Andy Warhol: Taidehalli * Helsinki, Finland
by Spencer Finch
I was ready for an Andy love-fest even before lunch. But lunch certainly helped, and in the interest of full disclosure I will come clean on my consumption: two large glasses of white wine, a jumbo Finnish cappuccino, and a shot of Poire (tempered by an excellent herring terrine, mediocre smoked-lamb salad, and a spoonful of gritty crème brulé, if you must know). Anyway, it turns out that this particular combo of alcohol and caffeine fuels art-viewing the way liquid nitrogen and pure oxygen fuel the space shuttle. I blasted into the exhibition hall primed for serious aesthetic adventure. Andy delivered.
Andy Warhol's universe is as close to heaven (and hell) as you can get in 20th-century art. For me, it is a constant source of wonder, admiration, and occasional horror. There are so many great things about Warhol's oeuvre that to try to count them is like counting angels dancing on the head of a pin. However, Warhol was nothing if not prolific, so every new show provides new angels to count and new reasons to dance a little jig of appreciation around the gallery.
The early pre-Pop drawings from the '50s are really quite astounding. One can see in these drawings an incipient dumbness that was later transformed into Warhol's trademark genius. au recherche de shoes perdu is very dumb indeed, but it is also funny, and one sees in it the kernel of the later, flatfooted masterpieces such as the double Mona Lisa or even the soup cans. The watercolors of cakes and cocktails testify to Warhol's remarkable technical facility, but also to his affinity for confections and libations, sugar and booze, sweet and saucy: the powerful mixtures that would later crystallize into bittersweet silkscreen images of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy. And even in the very early work Warhol knew how to make incredibly engaging images, whether it is a steaming plate of watercolor meatballs, an exhaustive collection of technicolor butterflies, or a sexy gold-leaf portrait of a guy named Bud. Warhol had many gifts, and understanding how to unleash the power of images was not the least of them.
One rarely thinks of Warhol as a "process artist," but the single oxidation painting in the show in Helsinki was sufficient to cast him as a major contributor in this genre. It is great to look at, far more visually interesting than much process art, and yet deeply philosophical in the way that great process art can be. In fact, Warhol's range is really quite unparalleled in 20th-century art, and I found myself (energized by the above mixture) making the inevitable comparisons to that other multi-talented guy, Michelangelo. Call me vulgar, but I'd take a couple of car crashes over the Sistine Chapel any day. And Empire vs. St. Peter's dome--it's a close call.
Another series of work that I had not really considered much is the dollar signs. A lot of artists have tried to use art to examine the nexus of art and commerce, but no one has hit the bullseye quite the way Warhol did. Like so much of his work, the dollar signs initially appear flip and superficial, a lazy update of his early pix of money. But if you give these pictures a few moments of consideration, you soon realize that a major semiological, philosophical, and cultural frisson is being whipped up. And yet the pictures are resistant to any simple reading; they retain their frustrating Warholian ambiguity and distance, and thus remain very much alive, context-dependent, and powerful. I still couldn't tell you if these pictures are celebrations of the almighty dollar, snide critiques of dollar-worship, or just beautiful floating signifiers.
And then there's the work that makes you shudder. As Sartre said, hell is other people, and in Warhol's late portraits we find a lame line-up of assorted ghouls and goblins from contemporary life. O.J. Simpson is there, looking ubiquitous before he was ubiquitous. (The case could be made for Andy as soothsayer.) Mick Jagger looks like hell warmed-over. There is some hockey player, toothless and mean, who I didn't recognize. Unfortunately, these portraits all look pretty much the same, and instead of conveying the emptiness of celebrity, only convey the emptiness of Warhol's commercial tendencies, which were, of course, gargantuan. Still, even a fallen Andy can kick ass: the Dolly Parton diptych is a show-stopper. I was reminded of an interview I once heard when she was asked if she ever went out and was not recognized. "I sure hope not, I spend a lot of time every morning making myself look like Dolly, and that's who people expect to see." A face of Maybelline and a heart of gold, which Warhol captures perfectly.
This show served only to reinforce my conviction that Andy Warhol is the Big Bang for all that is interesting in contemporary art. His influence on major stars such as Nauman, Richter, and Sherman is undeniable and just increases the more you think about it. But also scores of other artists, working in modes ranging from process art to painting to video, all bear the mark of his contribution. And this contribution solidifies not only the importance of Warhol but also the preeminent role of American culture in this century. I stepped out into the streets of Helsinki feeling myself transformed into some sort of flag-waving lunatic, deliriously proud of American culture. That is because Warhol's production encompasses everything that can be great about American culture: fierce intelligence and independence, formal and technical verve and innovation, shockingly resonant subject matter, and a transgressive spirit that rages against the hegemonic hypocrisy while simultaneously opening up entirely new aesthetic vistas. And just like the beautiful boy with a beautiful voice who sprung unexpectedly out of Tupelo, Mississippi, there is a sense that Andy Warhol, without question but also without explanation, could only happen in America.
If you want to have as much fun as I did at the Warhol show, I recommend the Art-Lovers Cocktail. I see no reason why this can not all be mixed together in advance, stored in a thermos bottle, and consumed in a museum lobby or rest room. It wears off in about 45 minutes, but very gently.
2 large glasses dry white wine
1 XL cappuccino
1 shot of Poire or other fruit brandy, such as Calvados