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Two authors offer a fresh take on Warhol in the '60s

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It's perfect, really: Andy Warhol, who made his name with deadpan renderings of consumer products, didn't even come up with his most famous idea himself.

He bought it.

Evidence that Warhol paid $50 for the idea of painting a Campbell's Soup can was unearthed in the form of a canceled check, made out to "Muriel Latow," that author Tony Scherman found during some two months of research at Pittsburgh's The Andy Warhol Museum. The check, dated Nov. 23, 1961, is among the discoveries and insights revealed in Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol (HarperCollins), the new book by Scherman and David Dalton.

Pop is a detailed account of Warhol's life and work from 1961 through 1968. Dalton considers that span's early years the most productive in Warhol's career. Yet as it began, according to Pop, Warhol was artistically adrift.

At 33, the ambitious son of working-class Pittsburgh who'd become one of New York's top fashion illustrators had been stymied in his attempts to break into the prestige gallery world of fine art. Although he'd made tentative stabs at what would be called pop art, in late 1961 Warhol was devastated to learn that similar -- but more accomplished -- newspaper-ad and comic-strip take-offs, by artists like Roy Lichtenstein, were already on the market. 

Though Warhol had rejected the era's reigning genre, abstract expressionism, he now risked getting left behind himself. He pleaded with friends for help. Among the visitors to his studio on Nov. 23 were Latow, 30, a gallery owner. Pop recounts several versions of what happened that night; in one, Warhol wrote the check, handed it to Latow, and said, "Give me a fabulous idea."

A star was not instantly born; for one thing, some of Warhol's early renderings of the soup cans Latow suggested were adorned with stylized drips, which Warhol would soon reject for his starkly iconic approach. But by May, Warhol was being quoted about pop in Time magazine. By December, he was famous.

The idea-purchase is a signal incident in the engaging, accessible Pop. Scherman, an author and magazine journalist, did three-and-a-half years of research. Author and Rolling Stone founding editor Dalton contributed an intimate knowledge of both the book's subject and its scene: For about a year, starting in early 1962, Dalton and his sister, Sarah, were teen-age assistants to Warhol. (Pop recounts how Sarah introduced Warhol to the practice of silk-screening photographs, which became another of his hallmarks.)

Tom Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum and a Warhol scholar, praises Pop for the breadth of its research and its deceptively "breezy" style. "This really feels like someone's best friend is telling you about their best friend, but really being very, very thoughtful," he says. 

Dalton's more than 100 interviews flesh out accounts of Warhol's formative years as an artistically rebellious student at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). Especially intriguing is Warhol's time as a commercial artist in '50s Manhattan, where his plain looks and awkward manner kept him outside the elite gay social circles linked to his field.

Meanwhile, to attain the art-world acceptance he yearned for, Warhol had to remake that world in his own image(s).

In particular, Pop contends that though he's typically seen as an ironist, like Lichtenstein or Claes Oldenberg, Warhol "adored popular culture pretty unambiguously," says Scherman, in a phone interview. Alone among major pop artists, he adds, Warhol had a working-class background "and the working-class longing for, and kind of adoration of, the consumer products that were starting to pour out of factories and advertising agencies as he was growing up."

Though early pop art was sometimes called "neo DaDa," Dalton says that, again, Warhol's attitude separated him from apparent forebears like Marcel Duchamp (who in 1920s Paris infamously signed a urinal and called it art).

"With Duchamp, there was heavy French irony and disdain for commercial products and things, as well as for the art world," says Dalton, by phone. Warhol, he says, "embraced capitalism, consumerism, commercialism."

Dalton contends that Warhol's irony was reserved for putatively serious subjects, notably his "disaster" paintings depicting plane crashes and such. "I think at bottom there was a sort of aesthetic, campy take on that, as images," says Dalton. "I don't think you could ever call him a social activist."

Very quickly, pop art deflated the art world's sense of high seriousness, and smashed the distinction between high and low culture. Pop finds Warhol leading the way. "One of his intuitions was that really art and merchandise and advertising were not as different as people claimed," Dalton says. "Whether he was selling a can of soup, or a painting of a can of soup, it was not of a different species. It was the same thing."

But not all the walls fell. "If Warhol were to have truly obliterated the barrier between the refined and the vernacular," write Scherman and Dalton, "he would have sold his paintings in supermarkets, at supermarket prices, not supermarket products at Sotheby's prices. To truly flatten the highbrow-lowbrow wall, whose foundations were largely economic, was probably the last thing Andy wanted to do." 

Meanwhile, Warhol's purchase of the soup-can idea has its own complex history. 

"I know people who are still sort of outraged when they hear it," says Dalton. "To me it was just sort of perfectly of Andy. It's perfect -- that you buy the idea. And very hard to be as cheap as Andy, and pay $50 ..."

Yet while the purchase was long-rumored, Warhol never acknowledged the transaction. That suggests he was anxious about it, too.

 "Later on he would have been proud: 'I bought the idea,'" says Dalton. "It took him a while to get into his own philosophy, what attitude he was going to take to this. He always felt he was someone sort of sneaking into the party."

 

Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol book launch. 6 p.m. Fri., Jan 8 Authors Tony Scherman and David Dalton in conversation with museum director Tom Sokolowski; reception follows. Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. Free with museum admission. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org 

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