Warhol at the Whitney - Superman
Authored by Adrian Ormsby
Moving from the dimly lit room full of fine art Golden Slippers and elegant blot drawings, we enter a well-lit room where the first thing that hits you once again is the massive scale of the images followed by a strong sense of the familiar. That is, familiar images of everyday life, such as, Coke bottles, cartoons and before and after advertisements (see images). But like the flowers in the Flower Room, they’re all so big and bold and larger than life itself. Also like the Flower Room, people just whizzed past these images of the everyday without taking a second look. I even got a sideways look from the gallery security guard while taking pictures with my 30 year old medium format Pentax camera, looking up at Superman longer than anyone else in the room (an occupational hazard of an art historian when the Museum staff don’t know you’re an art historian).
If you didn’t know that you were at a major Warhol exhibit you wouldn’t believe that the works on the walls in the very next room were the same artist. So, what exactly happened to this fine artist that worked so delicately with ink pen and brush, even using elegant gold leaf, who now regressed to shameless copying of super hero comics and adds from the back page of the local daily. Yes, once again a complex Warholian riddle for the viewer to ponder and unravel.
This is one riddle, however, where a knowledge of the artist and his or her history is vital. So let’s get started. Along with producing popular magazine adds in the 1950’s, especially for women’s shoes, Warhol would be one of the most sought after retail store window designers in New York City. And the store that would elicit his artistic services, would naturally be the one that specialized in high-end women’s fashion, that is, Bonwit Teller on the corner of the famous 5th Avenue and 38th Street in New York City. Within 4-5 short blocks of this prime shopping location you have the Empire State Building, Cornell University, Times Square, Macy’s and even the Australian Bar and Restaurant on 38th Street itself (I am ashamed to say I have never eaten there but I did check out the menu with good old Aussie meat pies and chips). In summary, it is and has been the very hub of New York shopping and fashion for decades.
With this setting in mind, it is appropriate to introduce an important historical image that holds the key to understanding the next phase of Warhol’s complex artistic career. It is the image of the very window at Bonwit Teller that Andy designed with two key images at the Whitney represented (see image). That is, Warhol’s Before and After nose job (1961) and his Superman blowing out the flames of injustice in one massive PUFF, produced in 1960, a critical period as we will discover.
Looking at Before and After, this simple black and white image acquired verbatim from the cheap adverts of the local paper, would represent the critical breakthrough in Warhol’s art. As we saw with Warhol’s shoe advertisements, this was a watershed moment in time inspired by the fame and glamor of Hollywood and Fashion, where you too can have the perfect not too big and not too small nose of Liz Taylor, following the same path to beauty and acceptance in the modern metropolis. I see a similar pressure at work with my own kids born in the United States, who willingly endure the very painful and lengthy process of orthodontic repair to their teeth at the tender age of 9 or 10 so that they can have the same American smile as all their friends at school.
In many ways, Warhol’s nose job image is a metaphor for the notion of transformation itself, that was taking place on many levels at this critical time. That is, a transformation of Warhol himself from mainstream commercial artist to the radical cutting edge avant-garde, a transformation of middle class culture by a sophisticated and far reaching mass media and popular visual culture and a subsequent transformation to a contemporary form of modern consumerism and commercialism touching not just the rich and famous but all Americans in ways never before imagined or thought possible by a post World War Two generation that had personally experienced the privation and poverty of the Great Depression. In the words of Arthur Danto “the seeds of a visual and indeed a cultural revolution were planted.” Warhol’s recognition of this change was prophetic.
Superman would represent a radical departure in Warhol’s art in terms of subject matter and aesthetic. Gone would be the glitter and glamour of the Golden Slipper which would be replaced by direct acquisition of adverts from the local paper, including the stereotypical yet very important vernacular entertainment and pass-time of the masses, the humble yet revered comic strip Super Hero. If there is any image that everyone equates with Pop Art, it is the comic strip. When I talk to people about Pop Art they invariably bring to mind three key images, which includes Warhol’s Marilyn, his Soup Cans and the comic book images of Roy Lichtenstein. Surprisingly, most people I talk too have no idea that Warhol dabbled in comic book imagery early in his Pop Art career.
Even in our sophisticated digital age of Google and Social Media, the comic book Super Hero continues to resonate across all generations and appears across all cultures throughout the globe. The recent massive and critical response by teens and young adults to the Marvel Avengers Endgame movie (yes I saw it at the movies with my teenage daughter the first day it came out) is testament to the resonance of this timeless and influential genre.
A closer look at Warhol’s Superman, however, reveals more than just direct acquisition. If you look closely at the Bonwit Teller Superman image (see color close up image) you see additions in Warhol’s final image at the Whitney that are not seen when he first exhibited it in the shop window. His final Whitney version includes a half-hearted attempt to rub out letters in the caption, which are still legible and the addition of red fill markings outside and above the top demarcation of the image. In addition, black fill markings are seen immediately below the caption extending diagonally and downward to the billowing black smoke.
What exactly is Warhol getting at with these changes in an otherwise perfectly ok comic book image? What he is doing is introducing a new element of visual distraction to the image, making one who is already familiar with this image from every day popular culture stop, pause and think to his or herself that something is not quite right with this image. And they would be right, something is not the same as the other.
Another unfamiliar element Warhol produces in the Superman image is the black drips at the bottom of the black smoke seen at the lower left (see image). The introduction of these “accidents” of painting serves to reinforce to the viewer the presence of the artist himself, who would purposefully leave the drips for all to see, admire and puzzle over. Warhol would continue to tolerate and ultimately encourage these “accidents” of artistic production going forward, as a signature element in his art. As we will discuss in a later blog, we will see this same process happening in his production of the Brillo Box in 1964, the very work that would challenge the prevailing philosophical concept of what fine art actually is, even when you cannot discern the visual difference between art and the real thing, unless you are lucky enough to see the random drip of paint.
In these key early works of the everyday, Warhol is warming us up, along with the Artworld at large (especially gallery owners and art dealers) to look at the ordinary commercial object in a totally different way. I hope you’re starting to see the Warholian thread unravel before your critical artistic eyes. I know there is a lot to think about here, but take all the time you need and go back to the images and take a second look. As Warhol would say, it’s all there, in the images to see.
Once again we’ve run out of time and space. But next time we will look at another important everyday object of transformation in this room that you probably either consumed or looked at this week, yes the Coke bottle. We will see how this would connect back to Warhol’s Campbells Soup Can and how they would ultimately lead to the codification of the ordinary object of mass production. Stay tuned and get your Coke bottle, or should I say Coke can primed and ready to go.