ANDY WARHOL: THE LIFE YEARS, 1949-1959
published by Hirmer Verlag (Germany)
with essays by Alexandra Barcal, Olaf Kunde, Paul Tanner
bi-lingual, with text in both English and German
One exciting by-product of the posthumous popularity of Andy Warhol in the last few decades has been the publishing boom related to All Things Warhol….and also the many international exhibitions taken from Warhol’s massive body of work.
As with the subjects of religion and sex, both of which were of great interest to the artist, in life and in the work, Warhol and his art have inspired both awful writing and analysis and transcendent writing and analysis. Similarly, there have been unimaginative exhibitions, well-done exhibitions aimed at a general audience, thematic exhibitions which choose work from a wide variety of styles and periods (the recent Andy Warhol: My Perfect Body show at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh being a good example of that), and what for me is the most exciting kind of exhibition (or exhibition catalog, since I cannot travel to Europe or Japan very easily), the deep study of a limited aspect of Warhol’s work, where a lot of little-known works are presented, and we are encouraged to “get inside” the creative process.
Examples of that would include the Warhol Liz book, the Ladies and Gentlemen collection (Skarstedt Gallery), and the amazing auction catalogs such as Christie’s Andy Warhol Coca-Cola 1962, where an entire book is devoted to numerous facets and perspectives and the backstory on ONE painting. For me, these are the most illuminating of the entryways into Warhol’s work.
While Warhol is universally known, I would claim that his WORK is not adequately known. As someone who has been following Warhol’s work for 40+ years now, I am discovering not just new individual works each year, but new bodies of work, or groups of related works. It’s exciting and exhilarating, to say the least, for this to happen with an artist who has been dead for 30 years, but it’s Warhol’s compulsive workaholic nature that is responsible for him investigating a certain motif and then producing dozens and dozens of variations on it. I would make the analogy of a variorum edition of an author’s work or the large edition of Eliot’s The Waste Land which shows each step in the editing process, but these Warhol artworks, often large artworks, have such a commanding presence and dominate whatever room they are in so much that they are truly on a more powerful physical level than any author’s editing notes.
I’m old enough to remember when Warhol could not get arrested in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The art world and the hipsters had turned against him. I loved his appearance on The Love Boat and his TV ad for Braniff Airlines, but that totally alienated many, as did his aggressive marketing of the celebrity portraits, including to the families of overseas dictators. Warhol did not have to worry about the art world breathing down his neck in the late 70’s and early 80’s–they didn’t care much anymore. He created large and diverse bodies of related works, and many of these did not even get an exhibition showing during his lifetime, and those that did get exposure largely got it overseas. With income flowing in, Warhol had the freedom to paint what he wanted in the style he wanted, to experiment with a technique or a motif that interested him and to try many different permutations of that technique or motif until he felt he had finished his investigation of that area and could move on to something else. Late-period Warhol is still severely underrated, and there are dozens and dozens of oversized art books devoted to it…some of which can still be found cheap at used bookstores in major cities (or college towns) with a good selection of art books. Rather than listen to me talking about it, why not go buy one yourself–it speaks far more eloquently than I can, and it will keep your interest over the years a lot longer!
Another period of Warhol’s work which is lesser-known and much underrated is his pre-1960 work, the commercial art and the private drawings. Again, a good number of books have presented many many unknown-to-the-public works, the majority of them never exhibited. For the commercial art, the ultimate collection–one you’ll treasure and find new delights in for a lifetime–is ANDY WARHOL: THE COMPLETE COMMISSIONED MAGAZINE WORK, assembled and contextualized by Paul Marechal (thank you, Mr. Marechal for taking on such a massive task–the results are incredibly rewarding to those who love Warhol’s WORK).
A related work, also assembled and curated by Marechal, is ANDY WARHOL: THE COMPLETE COMMISSIONED POSTERS, many of which come from his late period. I remember seeing some of these when they initially appeared (and neatly removing the pages of magazines that contained these ads), and they still can stop the viewers in their tracks today. These two collections are highly recommended (the poster book is the cheaper of the two, but the commissioned magazine work one is exhaustive and massive and a great buy even at its expensive price) and will provide years of pleasure.
Getting back to Warhol’s 1950’s pre-Pop drawings and to the book under review today, we have pioneering Warhol authority Daniel Blau to thank for the concept of ANDY WARHOL: THE LIFE YEARS and for the exhaustive research within Warhol’s archive AND within hundreds of copies of LIFE magazine from the 1950’s.
When I first saw this book announced, I thought to myself, “hmmm, I did not know that Warhol worked for LIFE extensively in the 1950’s,” and of course, he did not. What he did do was to use photographs from LIFE, during its classic 1950’s heyday, as a starting point for practice drawings as he was developing his signature drawing and then blotted-line style. A number of those drawings survive…and are reproduced in this book in a size large enough to study his lines close-up. That in itself would be enough, but evidently, Mr. Blau took the time to go through every LIFE magazine of the era and find the exact photographs and the exact advertisements that Warhol used to inspire these informal (who’s to say what’s “formal” and “informal”?) drawings….and the drawings and the LIFE pieces are often presented SIDE BY SIDE. Of course, if you care about such things, this book is a revelation.
In addition to the artworks, there are a number of essays which provide historical context, nuts-and-bolts explanations of Warhol’s technique (the essay breaking down the essential differences between monotype, Warhol’s blotted line style, and klecksography is quite eye-opening—-especially because many of us are familiar with the monotypes of Matisse and Castiglione, and I’ve had the privilege of seeing examples of both up-close and in-person), a brilliant deconstruction of the audience and culture reflected in 1950’s LIFE, and a very important essay by Alexandra Barcal entitled “The Art of Reduction, or What’s In A Picture: On the Use of Photographic Imagery in the Early Drawings of Andy Warhol.” With photography providing a catalyst for much of Warhol’s work in ANY era, this essay provides an insightful explanation of a process that many students of Warhol have intuited but not had spelled out for us. Works from many Warhol periods–including the Campbell’s soup cans and the Brillo boxes, to cite two of his best-known motifs–rarely if ever attempt to replicate the photograph. There is a selective and reductive process going on–just look at a real Brillo box and then one of the Brillo sculptures, or a real Campbell’s soup can and then one of the paintings. It’s quite different, and there’s a consistency and a method to that difference. The roots of that selection and reduction, and then the alchemical transmutation of those elements into art through the medium of Mr. Andy Warhol—-the beginnings of that fascinating process can be found in these drawings inspired by images in LIFE Magazine. For that reason alone, this is an essential book in the Warhol canon. In addition, though, it’s a pleasurable journey alongside the development of Warhol the artist during a fascinating and still under-appreciated period. The drawings are striking as are the LIFE images.
Books like this tend to become available, stay in print for a while, and then fall off the map and go up in price. When I googled the title to get a cover image for this piece, I saw that the book is presently available widely in the US and at reasonable prices–you could even buy it at Wal-Mart’s online shop if you were so inclined (actually, Target is offering it at a price ten dollars less than Wal-Mart, and there’s not the guilt associated with a Wal-Mart puchase!). I’d suggest grabbing one now instead of procrastinating and then debating whether or not you should pay $120 for it in five years.
In Barcal’s “Art of Reduction…” essay, she introduces concepts/phrases such as OF BROWSING AND MARVELLING, REMARKABLY UNREMARKABLE THINGS, and THE HIGH ART OF ‘SERIOUS PLAY,’ which demonstrate to even the casual student of Warhol’s aesthetic the importance of this period and of LIFE’s influence on the artist. The roots of everything that came later are there….and there for YOU to explore and examine in this important and enjoyable and large volume.