Last Updated 02 Apr 2020

Warhol: the Flatness of Fame

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THANK YOU all for being here this brisk March afternoon. I’d like to thank the GRAM for the invitation to speak in conjunction with such a wonderful exhibition, and especially Jean Boot for all of her diligent coordination on my behalf. (There are 3 parts to my presentation. First, a virtual tutorial on the process of screen-printing; secondly, a discussion of the formal and conceptual potential inherent to printmaking, and the way in which Warhol expertly exploited that potential. Finally, I will conclude with an actual demonstration of screen-printing in the Museum’s basement studio. In coming weeks, you’ll have an opportunity to hear much more about the cultural-historical context for Andy Warhol’s work from two exceptional area scholars, beginning next Friday evening with a lecture by my colleague at GV, Dr. Kirsten Strom, and on _______ Susan Eberle of Kendall College of Art & Design. As Jean indicated in her introduction, I teach drawing and printmaking at GVSU. In other words, I’m approaching Warhol’s work very much as a studio artist. As a printmaker in particular, I’m predisposed to note the large degree (great extent? to which the innate characteristics of the medium – in this case screen-printing - enable and inform the meaning of Warhol’s work. At the outset of each printmaking course I teach at Grand Valley, I provide students a brief overview of the social history of the print; I divulge its rich heritage in the service of dispensing and preserving our (collected cultural discourse, from…) verbal and pictorial languages, knowledge and history, cultural discourse, from ancient scripture to textile design to political critique.

In addition I cite the formal qualities specific to the print – multiplicity, mutability, and its recombinant capabilities. I open with this background as a means of framing the work students will produce in the course. I’d like to provide a similar overview here, as a means of framing the work of Warhol, which is so richly informed by the native characteristics of his processes. As the expression goes: the medium is the message; form and content are inseparable. First I offer a brief tutorial on the process of screen-print, in the hopes of providing a bit of context and a richer appreciation for the images/discussion to follow. “With silk-screening, you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across so that the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. ”) The Imagery Warhol screen-printed images onto canvas in the early 1960s, and he began simultaneously to translate this technique to printing on paper. His subjects related directly to his paintings of the same period: James Cagney, the Race Riots, and Ambulance Disasters. These works on paper were printed in monochromatic tones and screened in a method that retained the graininess and immediacy of the mass media images on which they were based.

Warhol considered these works to be unique drawings. Changes in the ink saturation and/or in the composition during the printing process created variations in each work. Screen-printing was ideally suited to Warhol in two distinct ways: First - technically, it allows him to harvest images from a vast bounty of sources. Secondly - he fittingly adapted a “low culture”, commercial process for the production of images chronicling life in celebrity-crazed, consumer-driven, Post-War America.

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One of the well-known strategies of Pop Artists - Warhol and Lichtenstein, among them - was their appropriation of the visual characteristics of mechanical reproduction (which you can see clearly here in Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots pattern. Warhol went further than borrowing the language, employing the means of commercial printing itself. As of the 1930s, screen-printing was a widely-practiced process for the printing of posters, t-shirts, and other graphics in the US. In other words, Warhol chose this medium for its associations with the culture of advertising and shopping/consumerism. I want everybody to think alike. Russia is doing it under government. It’s happening here all by itself. I don’t think art should be only for the select few. I think it should be for the mass of American people. ” But how exactly does one represent “the mass of American people”? Through it’s proxies: (A) Through the objects of its consumption: Campbell’s cans, Coke bottles, Brillo pads and Mobil Gas (B) Through the media icons it reveres, and (C) Through the images of anonymous tragic figures Disaster and death were not his primary concerns, but rather the anonymous victims of history – the masses.

D and D evoke this mass subject, for in a society of spectacle this subject often appears only in stories and images of mass death. “I want to be a machine”: The History of the Print as a means/tool for social and political critique) Although screen-printing as Warhol practiced it is primarily a 20th century advent, the tradition of the print as a vehicle for disseminating ideas and information (as the vox populi) is centuries old.

Among the earliest surviving printed artifacts in Western civilization are these two contradictory images: a Holy Picture on the left, and playing cards on the right. Each dates from the mid-15th century, each is the product of the same “technological innovation”, the wood block (and in the eyes of the Catholic church, working at cross purposes with one another! ) Many of the most widely reproduced and well-known prints in the Western world are images of cultural unrest and political and social critique.

These are a few examples: Francisco Goya, 18th C Spanish printmaker William Hogarth, 18th C English printmaker Honore Daumier, 19th C French printmaker Kathe Kollwitz, early 20th C German printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada, late 19th C Mexican printmaker “All of what I have to say is right there on the surface – Remarks such as this one are at times misconstrued as superficiality – a dismissal of content - suggesting to some that Warhol’s choice of imagery was indiscriminate.

Especially today, Warhol is often mischaracterized through his studied, stoic affect - as an artist who felt nothing more for his work than for the contents of his local grocery store. I would argue that Warhol’s imagery is anything but indiscriminate, and is instead engaged in the popular tradition/rich heritage of the print as a means of social and political critique, especially obvious in the years between 1962 and 1980, from the “Death and Dying” series to the “Endangered Species” series. (Over this prolific period, Warhol’s ouvre included references to the Civil Rights movement, the death penalty, and of course the Cold War.

Even the artists’ early celebrity portraits are shrouded with both private and public tragedy: Marilyn, Elvis, Liz Taylor, JFK and Jackie O... ) To me, Warhol’s deadpan cynicism has always seemed a calculated critique of the turbulent social and political climate. It’s an ironic persona reflected in his works – an expression of apathy intended to induce the appropriate response from his viewers: shock and bewilderment that any artist, could produce images of graphic violence and human trauma with such apparent passivity.

Multiplicity – The first of three formal qualities innate to printmaking “I like boring things. ” “I don’t want it to be essentially the same – I want it to be exactly the same. Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel. ” Such statements suggest a strategic, pre-emptive embrace of the very compulsive repetition that a consumerist society demands of us all. If you can’t beat it, Warhol implies, join it. More: if you enter it totally, you might expose it; you might reveal its enforced automatism through your own excessive example.

These remarks reposition the role of repetition in Warhol. Here repetition is both a draining of significance and a defending against effect. This is one function of repetition in our psychic lives: we recall traumatic events in order to place them into a psychic economy. Yet the Warhol repetitions are not restorative in this way; they are not about a neutralization of trauma, for his repetitions not only reproduce traumatic effects, but sometimes produce them as well. Repetition in Warhol is neither a simple representation of the world nor a superficial image.

His repetition serves to filter traumatic reality, but it does so in a way that points to this reality nonetheless. Ultimately I would suggest that Warhol’s use of the multiple functions as a form of potent cultural critique, whether it emphasizes the horror, or whether it desensitizes us to the violence in many of his images. Mutability – (“With silk-screening, you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across so that the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue.

That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it. ”) The screen-printing technique affords artists the latitude for simple yet dramatic changes, from impression to impression. With little trouble, one can shift color, and even scale. The image can be altered through adjustments to the matrix (or stencil, in this case), or during the printing process itself, through the irregular application of ink.

When I originally conceived of this talk, I intended to speak primarily to this one formal aspect of Warhol’s prints: his exploitation of the process to produce deliberate imperfections that (reflect the true disposition of his subjects) (inform the meaning behind his images. ) (further enable the content of his work. ) contribute to the flatness of his subjects – thus emphasizing their artificiality. Purposefully crude printing and mis-registration disrupt the pictorial illusion, drawing attention to the flatness of each image that, in a metaphorical sense, speaks to the nature of fame.

Warhol’s arbitrary colors suggest the un-reality and artifice of each subject. These aren’t real people, but products, and you can have them anyway you want them. We construct reality the way we desire it to be - the lips are larger, more red, the hair is more golden; they remain young and beautiful forever. Marilyn image that disintegrates and fades out. Elvis that overlaps. – (silver screen/motion Recombinant Potential – The screenprint is among the most versatile of print techniques in regards to substrate. In other words, one can print on a diverse array of surfaces, including paper, wood, glass, plastics, textiles.

The exhibition here at the GRAM demonstrates Warhol’s affinity for the aesthetic of the print on canvas – a practice that effectively elevated screen-print – a low-art technology of commerce – to the privileged status of painting. Their visual translation into the language of screen-printing homogenizes every subject; the queen, a skull, a shoe, a can, Marilyn, all become part of the same glossy, colorful language. In addition to one’s ability to print on a wide spectrum of surfaces, screen-printing allows an image to be “saved” (one may simply store and re-use the stencil or matrix in a later situation. Thus we see Warhol’s “vocabulary” (lexicon? ) of celebrities and other iconic images juxtaposed in shifting circumstances – being exercised in a language of signs. These (printed signs) juxtapositions can homogenize even the most horrific of images, emphasizing our mediated relationship to the trauma depicted. This homogenization leaves space for interpretation – it can be argued that Warhol has intentionally treated the car crash and the Campbell soup as equal – not as references to the actual world.

Alternately, it might be argued that the images are intended to shock a complacent consumer culture back to reality through conspicuously violent juxtapositions. By positioning such horrorific images in the proximity of the celebrity portrait, in the “low art” language of the advertisement, Warhol critiques a consumer culture lulled into apathy since the War by the numbing effects of Television, advertising, glossy celebrity tabloids, and the veritable glut of shiny new objects available for purchase on every store shelf.

I’d like to congratulate the GRAM on a wonderful exhibit. Curator Richard Axsiom has done a marvelous job of pulling together a broad spectrum of Warhol’s strongest/most resonant images…and I’d like to invite you all downstairs/to the museum’s studio for screen-printing demonstration. THE IMAGERY: Celebrities or anonymous – these are images to represent the “masses”. Art should be for the pubic, but how do you represent the “public body”? – through the icons they look to, or the anonymous Marilyn image that disintegrates and fades out.

Elvis that overlaps. – (silver screen/motion Warhol’s remark that all of what he has to say is right there on the surface is misinterpreted as mistaken as superficiality – a dismissal of content – argued that it supports indiscriminate images and passivity. I would argue that Warhol’s imagery is anything but indiscriminate, and is engaged in the long history of the print as a means of social critique. I want everybody to think alike. Russia is doing under government. It’s happening here all by itself. I don’t think art should be only for the select few.

I think it should be for the mass of American people. How does one represent “the mass of American people”? Through it’s proxies, through its object of consumption, soup cans, Coke bottles. Media icons stand it for the body of the masses. Disaster and death were not his primary concerns, but rather the anonymous victims of history – the masses. D and D evoke this mass subject, for in a society of spectacle this subject often appears only in stories and images of mass death. Celebrity and anonymity represent the mass subject. Enter into/immerse himself in the language of pop culture. With silk-screening, you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across so that the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it. ” Warhol hand-printed unique silkscreen images on canvas in the early 1960s, and he began simultaneously to translate this technique to printing on paper. He experiments with subjects that directly relate to his paintings of the same period, as in Cagney, Race Riot, and the Ambulance Disaster.

These works on paper were printed in monochromatic tones and screened in a method that retained the graininess and immediacy of the mass media images on which they were based. Warhol considered these works to be unique drawings. Changes in the ink saturation and/or in the composition during the printing process created variations in each work. Popular impressions of Pop reduced to candy – it was almost too effective in its critique, ceased to function as a critique – irony and sardonic qualities become eye candy only – another commodified visual confection.

The profound flatness of images such as the soup cans – these images exaggerate the lack of roundness – these are cylindrical objects – void of their substance/their mass. Warhol Prints Not to overlook the obvious Flatness Repetition Imperfection Juxtaposition The multiple, mutable, recombinant image – Warhol’s prints are responding/exploiting each of the inherent potentials of the print. Reality as a mediated phenomenon is the subject of Warhol. Private fantasy and public reality is a primary concern of Warhol’s brand of Pop.

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