still sitting here blathering about it, as opposed to turning my attention onto self-promotion. So, my work is a secret, mostly, and here's hoping it stays that way, at least for the moment. It'll be there when I die though, because pixels are forever- and because everyone is famous for fifteen minutes.

Sept. 2008

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