By Rosalind E. Krauss
After a brief interruption, to concentrate on filmmaking, Andy Warhol returned to painting in 1972, preparing long rolls of canvas with a spread of plastic paint (synthetic polymer), buttered onto the surface in irregular surges and tracks, to form a squirming ground onto which the black mist of a portrait’s features—Chairman Mao’s square jowls, his flat eyebrows, squat neck, domed forehead—would fall, like an iconic dew, the inky precipitate forced through the silken mesh of the screens with rubber squeegees. With typical insouciance Warhol acknowledged the pandering quality of these backgrounds: “I would still rather do just a silkscreen of the face without all the rest,” he admitted, “but people expect a little bit more. That’s why I put in all the drawing.”1
The “drawing”! This tag just shrugs away a decade of intense debate about the nature of Abstract Expressionist gesture mounted as a defense against the arty finickiness—the unassailable representational nature—of graphic line. That Jackson Pollock’s lassoes and pours of liquid paint were in the front line of such a defense was obvious to Warhol was made clear when in the late 1970s he proceeded to his “Oxidations”: His method of imitating Pollock’s line by means of urinating onto the surfaces of still-wet canvases bearing metallic paint.
He saw such unorthodox forms of drawing as moves within the fractured field of art-world politics, with “vanguard” in open contention against “retrograde,” as seen in the rejoinder he made in the mid-1980s in the context of his sinking reputation, which was partly a function of Warhol’s own activities in the 1970s as he turned “business artist” and the mainstay of this business—society portraiture—drove Warhol’s critical reputation ever downward in the vanguard circles of the New York art world. It is also a function of the degree to which Warhol’s more difficult post-’68 work was shown exclusively in Europe, so that, for example, the “Skulls” (1976) were only shown in Cologne and Munich. It was further a function of Warhol’s identification with Studio 54 and the drugs-drink-sex binges of the Disco Decade that was skidding out of control by the late ’70s, an association that made the 1979, frame-to-frame installation of his “Shadows” in New York into what the artist himself called “disco décor.”
Although the “Oxidation” paintings (1977–78) were consciously made to refute this negative reputation—when he was told that a New York tastemaker had said that he wasn’t avant-garde anymore, Warhol retorted: “Did you tell her about the Piss Paintings?”2—these were not shown until late in 1986, and thus their impact along with the critical attention and acclaim they excited was delayed by almost a decade. And, by the end of the ’80s, Warhol’s reputation had in any case taken a dramatic turn for the better, which is to say, the more serious.
The initial form of this seriousness was iconographic; by 1987 Warhol’s pictures had begun to be connected to the “Big Subject,” namely, death.3 His disasters, his race riots, his electric chairs, his suicides were now seen as a continuous and expanding cycle, the concentric circles of which even included Warhol’s fascination with fame, such as the doomed Marilyn Monroe or the assassinated John F. Kennedy.4 It began to extend as well from content to form, from signified to signifier.
In 1989 Benjamin Buchloh singled out Warhol’s “blanks” in order to consider these empty panels, joined in polyptych-like relationship to figurative canvases, in the light of the whole tradition of abstract painting, particularly abstraction in its toughest form: the monochrome. For Buchloh these “blanks” were made in parody of abstract art and the utopian spin it had placed on emptiness, purity, and refusal. This ironic attitude did not devalue Warhol’s position in his eyes, however. To the contrary, it made Warhol’s identification of his own “blanks” as a merchandising strategy a form of canny revelation.5 “Recognizing that no single strategy of modernist reduction, of radical negation and refusal, could escape its ultimate fate of enhancing the painting’s status as object and commodity,” Buchloh writes:
. . . the destruction of any and all metaphysical residue of the device (be it in Neo-
plasticist, Abstract Expressionist, or as it was identified, hard-edge and color-field painting of the fifties) seems in fact to have been the task that Warhol had set for himself in the deployment of monochromy in the early sixties.6
If the “Oxidations” were conceived as forging a connection with Pollock, Warhol’s “blanks,” begun in the early 1960s, struck an association with Ellsworth Kelly, something he freely acknowledged as follows: “I always liked Ellsworth’s work, and that’s why I always painted a blank canvas. I loved that blank canvas thing and I wished I had stuck with the idea of just painting the same painting like the soup can and never painting another painting. When someone wanted one, you would just do another one. Does anybody do that now? Anyway, you do the same painting whether it looks different or not.”7 Warhol’s experience of Kelly’s use of monochrome panels dated from the late 1950s when he visited Kelly’s loft in Coenties Slip in New York, the waterfront studio space Kelly shared with Jack Youngerman, James Rosenquist, Robert Indiana, and Agnes Martin. At this time Kelly had completed Sixty Panels: Colors for a Large Wall, 1951 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), a grid of monochrome panels, which Warhol saw in the studio and approved as in his above comment. Furthermore, in the late 1950s Kelly was at work on a multipanel mural commission for the lobby of Eastmore House, panels that transcribed the shadows cast in continuous black hoops by the semicircular ceramic roof tiles overhanging the horizontal roofbeam of a farmhouse Kelly had photographed and was now translating into the rhythmic continuation of a kind of open fan of abstract shapes executed in flat black and fuchsia onto a twenty-five-foot-long strip of white.
That Kelly’s access to abstraction was mediated by shadow was the fairly open secret of many magazine articles and catalogues of the artist’s work in the late 1950s, particularly John Coplans’s Abrams monograph of 1970, which published the photograph Kelly took of the black beat of shadow cast by its railings onto the stairway of a summer house called La Combe and which he transferred quite literally onto panel in the 1950 hinged screen Nine Panels: La Combe II.
The possibility of such a scenario, with Warhol or one of the members of his entourage associating shadow with advanced abstraction, saps Bob Colacello’s account of how Warhol happened onto his shadows project, an origin myth Warhol’s biographer locates in the artist’s desire to make abstract paintings late in 1978, a wish, he says, that was at first countered by Fred Hughes’s objection that as “Warhol” he was only supposed to paint things, an impasse his assistant Ronnie Cutrone led him out of by saying that shadows could be both of things and abstract, with the final result that the “Shadows” internalized, as their secret referent, the cast shadows of hard-ons photographed by Cutrone.8 The second of these origin myths is produced by Charlie Stuckey, who claims that Warhol made the series in homage to Rauschenberg’s 1949–51 monumental “White Paintings,” which John Cage had famously celebrated as “landing strips for shadows”—empty, monochrome fields awaiting the “event” of a viewer’s passage before them and with it, the projection of his or her cast shadow onto their surface.9 Stuckey’s evidence for this assertion is utterly circumstantial—the Rauschenberg retrospective that was circulating in 1976–78 contained a white triptych—and as we will see the proposition runs counter to what Warhol seems to be striving for in these works. Similarly, Colacello’s story about the sexual referent for the “Shadows” is countered by the testimony of Cutrone himself, who reported that the shapes in question were achieved by photographing pieces of cardboard in a raking light.10 And again, the fundamental absence of any recognizable referent is important to what Warhol is doing in this series.
By the 1990s many of Warhol’s other “abstractions” had been singled out for exhibition, not only the “Shadows” and the “Oxidations” but the “Rorschachs” and the “Camouflages” as well. And abstraction, or at least the signifier emptied of representational meaning, had received another kind of spin in the form of Hal Foster’s conception of “traumatic realism.” Concentrating on the photographic mechanism that made it possible to produce a given car crash or police beating or electric chair in a sputter of repetitions, Foster turned his eyes from the content of the image to the photomechanical screen that both processes it and succeeds in hiding it from view. Arguing that repetition is the form in which a traumatized subject attempts to screen himself off from the Real (capitalized here to link it to Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic notion of the Real-as-trauma and thus as something which, because it was never truly encountered, escapes representation), Foster sees Warhol’s screens enacting just this function. With their streaking and blanching, their rips and punctures, their misalignments of register, the photomechanical screens gesture toward a Real which can never be represented at the same time that they indicate a rupture in the psychic field of the traumatic subject himself.11
For his 1966 Castell exhibition, Warhol shifted his focus to the subject at the forefront of vanguard art, namely eyesight itself. Warhol used the partitioned space of the two rooms to divide his work into two different series. One concentrated on the walls of the Castelli Gallery by covering them with wallpaper repeating a cow’s head; the other, as Buchloh has remarked, “concentrated on the empty space of the room itself, which Warhol emphasized by floating silver-colored helium ‘clouds’ within it,” the clouds, we could add, presenting themselves as strange metonymies of daylight, now concentrated and packaged under plastic.12
The abstract status of the clouds, their arguably vanguard condition, was as distant as possible from the concept of “drawing.” Unlocatable, they were more like puffs of smoke than circumscribable objects. With this as a context, it becomes more obvious why, when in 1979 Rupert Smith brought Warhol what he called “diamond dust,” the artist welcomed it as a possible new form of background for his paintings and prints, although at first he found the material too matte. Smith solved this problem by substituting a form of ground glass that he bought from a supplier in New Jersey, and with it Warhol embarked on his first series using this material for his diamond dust “Shoes” (1980) after having renewed the “Shadows” project (1979) in which the ground glass, sprinkled either in black or white onto the liquid grounds of the projected shapes, made a strange fusion of two signature Kelly ideas: shadows on the one hand, and windows on the other. The most well-known, and one could say, the most Warholian of Kelly’s early transfer paintings was his Window, 1948 (Museum of Modern Art, Paris), reproduced in Gene Goosens’s Art of the Real in 1968 and in Coplans in 1960, with the museum’s actual window reproduced cheek-to-jowl with Kelly’s painterly ready-made.
If the window could embody itself as the signifier for “vision”—namely the transparency of the optical medium through which sight thrusts itself—shadow could function as the intermittent opacifying of this matrix, its darkening, its termination. Glass and shadow thus make a kind of narrative sense in the construction of an imagined visual subject, although a subject, here, stunned by light, traumatized by the coming of “the day.” There was, of course, a narrative that explored this very constellation of themes, although whether it would have been available to Warhol is more open to doubt. This narrative, The Madness of the Day, by the French novelist Maurice Blanchot, is a first-person account of the blinded victim of an accident through which the narrator’s sight has been effaced by having ground glass thrown into it, with the result that he cannot see “the day,” a story organized to transform the transparency of vision itself into a signifier—“the day”:
I nearly lost my sight, because someone crushed glass in my eyes. That blow unnerved me, I must admit. I had the feeling I was going back into the wall, or straying into a thicket of flint. The worst thing was the sudden, shocking cruelty of the day; I could not look, but I could not help looking.13
In such a passage we watch Blanchot transforming “the day” into a signifier for visuality as palpable as Warhol’s diamond dust, or Kelly’s Window.
1 Marco Livingstone, “Do It Yourself: Notes on Warhol’s Techniques,” in Kynaston McShine, ed., Andy Warhol: A Retrospective (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 74.
2 Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), 339.
3 See Thomas Crow, “Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol,” Art in America 75, no. 5 (May 1987). This position is developed further by Trevor Fairbrother in “Skulls,” in Gary Garrels, ed., The Work of Andy Warhol (Seattle: Bay Press, 1989).
4 With great prescience, Stephen Koch had already addressed Warhol’s obsession with death in relation to his films of the 1960s; see Koch, Stargazer (New York: Praeger, 1973).
5 Warhol said: “You see, for every large painting I do, I paint a blank canvas, the same background color. The two are designed to hang together however the owner wants. He can hang it right beside the painting or across the room or above or below it… It just makes them bigger and mainly makes them cost more.” Cited in Benjamin Buchloh, “Andy Warhol’s One-Dimensional Art: 1956–1966,” in Kynaston McShine, ed., Andy Warhol: A Retrospective (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 48.
6 Ibid., 48.
7 Ibid., 47.
8 Colacello, 429.
9 Charles Stuckey, “Warhol in Context,” in Gary Garrels, ed., The Work of Andy Warhol (Seattle: Bay Press, 1989) 24.
10 For the “Shadows,” see Warhol’s Shadows (Houston: The Menil Collection, 1987); for the “Rorschachs,” see Rosalind Krauss, “Carnal Knowledge,” in Andy Warhol: Rorschach Paintings (New York: Gagosian Gallery, 1996).
11 Hal Foster, “Death in America,” October, no. 75 (Fall 1996).
12 Buchloh, 73.
13 Maurice Blanchot, The Madness of the Day, transl. by Lydia Davis (New York: Station Hill, 1981), 11.