Swish Myth


A good place to begin is at the end. By the time he died on February 22, 1987, at the age of 59, there were many who thought Andy Warhol was less a vital artist than a parody of one, a vampiric social figure preying on the blood of younger and younger artists. He seemed over, and overexposed. He had become a legend, a nightclub artist who hung out with Liza and Bianca and Halston, and painted portraits of famous people for money. A celebrity himself, he was represented by the Ford Modeling Agency, endorsed Diet Coke, Puerto Rican rum, Pioneer radios, and Braniff Airlines, and played himself on Saturday Night Live and The Love Boat.

Then he died and all the guest shots, photo ops, TV shows, movies, magazines—even the paintings that people thought were sort of suspect—started making sense and grew more resonant. Now whole sectors of the art world seem modeled on Warhol, his work, or the Factory. Constantly contemporary, he is no longer merely an artist; Andy is the air we breathe.

So, why is Warhol without Warhol so much more respectable? The writer Dan Savage believes that “ours is a world that despises swishy or effeminate men.” Andy always thought Rauschenberg and Johns didn’t like him because he was “too swish.” Sixties socialite Frederick Eberstadt—who recalls feeling “uncomfortable” around Warhol—bears this out in Victor Bockris’s Warhol bio: “Here was this weird little faggot with his impossible wig . . . telling me that he wanted to be as famous as the Queen of England! It was embarrassing. Didn’t he know that he was a creep?” Robert Hughes barely contains his homophobia, branding Warhol “abnormal,” “homosexual,” and “malevolent” in the same sentence. Willem de Kooning’s disgust, meanwhile, turned dark when he railed at Warhol, “You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty, you’re even a killer of laughter.” Would Warhol have been as belittled and demonized had he been straight or less effeminate?

Since his death, there have been scores of shows illuminating every aspect of Warhol’s work: the shadow paintings, Rorschach paintings, oxidation paintings, the prints, photographs, pre-Pop paintings; in 1988, the Guggenheim, whose current dud is devoted to the Last Supper paintings, even mounted an exhibition of his little-known paintings of cars.

Now a really great Warhol show focuses on the three female icons in his art. “Women of Warhol: Marilyn, Liz & Jackie” at C&M is far from exhaustive, but it’s dazzling. If you think you know these most famous paintings (all made in his heyday, between 1962 and 1965), think again, because these works can set your mind on fire. Together, they possess the kind of concentrated hit—a combination of color, glamour, repressed sexuality, flawed beauty, philosophical insight, and brilliant picture making—that is at the core of Warhol’s achievement.

The three women are seen in 30 single, double, and multipaneled paintings. Each is based on a publicity or newspaper photo. There are five paintings of Liz, three made from a celebrity pic in Warhol’s own collection; the other two depict Taylor as Cleopatra, queen of high camp, patron saint of the cracked, star of one of the best/worst films ever made. Blue Liz as Cleopatra features the actress repeated 15 times, and reads like a phantom Photomat strip come to freakish life or a silent film slipping sprockets, moving at erratic speed. The 11 paintings of Marilyn are based on a Gene Kornman publicity still for the 1953 film Niagara. Immerse yourself in the little single and double Marilyns, each more exquisite than the last, then luxuriate in and get the chills from the killer, Cassandra-like Blue Shot Marilyn, so titled after a bullet hole inflicted by self-styled witch Dorothy Podber, who wandered into the Factory and shot through a stack of paintings. Look between Marilyn’s eyes and see where Warhol applied light, makeuplike paint to cover the wound. Finally, there are 14 Jackie paintings, derived from eight newspaper photographs taken the hours before and days immediately after JFK’s assassination.

Ever elusive, Warhol claimed everyone he painted was “the same,” that there was “no profound reason” for doing the things he did, but his work speaks louder than his words. The Liz paintings were begun while Taylor was recovering from emergency surgery. Recalling the shooting in Dallas, he says, “I heard the news over the radio while I was alone painting in my studio. I don’t think I missed a stroke. That was the extent of my reaction.” Yet the most haunting of all Warhol’s multipart pictures, Jackie (The Week That Was), here identified only as The Week That Was, an awesome portrait not only of a woman but of a country, was painted within weeks of the assassination. Of Monroe’s death, Warhol remarked, “I wouldn’t have stopped her from killing herself.” Still, he began perhaps his most identifiable series of paintings just days after Marilyn’s August 5, 1962, suicide.

So while it may be tricky to say who these women were to Warhol, something he said about one of them provides a clue to what he was trying to do, and brings us closer to who they are to us: “As for whether it’s symbolical to paint Monroe in such violent colors—it’s beauty, and she’s beautiful and if something’s beautiful it’s pretty colors, that’s all. Or something.” It’s that something, that unidentifiable, intangible essence that Warhol nailed so uncannily. The something that lurks in history or hovers around celebrities. Whether Marilyn, with her fuzzy, vulnerable, tragic sexuality, or Jackie, so young in the White House, so dazed by grief, noble in mourning: an icon of grace in tragedy. Or Liz, who is comedy but more—the tragicomic survivor of alcoholism, excess, and ridiculous love; future champion of gay rights, warrior queen in the fight against AIDS. It’s interesting to think about why Warhol never painted Barbra Streisand. The painter Deborah Kass—who has, usually in Warhol’s style—thinks Streisand was “too much like Andy: too outside, immigrant, other, and too Jewish.”

The paintings in this exhibition exist in a fabulous place beyond words. After the hype, the undeniable fact of his painting remains. In that fact we see Warhol’s genius; you can hear the clang of history around him. The train of American art history—which had been speeding up ever since abstract expressionism, and had started lurching to and fro around Rauschenberg and Johns—leaps off the track and begins a new course, the one we’re on now, with Warhol. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without him.

No painting in the history of art ever looked the way Warhol’s do. Those vibrating contrasts of intense, saturated, psychedelic chroma belong solely to him. Ditto the way he uses silkscreen. Other people have employed the technique, but not with all those marvelous, imperfect skid marks, overlaps, stops, and starts. Robert Pincus-Witten, this show’s canny curator, observes, “The language of approval comes through paint.” If so, then Warhol was “abnormal” insofar as he was a monster of freedom, willing to forgo that approval for his own “swishy” way of painting.