November 7, 2008

Your Cow Wallpaper And Floating Silver Balloons

I was predisposed to like Andy Warhol from the beginning. I had of course heard his name, but I knew very little about him, and his death barely registered on my teenage sensibilities. But by the time I got my hands on the Songs For Drella album by Lou Reed and John Cale, I was already a huge fan of the Velvet Underground. That same year the documentary Nico Icon played at the Vogue in Louisville. I needed to find out as much as I could about Warhol after that, the avante-garde artist responsible for bringing the Velvets together.

A few months later, while on a road trip to New York City, I stopped in Pittsburgh, Andy's hometown, to visit the Warhol museum. The Campbell's soup can. The silk screens of Elvis, Marylin Monroe, Chairman Mao. That signature banana. But nothing stood out as much as the balloons and the cows.

One of his shows consisted exclusively of a room filled with silver balloons. The walls were covered with his by then patented silkscreens, this time of purple cows. I cannot think anything else of Andy except that he was totally having a laugh at every art critic's and investor's expense. And why shouldn't he?

I am by no means an expert on art history. But it seems to me that I am not too far wrong if I summarize the history of art thusly: In ancient and medieval times, artists were striving for perfection. They wanted to recreate nature as accurately as possible. Their collective striving culminated in the Renaissance, with Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and they finally achieved this perfection. But once perfection was achieved, artists started working in the other direction, going from the impressionists to the cubists and surrealists until we got to Jackson Pollack splattering paint on a canvas.

Andy Warhol was a 20th century graphic artist who was genius enough to realize that by taking the images that thrust their way into our popular culture, whether from the covers of celebrity magazines, or the advertisements inside them, he could copy them, color them, and sell them for lots of money. The lines between art and commerce, Hollywood and Fifth Avenue, were forever blurred.

Perhaps Lou Reed says it best in his song "Images":

I'm no urban idiot savant
spewing paint without any order
I'm no sphinx, no mystery enigma
what I paint is very ordinary

I don't think I'm old or modern
I don't think I think I'm thinking
It doesn't matter what I'm thinking
It's the images that are worth repeating

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