Andy Warhol's Piss Paintings Aren't Exactly Number One

The brand plays on at the Brooklyn Museum

The figure of Andy Warhol, like Jesus, has come to mean many different things to lots of people. An empty screen onto which generations of arty folks project their own desires, the gee-whiz shade that was Warhol retains a religiously iconic power for an otherwise skeptical sweep of culturati that spans both Harvard deans and devotees of The Rachel Zoe Project.

Warhol's position as the patron saint of art celebrity became gospel following his death in 1987, just as his mass appeal was beginning to wear away like a faded "My Boss Is a Jewish Carpenter" T-shirt. For every rerun of his A&E Biography and Love Boat cameo pulled from TV, loads of sycophantic articles and record auction sales took its place. What the faithful extolled then has become art-world catechism today. There's Warhol's forgiving celebration of superficiality as "the most brilliant mirror of our times," his conflation of radical and blue-chip art, and the rock-sure faith in his escalating prices. Put in strictly Catholic terms, that is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of the Warhol cult. It's enough to make one wish out loud for a glimpse of Martin Luther.

If early Warhol—a period, according to academics, that begins with the Campbell Soup cans and ends with his 1968 shooting by Valerie Solanas—embodied Stuart Davis's definition of the new American artist as "a cool Spectator-Reporter at an Arena of Hot Events," then the later version was characterized by Andy's tabloid affair with conventional bourgeois kitsch. Warhol ditched his thrilling electric chairs and trenchant Marilyns along with painting ("so boring") to engage in the following square pastimes: making perversely monotonous movies, starting a gossip magazine (Interview), churning out portraits of Imelda Marcos and Nancy Reagan (among other commissions), and generally whoring himself out in demonstration of something he called "business art" (his coinage lives on in the auction-house shenanigans of Damien Hirst). While at it, Warhol nearly torpedoed the chance of anyone ever again taking him seriously as an artist. Once the juggernaut of a culture of promotion, Warhol was suddenly unable to distinguish between good and bad products to hype. For an idea of how sleazy he looked then: picture Elton John singing at Rush Limbaugh's inaugural.

Art whiz? Oxidation Painting (in 12 parts), 1978
The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Art whiz? Oxidation Painting (in 12 parts), 1978

One example of Warhol misplacing his cool compass was his decision to join middlebrow champion LeRoy Neiman in Los Angeles for a show underwritten by Hugh Hefner. Another career slip-up: his 1979 Whitney Museum display of celebrity portraits, which was universally panned. Still a third was an ill-timed exhibition of dollar-sign paintings at Leo Castelli in 1982. The press had a field day. The critic Stuart Morgan, writing in Artforum, served him up on a pike: "In recent years his shows have been increasingly disappointing. . . . Warhol's work has always been empty, but now it seems empty-headed." The prince of Pop had become the emperor of kitsch. For those who choose to properly recall his last years, the irony was perfect.

In the 1980s, Warhol became a parvenu in an art world that he had previously conquered. A famous painter and B-list celebrity who lacked the universal visibility of "real" stars (he was too swishy and opaque to have a beer with, to use W.'s popularity metric), Warhol knew that the tide had turned against him where it mattered—downtown, among the Bowery clubs and the neo-expressionist cool kids. "I wasn't creative since I was shot," Warhol confided with mangled grammar to his diary at the end of the '70s. A few years later, after returning from visiting museums abroad, he was ready to agree with his harshest critics: "I might be well known, but I'm sure not turning out good work. I'm not turning out anything."

Back in New York but no nearer a breakthrough, Warhol had studio minions relieve themselves on prepared canvases. Slathered previously with metallic pigment, these "Piss Paintings"—or "Oxidation Paintings," as they are primly labeled at the Brooklyn Museum's current show, "Andy Warhol: The Last Decade"—energized the artist for another decade of hit-and-miss activity. Shallow puns on Jackson Pollock's drip paintings—and Jack the Dripper's legendary habit of letting go into Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace—these and other late canvases were mostly condemned to exhibition in Europe during his lifetime. "The Last Decade" makes a case for their parity with Warhol's seminal pop works. In a phrase: not even close.

Billing itself, quite rightly, as the first major Warhol museum show in New York in a decade—local gallery shows, on the other hand, are too numerous to count—the current hagiography is predictably full of superlatives orotundly mouthed by the show's otherwise eminent curator (Joe Ketner). Warhol's late "great artistic developments" include collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat ("a tour de force of figurative painting"), hand-stenciled "Black & White Ads" (sourced from newsprint, they mostly eschew "his extraordinary touch"), and a spiritually dodgy "Last Supper" series ("the most ambitious body of religious paintings of the 20th century"). But this is par for the course for Warhol appreciation, where grade inflation often resembles the old subprime market.

A firsthand look at the "Piss Paintings" makes one thing perfectly clear: These one-liners turn boorish after a single viewing. Warhol's collaborations with Basquiat and a clueless Francesco Clemente are a train wreck that hardly invites rubbernecking. And Andy's "Last Supper" paintings, rather than works of spiritual reckoning, represent this artist finding—according to an assistant—"just another button to push." Warhol's "Rorschach Paintings," on the other hand, invite greater scrutiny—if not exactly for their painterliness, then for the artist's frightening magnification of a familiar symbol (for those without benefit of an analyst, Rorschach tests are normally card-size). Another set of late paintings, the "Camouflage" series, deploys a similar strategy with contrasting Matisse-like color schemes. These paintings succeed because they feature the disappearing act that sustained Warhol throughout his entire career: his Oz-like ability to hide his utter affectlessness behind an equally empty front.

 
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