Andy Warhol Prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation at the Portland Art Museum (all photos Jeff Jahn)
The current retrospective at the Portland Art Museum, Andy
Warhol: Prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation
is the largest of this seminal artist's output ever and should be on the to
do list for anyone who can make it. There is breadth and scope here so PORT took
a walk through to discuss the exhibition with noted print scholar and curator
Richard Axsom, who contributed an essay to the catalog. Like so many Post WWII
artists Warhol had mostly drained his work of allegory while introducing popular
iconography as a kind of folk or kitsch context. This was something fascists had
abused so Warhol's rise as an artist became a rehabilitation of sorts, bringing
back iconic secularism without nationalistic jingoism and other subjugation. As the Cold
War continued Warhol became became the defacto Pope of Americana, canonizing our
pop culture saints and sinners, addressing capitalistic, societal and more underground
iconography alike so I was eager to geek out with Axsom on one of the true greats
and touchstones of the late Twentieth Century. Speaking as geek myself if we have
inherited the Earth in the Twenty-first Century, Warhol is definitely one of our
own... a kind of iconographer in chief who created an extended family with his art production.
Jeff Jahn: Welcome to Portland... there is so much here let's do the obvious
thing and start the discussion with the early work in this room.
Richard Axsom: Well he was the best known and most celebrated graphic designer
in in the late 1950's
JJ: Paid very well for it too
Andy Warhol(detail)À la recherche du shoe perdu, 1955
RA: A huge amount of money and this reflects the directorship that I. Miller gave him to oversee a major shoe campaign. What we see here though wasn't done for
commercial promotion. It was done to be a self published artist book for friends. Here is what you might call the portfolio sleeve which the prints fit into into
and the title is À la recherche du shoe perdu by An. He didnt finish the
title but it referencing Proust's novel À la recherche du temps perdu
Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past).
It is already a very savvy and sophisticated bit of language play. His mother
hand wrote the inscriptions on all of these. The text is his and the titles
are again whimsical plays my shoe is your shoe to shoe or
not to shoe and I love this Alice B show. Which refers to the Alice B
Toklas with a man's tie
JJ: her famous accessory for dress. She was Gertrude Stein's partner and subject
of Stein's most famous work. Not exactly a mainstream figure and would not have
been ok for a populist ad campaign but great for a private art project.
RA: They are all watercolors, made with a kind of offset process called blotted
line. You take a drawing or photograph and you take medium and trace it in dye
and then you take a sheet and as with a mono-type you put it on another piece
of blank paper and you blot it.
JJ: The technique helped him work faster than other designers because he could
do multiples of similar drawings with different colors, additions and omissions.
It gave him an edge in presentations for clients.
RA: The blotted line even becomes a signature aspect of his style. He creates
the outlines with the shoe this way and they are water colored by hand. So if
you were to look at this work the 50's it stands for his commercial work as
a graphic designer. It reflects his interest in consumer goods and things which
are advertising... which he then moves off to the side and away from the commercial
function and into the realm of art.
JJ: Also, with his Slovakian heritage, which has a strong culture of gift giving
this folio of shoes is a similar gift and not a commercial production. Thus, this
is fine art produced as personal mementos for certain people. Degas famously thought
that all artists produced for a small circle of colleagues and I see Warhol as
doing that here. Its very personal fine art. He had coloring parties which arent
dissimilar from the psysnka egg decorating parties his mother and other women
would have. Later the eggs would be given as gifts. Warhol claimed he, "came
from nowhere," but you can never take those statements at absolute face value...
you absorb things you grow up with.
RA: (laughs) an interesting Slovakian connection, I wouldnt have known
JJ: Yes gift giving and art making parties are big part of that culture
RA: It makes sense as much of the work in this room were made as gifts that were
self published or as promotional material as work to show potential clients...
but there is that body of gifting here that is very important.
JJ: Another thing his mother did pysanska eggs which has a similar indirect line-making
technique but in that case it is wax resist. His mother had pysanky egg decorating
parties and Andy later had similar shoe folio decorating parties. What's more,
his mother was living with him at that time.
RA: Right right... exactly
JJ: He definitely came from an artistic family and they supported that
RA: for sure, overall this is one of my favorites, it has such spirit visually
with all the plays on words too.
Andy Warhol designed Velvet Underground album covers
JJ: I think a lot of people will be surprised at how many album covers he did,
even before the velvet underground stuff he did a lot of classic jazz LP's for
the likes of Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Thelonious Monk. I wish those were here
too but these Velvet Underground covers with a bit of The Factory's silver room
effect give a sense of collective artistic effort as well.
RA: Oh yes... the show will be a revelation for so many people. One of those revelations
is just his artistic output. The quantity and the diversity of it. Then there
is the photography and the films... the magazines and the editorships.
Andy Warhol, Index, 1967
JJ: and the Index pop up book here... drawing on his youth when he was 6 and
was stricken with St. Vitus's Dance disease, his mother made him puppets and
pop up books. Everyone talks about this stuff.
RA: Ah I know!
JJ: People bring up that disease all the time but there is something playful about
his approach to everything... of course being serious but not taking the act so
serious that he couldn't experiment. Basically directing his assistants and making
editorial/directorial decisions is a little bit like the pop up book Index where
it is essentially miniaturized and portable stagecraft. At age 6 being struck
with that disease isolated him and forced him to construct collaborative worlds.
Not being serious about something is often a way to achieve seriousness.
RA: Or even appearing not to be serious about something and yet
JJ: Reminds me that the late night TV shows and how their comedic monologues are
often more social bellwethers than other more serious exposes.
And Warhol, Flash-November 22, 1963 (install at Portland Art Museum), 1968
JJ: People always want to to focus on the soup cans but I definitely want to
get to the Flash folio with you. I see it as a keystone to the exhibition and
it is treated seriously as such with its own room with gray floors and walls.
RA: Its amazing, I think it is his greatest portfolio. I'd go out on a limb and
say that in a second. Nothing comes close to this. It's special because it doesnt
diminish the value of the Cans, Marilyn and Flowers and the later works in the
70's like The Endangered Species which is my favorite.
JJ: We will get to that downstairs but Endangered Species was the first art show
by any artist that I worked on... I was helping install it at what was then called
the West Bend Art Museum in Wisconsin. A small regional museum that is now the
Wisconsin Museum of Art. You know the place I'm sure living in Wisconsin. I never
got to see Flash while living in the Midwest, this is what Ive been most excited
Flash (Kennedy Campaign sourced image on the right)
RA: (gestures around the Flash room) I take these as a profundity and reveals
other sides of Warhol. Flash is deeply human and profound and spiritual and not
just a on the face shrug as some would say. It has that to a certain extent but
its deeply serious.
JJ: Looking at these I think about when JFK was assassinated and I wasnt even
born yet, Im a gen x-er. It was before my parents ever met but by all accounts
it was that first moment in the mass media when there was what some now call
trauma vision. A situation where everywhere you look you cant escape the tragic
news on TV, and now the internet. The media simply becomes saturated with grief
and fear with 911, school shootings, or other terrorist attacks... also when
the challenger exploded. I feel like Warhol was addressing the inescapably itself
rather than a value judgment on the grief. He's addressing the domination of
an interconnected news cycle. I know Warhol spoke about his regret over how
sad it made everyone when JFK was assassinated. He seemed to want to move beyond
just the oppression of the terrible news and images. Reminds me of the way children
at funerals often say the most amazing things when all the adults look for words.
RA: I wrote about this in my essay (for the catalog) and at the time everyone
was absolutely hysterical when President Kennedy was killed. How they were crying
and weeping and grabbing each other. You think, really. that's Andy Warhol?
It left a deep impression you might say. But also its his observation of the
repetition and the desensitizing, the reality being created through the media
and at a certain point you tune out. Flash just scrambles the situation in a
way that Life magazine didnt... it was too brief and Warhol carries it instead
through the non chronological sequence of the prints.
This is true of all artists but with Warhol's Flash specifically. If you a really
going to think a bout a work of art seriously, past the initial emotional reaction,
one thing that can bring you closer to it as a work of art and not an illustration
of generalization is to ask yourself what the decisions were?
What to include and not include... what color, what composition, what photographic
source and how to present it because that is the telling of the story ok...
and even the best analytic discern and remove as an intellectual exercise just
brings you intimately closer in contact with the work. We can talk about all
the language that surrounds Warhol which is totally appropriate like repetition,
machine and what it does to society and sometimes I think wait, there is what
Frank Stella calls the Art Part,which he wont discuss.
And that is fine, you can make generalizations and conceptualizations about
an artist but when it comes to it you are reading that artwork now and it is
specific. It is not there to illustrate the generalizations. So once you get
past that here asking why he made this choice or that choice, there is experience.
Flash (image sourced from moon landing address to Congress)
I took such great pleasure in tracking down all the sources for the photography
and then saw what it meant to be non chronological and what you have, which
I sorta spell this out in the essay is there is a chronological element here
that has been purposefully rearranged and thus is non chronological.
It begins with the presence of the campaign of 1960 and this is taken from
a poster showing Kennedy for President.
JJ: The idealism of it, the potential...
RA: Yeah, at the beginning he's smiling and this image appears several times throughout
the portfolio. It pops up here and (pointing) over there.
JJ: and Jackie of course with that same kind of projected smile.
RA: But still not from that moment when the Preseident dies. Then again the
other bookend of course from the assassination so here you have 19960 then 1963.
I was curious where this particular image was from?
JJ: from TV?
RA: Exactly, it is something that reads as a televised image and so I thought,
huh what is the source? So thank god for Google image, I was just going through
and going through and hmmmm... I know Ive seen that before? Then there it is...
several photos of a televised address by Kennedy in congress in 1962 he is announcing
to congress that Americans will be on the moon by the end of the decade.
Then you step back and it is the pinnacle of his presidency. The highest highest
point of aspiration.
JJ: Warhol has given it a deep purple color... kingly but also a color that
can be read as somber or serious... its not a sunny bright image and Kennedy
himself is in negative space.
RA: So there you have first the presidential campaign, then the pinnacle of
presidency and then comes the tragedy. Im not the only one who likens the Kennedy
presidency to Greek tragedy.
Here we have the beautiful, the handsome the wealthy Kennedy with a beautiful
wife and the it comes to absolutely nothing. So the choices of Andy Warhol are
important, there is power here certainly. Then you have the color and even some
of the images here start to disappear. Look at this, it almost seems like abstract
squares of color, its being effaced and as information its almost like it is being
pushed back and diminished.
Flash page 17
So the prints themselves alone would be a spectacular portfolio but then you add
the teletype cast.
JJ: They are like concrete poetry
RA: It is concrete poetry and again the irony is this is very dispassionate..
its AP breaking news as a teletype of the funereal mass and procession as they
arrive at Arlington.
You know that this text was chosen by Warhol and a good friend Philip Greer.
They went through all the text and sort of chopped, pasted and cut to create
what looks to be a running teletype
with the "d-d-d" stop flash "d-d-d" stop
JJ: At the top of each are the page numbers as if to imply it is a contiguous
and whole thing. But it is Art and technically not a primary source historical
account as its heavily edited from its source material. Yet it presents itself
as both which is interesting.
JJ: was that then Warhols decision to put those page #'s on?
RA: Yes, and then you think ok well then fine and then you find
theses teletypes are the folders or sleeves into which the images are placed.
So up until very recently they were never shown when the flash portfolio was
shown, which was very infrequently mind you. But over the past 10 years there
have been 5 or 6 presentations one of which did show a selection of some of
the pages but this is really astounding because what I would argue and what
this installation honors is that the texts are as important as the images.
The clincher to this is is when you read through what Warhol has chosen to
be this chronological narrative... when you go to this teletype like narrative,
like the prints you are moved to tears.
My editor took a look at the early draft at my essay for the catalog and I
said Carolyn, read the teletype text?
She called back after a day and said you know when I was reading it I had tears
running down my cheek. It might not be the strongest of observations but when
was the last time a Warhol work made you cry? It can't be by Warhol? It is not
what he does? But he can do it.
JJ: Later on you have the electric chairs (right around the corner) and the car
crashes which are tragic.
RA: Very shortly after this Flash series. I mean it is so potent but Im not sure
they make you cry?
JJ: There isnt as much emotional head room because there is more shock?
RA: And fear, I mean those electric chairs imply and invite the reading of That's
where you are going to sit in?
It is the mortality and the memento mori but Warhol is a layered and multifaceted
with multiple texts and reads which come together and I love this double narrative
of both text and visual
JJ: In some ways do things become less personal after Warhol gets shot in 1967?
RA: oh yeah
JJ: whereas Flash seems very present and personal in its response, as we all process
grief, mourning and our relationship to collective events in our own way.
RA: Again with Warhol it is yes and no though. With Warhol you get the yes I saw
it... then later you have the skulls and the Endangered Species series. One thing
and Ive never come across this
the photographic image that is screened
down onto the paper for the endangered animals is a negative image.
JJ: so it is a shadow engram of the animal form? Reminds me of how nuclear
blasts will create shadows of victims against the wall.
RA: And it allows you to fill in the blanks. So why would he do that? Well
a negative image is an image that is not alive. A negative image is not the
positive presence of the animal. The film as a negative is a indicator of death
or an analog to death
JJ: Warhol is very good at creating wraiths that haunt the psyche. In so many
instances I feel like Warhol creates crypts that we fill in our minds with memories
of ghosts, even when it is a soup can. I think Warhol works best as a fall and
winter time artist and October is a great time for this subject. Museums get accused
of being mausoleums but many people find cemeteries comforting. It is a very Nineteenth
Century Romantic notion of communion with death being what keeps a sense of life
present. It's a hallmark of the sublime (danger or mortality rendered at a safe
remove) that industrial production distanced from. In many ways Warhol reintroduces
us to the true sublime despite the mechanical processes.
Endangered Species series (1983)
RA: Then what does Warhol do he takes this dead image of an animal and makes it
extraordinary beautiful and many people did not know that Warhol owned a fair
amount of acreage at the tip of Long Island. Montauk... and he's very concerned
about it. To conserve it and he ceded some of it to a conservancy because he thought
it was so very beautiful. I should get this quote to you because you will thinkAndy
He talks about the land and he likens it to a work of art and preserved in
its beauty and the art is not at the same level of importance.
You think, My God... it is very personal;
JJ: You really see it in the Sunset series... they are near the Endangered Species
series but I would have played them off one another other more in the install.
Its easy to see these things once a show is hung already though. Maybe another
part of this naturalism is from his Slovakian heritage? Where nature is a big
part of their culture with flowers etc? They took extreme pride in the natural
beauty of things...
RA: The flowers are double edged too...
JJ: Always. But growing up in Pittsburgh during the depression you are going to
appreciate nature more too... here in Oregon we have such stunning nature with
easy access. I feel we take it for granted. That said Warhol's Sunsets are the
closest thing he does to addressing the sublime and they are best as a complete
series, all of his work really. The flowers too.
RA: The flowers series have all sorts of connotations. They are lilies. They have
connotations off glory. Fame and death. With Warhol there's always another side
that open sup so that they are decorative and beautiful and also death. The memento
mori of the wilting flower... its beautiful then it is gone. Life is short then
you are dead.
Skull (1976) and Howdy Doody (1981)
JJ: it seems like such a short, facile statement to make... that life is fleeting
because of death but it is also one of the most profound observations. Sometimes
I hear it reiterated that humans are somewhat special as a species because we
are aware of our own destruction? Partially, as everyone and every culture is
defined by how it handles death but Americans are interesting humans since we
kinda ignore death. Warhol pierces the American psyche a bit by giving us decorative
flowers and celebrities that bloom and fall away but ultimately its as quick
or as deep as you want it to be. He isnt oppressive the way other artists are
about Death. Warhol's familiarity with death is more casual like a neighbor
or someone you see every day. Gerhard Richter, Jasper Johns, Richard Serra,
Damien Hirst and even younger artists like Terence Koh all are more oppressively
formal and feel like solid doom. Warhol is so American because with him capital
D Death is there but lets the viewer treat it as no big thing if
they want. When Warhol does a skull or a president he isnt so heavy handed.
That awareness of mortality is embedded into his work
Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait, 1977
RA: The shadows and the self portraits. There is a series of self portraits that
you seldom ever see from around 1977 and they are downstairs. Those are so haunting
and deeply psychological.
JJ: They remind me so much of Shakespearean images of actors playing Hamlet, Lear,
Macbeth even Prospero... they are all delivering soliloquies.
RA: Even the more familiar ones with the thoughtful glance are very very personal.
They are just haunting images of a man whose thoughts are to deep to even speak
about. That the Warhol who isn't the guy at Studio 54... but it is one and the