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Critical Discussion of Andy Warhol's use of Modernist Values

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 2547 words Published: 27th Sep 2021

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This essay will critically discuss the extent to which Andy Warhol upheld, adapted or rejected Modernist values which will further investigate how Warhol created ‘art after Modernism.

In order to answer this question the main Modernist values will be discussed, these include ideas such as avant-garde, the machine age, transhistorical, equilibrium, aesthetic, individualism, form, purity, essentialism, universality. This will then form the basis to which a conclusion will be made as to whether or not Andy Warhol upheld, adapted or rejected these Modernist values.

Modernism described cultural tendencies and a cultural movement which started in the late 19th century and ran into the early 20th Century which fixes its origins at the ‘shattering of cultural symbols and norms.’ Modernist artists believed that the ‘traditional, social and political order is no longer able to portray the modern needs as different from the past. They sought stylistic innovations that could better expose their present reality.’

The first Modernist value to be discussed is avant-garde. The Modernist avant-garde practice can be defined as the ‘combination of three qualities: technological experimentation, aesthetic engagement with the means of signification and an immanent social political commitment.’ This definition refers to Modernists experimental and innovative art which pushed boundaries of what was socially accepted.

Warhol emerged alongside Neo-avant-garde in the mid 1950’s, where Modernist values were subverted by the values associated with modern art within the Modernist period through the eruption of more diverse, new practices. Warhol and his ‘Pop Art’ work was an example used to show that the neo avant-garde is an avant-garde that ‘exists as a mere inauthentic mirage of the avant-garde of the 1910’s and 20’s.’ Warhol’s use of the ‘photographic silk screening process was the decisive step by which Warhol aligned his working method with the content of his paintings. It was through this step that he made conspicuous and quite specific contribution to the advance of avant-garde art.’

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The neo-avant-garde was a new take on avant-garde which wanted to bridge the gap between ‘life-as-art and art-as-life’ and remodel our day to day existence. Pop Art was used to tell a ‘melancholic story of arts inability to imagine socially better works.’ Warhol therefore adapted the Modernist value of the avant-garde where he added to the ideas of this Modernist value. He did this by adapting to the ever globalising society and created new means of creating and viewing artworks.

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol created several “mass-produced” images from photographs of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. He used the technique of silkscreen printing, this is seen as neo-avant-garde. This can be seen in his Turquoise Marilyn (Fig 1.) is based on a publicity still of Marilyn Monroe, with vivid colours highlighting her eyes, lips and earrings. He also famously replicated the same image in a variety of different colours.

Warhol created many pieces using the silkscreen technique which was a useful technique as many of the same image was easily replicable. This idea leads me onto the next Modernist value of the Machine Age.

Within the Modernist period, artists had to come to terms with the idea of machines. Many embraced the idea, ‘soughing to fuse art and life through an expanded approach to mass culture, performance and production.’ For example the Italian Futurists encompassed the ever advancing machine age. They created work whereby they repeated ‘shapes over and over’ like a machine.

Warhol sought to be machine like in his everyday life and also his artwork. He did this by using repetition in a lot of his work. He stated: ‘I think everybody should be like a machine, I think everybody should be like everybody.’ Within his day to day life he acted like a machine and this was reflected within his work entitled Campbell’s Soup Cans (Fig.2.) He claims he created this piece of work because he drank it daily, it was a routine. ‘I use to have the same lunch everyday, for twenty years…the same thing over and over again.’

Warhol liked the idea of other people creating the same work as him; he said ‘I think it would be so great if more people took up the silk screens so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or someone else’s.’ People thought that this would turn the art world upside down yet Warhol argued back by repeating that he just wanted to be machine like; ‘I feel that whatever I do and do machine like is what I want to do.’

While working as a commercial artist Warhol believed the ‘process of doing work in commercial art was machine-like, but the attitude had feeling to it.’ This feeling within work was seen as bad to Warhol as he wanted to be more detatched from his work, hence the wanted to be machine like.

Peter Halley admired Warhol’s work and felt that ‘one had a sense that one could actually participate in the making of the work.’ This was what Warhol was aiming for. He upheld the Modernist value of the machine age and brought it further forward into a more developed art practice ideal. Warhol upheld the Modernist value of the machine age through his use of repetition and other people doing his work for him.

Earlier mentioned was that Warhol wanted to be like a machine, thus meaning that he rejected the Modernist value of Individualism. His work has been described as having ‘a sense that one could actually participate in the making of the work.’ The idea of art not being individual caused ’emphasis on depersonalized production process, forming an attack on the artists role.’

Transhistorical is another Modernist value which can be said to create timelessness among Modernist art. It described the same style yet a change in materials throughout history. The intention of artwork has been described as fulfilling the idea of the transhistorical, ‘it specifies the invariant condition for something being art in every world and which there is art at all.’

The transhistorical concept of art is the ‘largely unacknowledged foundation for the first general art history.’ Warhol’s art has been described as providing an illustration of the essential emptiness of art. His art can be seen as the ‘termination point for the visual arts in world history… when art as a medium… has become inadequate, exhausted.’ In relation to the question, Warhol would be seen to reject the modernist value of the transhistorical, this is because he changed art itself, not just the mediums used.

The next Modernist issue which I am going to address is the idea of Equilibrium. Equilibrium stands for a balance, where by a considered harmonious decision making process takes place within art.

Warhol seems to reject the idea of equilibrium, ‘when the equilibrium is not in itself so intrinsically compelling, and the handling of the paint is kept adamant, the result is that the painting tends not to hold the eye: the spectators eye keeps bouncing off, no matter how hard he tries to keep it fixed on the painting… that has no inherent depth… and ends up erecting a kind of hand ball court for the eye.

Another Modernist value is aesthetic which is an emotion derived from the appearance of artwork. The aesthetic was very important to Modernist artists as they aimed to create a spiritual place for the viewer observing their art.

Warhol incorporated the idea of the symbolism between the aesthetic of art works and those of other non art products. ‘Warhol as it were redefined aesthetic experience in terms of critical resistance.’

Warhol developed his own comprehensive aesthetic theories, so we can say that Warhol adapted the Modernist idea of the aesthetic. He did this by changing the way in which we viewed work by changing the way in which work was made.

Form was another important value in Modernism where Clement Greenberg drew much attention to the importance of form and in particular; flatness. Greenberg believed flatness was wanted in art because it was what something which was exclusive to painting. He says: ‘For painting, such a focus means, most importantly, the exploration and assertion of ‘flatness,’ that is, of the two dimensionality that distinguishes a painting from a sculpture.’

Warhol used form in his work, but in a way that differed to most Modernists work. Form is the organisation of materials. Warhol’s’…use of photo silk screens…plays a role… in the progressive discarding of paintings tradition-laden baggage, while preserving its form.’

The Modernists values of Purity and Essentialism link together in Modernist work, as they refer to what is needed in art works and what is essential and left after everything is taken away.

‘It was Warhol himself who revealed as mearly accidental most of the things his predecessors supposed essential to art… he brought the history to an end by demonstrating that no visual criterion could not solve the problem through art alone.’

Warhol reproduces rather than represents, he seems to reject artistic sophistication, he does not take authorship for his work. Earlier mentioned he was said to wish for others to create his work for him, however, he strips his works down into a limited palette of colours, rather than defining every detail he uses only the essential lines so that the viewer can recognise what the subject matter is. Warhol has adapted the ideas of purity and essentialism.

The final Modernist value is universality and the idea that art applies to everyone and that everyone can respond to art work. He does this by using famous people so that the everyday man could recognise his subject matter, he also believed that anyone could be an artist and wanted equality in society.

Warhol also used everyday objects or subjects in his work, so that everyone could relate to his art. He upheld the Modernist Value of universality, for example in designing his Brillo Box-Soap Pads (Fig.3.) out of an every day material to show ‘the defining role of theory to be a universal truth about all art.’ Warhol speaks of making his Brillo Boxes in conjunction with his Campbell’s soup cans:

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‘I did all the (Campbell’s soup) cans in a row on a canvas, and then I got a box made to do them on a box, and then it looked funny because it didn’t look real… I did the cans on the box, but it came out looking funny. I had the boxes already made up. They were brown and looked just like boxes, so I thought it would be great just to do an ordinary box.’

The second part of the question asks how Warhol created ‘art after Modernism’, through influence of modernist values Warhol successfully created art after modernism in the movement entitled ‘Pop Art.’

Lawrence Alloway was the first person to render the idea of ‘Pop Art’ in 1958 which he described as ‘mass produced culture’ , it then became commonly used to describe new works of art which had been produced in the period that had become a ‘central stylistic concept of the pop scene and a synonym for the cultural movement for the period in general.’ Warhol became part of this movement through his use of colour and subject.

‘Art is anything you can get away with’ was a famous statement by Andy Warhol, who produced artwork after the Modernist period which influenced and inspired many. Warhol was born in Pittsburgh in 1928 and died in 1987. He moved to New York and became a successful graphic designer in the early 1950’s, he worked for shoe fashions and as designer of display windows, then towards the late 1950’s he began to produce and exhibit his own drawings, in 1960 he produced his first canvas and then he developed into an chic artist becoming part of the up and coming avant-garde movement known as ‘Pop Art’.

‘If they told me to draw a shoe, I’d do it, and if they told me to correct it, I would-I’d do anything they told me to do, correct it and do it right. I’d have to invent it and now I don’t; after that ‘correction’ those commercial drawings would have feelings , they would have a style. The attitude of those who hired me had feeling or something to it; they knew what they wanted, they insisted; sometimes they got very emotional. The process of doing work in commercial art was machine-like, but the attitude had feeling to it.’

Warhol was described as ‘mercilessly debunking Modernist protocols.’ Warhol took an anti-Modernist approach in some aspects of his art work and disregarded the Modernist idea of Abstract Expressionism; a movement ‘deeply informed by its subject matter and the artist’s attitudes towards their themes directing their attitudes towards form and process.

Warhol’s process of creating Silkscreens was a whole new technique. The silkscreen is simply a stencil, however Warhol combined it with photographical techniques which created different tonal ends. Warhol selected his images from newspapers and magazines he then ‘sent it to a commercial silkscreen makers with a note as to the desired dimensions of the screen and the number of colours to be printed. When the screen had been prepared for printing, it was returned to Warhol’s Factory.’ This process of silk screening meant Warhol could reproduce work quickly, simply and identically. Warhol also ’employed assistants to print his silk screens in his Factory.’ Warhol’s use of silkscreening can also be linked to the earlier point of universiality as this technique was mass produced and identical mirrored his views on an equal society.

Warhol was openly homosexual and his anti Modernist position educated his most renowned subjects, Marylin Monroe (Fig.4.) and Elizabeth Taylor. These celebrities ‘were as much gay icons as objects of male heterosexual desire, not just because of their publicised suffering in heterosexual relationships, and his silkscreen-printed ‘portraits’ of 1962-3 the garish inks virtually functioned as make-up, creating ‘drag queen’ connotations.’

The Coca Cola bottle represents an image of mass produced consumer culture which was encountered often in American society. Andy Warhol’s 210 Coca Cola Bottles (Fig. 5.) was made using the printing technique common to most of his work. ‘ The ‘stacking’ of his products in ‘rows’ implied a submission to the routinisation of supermarket-era shopping, as well as mimicking the techniques of mass production.’ This also links to the earlier mentioned idea of universiality

In conclusion, Andy Warhol changed art as was once know. He upheld the Modernist ideas of the machine age and the universal, whilst rejecting the idea of equilibrium, purity and essentialism and finally adapting the ideas of the avant-garde and aesthetic.

Finally he said: ‘Someday everybody will think just what they want to think and then everybody will properly be thinking alike; that seems to be what’s happening.’ I feel that this sums up art after Modernism as it shows how the changing ideas are adapting the ever changing world.


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