July 613, 2000
Beneath The Surfaces
Social comment both direct and oblique at PAFA.
by Robin Rice
Andy Warhol: Social Observer
through Sept. 21
Robert Gwathmey: Master Painter
through Aug. 13
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,
Broad & Cherry Sts., 215-972-7600
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Robert Gwathmey (1903-1988) make an odd couple. The premise of pairing the two large solo shows at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is that both artists were social observers. Setting aside the truism that all artists reflect and consciously or not reflect upon their cultures, I agree that Warhol and Gwathmey both were conscious social critics. Nevertheless, their means and their minds were very different.
Gwathmey, a white man born in Virginia, trained, among other places, at PAFA and taught in Philadelphia at Tyler School of Art. He later disavowed his education to some extent, saying that it took him 10 years to “unlearn classical painting,” though surely he encountered cubism, the primary influence on his mature work, at the Academy. His school-time work experience with diverse cultural groups opened his eyes to his career subject matter: the lives of poor Southern blacks.
Gwathmeys painting could often be mistaken for that of Jacob Lawrence. He regarded himself as an observer rather than a moralist; however, Gwathmeys indictments of racism and materialism are strong stuff. Some subjects are joyful, but more are filled with pathos and harsh emotional contrasts. The Hitch-Hiker (c. 1936) is reminiscent of a well-known Dorothea Lange photograph, but more surreal, depicting a wretched traveler hemmed in by billboards of languorous women displaying cigarettes or silk stockings. The grotesquerie stops short of the viciousness of George Grosz but has similar linear rhythms.
Gwathmey was a thinker, and he made art express his ideas clearly. Warhol was intuitive. He also made art express his ideas, but his ideas were ambiguous. He felt that the truth was contradictory even muddled.
In filmed interviews, Warhol, authentically shy and notoriously chary of talking to reporters, often appears to be ridiculing them (and us?) with a campy deference which equates the opinions of fellow “Superstars” with those of obvious hangers-on. But that recognition of the power of popular, in the sense of plebeian, taste is one of Warhols profound social themes.
He was no intellectual. It was not incumbent on him to be consistent, and he wasnt. His most direct political work is a 1972 silkscreen of a blue-faced Nixon captioned “Vote McGovern.” But when a reporter asked him who he favored for president, Warhol replied, “Nixons just great. He travels so much like a movie star, a Superstar.” Warhol went on to name some of Nixons showbiz friends.
This wide-eyed wonderment at the phenomena of popular culture was part sincere and part pose. It did not blind him to the negative aspects of the same phenomena. An instinctive deconstructionist, he knew that a profusion of meaning resides in the surface. He called celebrities “half-people,” implying both that the public knows only their mediated images and that they are crippled by their celebrity status. While other “Superstars” might bemoan their victimization by the paparazzi, Warhol was satisfied that everything of consequence about himself was on view: “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me .”
When Warhol made paintings of the Shah of Iran and his wife, he celebrated their very real handsomeness, graciousness and incredible wealth. He neglected the related truth that they were the leaders of an evil, corrupt regime.
His incredulous remark, “You mean the Shah might not be the Shah anymore? You mean we might not get paid? Politics are so abstract,” had a personal meaning for me. At the time of the revolution, I knew young Iranians and Americans living in New York who worked directly or indirectly for the Pahlavis. Virtually all jobs for educated people with connections to Iran were dependent on the ruling family. All my friends who worked for the Shah devoutly hoped for the revolution, though they knew it could be a personal disaster. The French and Russian revolutions had similar dynamics. Politics are abstract in their inability to distinguish among the culpability of victims.
Warhols quest for fame and money was consistent. His futile pursuit of a portrait commission from Imelda Marcos is mentioned in a catalog essay by exhibition curator Jonathan Binstock. Warhol came closer than anyone else in the 20th century to realizing his dream of becoming the official “royal” portraitist to the world.
Organized into rather arbitrary sections on “Disguise” (Warhols self-concealment), “Death and Disaster,” “Politics,” “Cover Stories,” “Advertising,” “Celebrity” and “Symbolism,” the heavy sarcasm of the work in the show was obvious at the time it was made so obvious that it was rarely discussed. Irony was the attitude of high art of the era. Our new century can be relentlessly literal and earnest.
There are several provocative parallels between Warhol and Oscar Wilde, though their private lives, personal aesthetics and education were vastly different. Wilde felt constrained to keep one side of his life secret for as long as he could. Warhol very nearly had no private life but, as essayist Maurice Berger points out, one of his social and artistic achievements was to give other artists of all types permission to come out and play.
Both Wilde and Warhol, however, persisted in saying the opposite of what they meant. They refused to apologize for it. Why so perverse? Because, they insisted, we should be clever enough to see the truth when it is placed so entertainingly before us in all its glittering and bitter complexity.
PAFAs cafe has decorated its tables with flowers in Campbells soup cans, their red and white “Campbells Classics” labels intact. Curiously, they remind us that the familiar label design has changed more than once since Warhol immortalized it. The passage of fashion burnishes his once-trenchant images with an aura of charm and quaintness which surely he would relish.