Andy Warhol is remembered as a Pop artist, lifting subjects and imagery from popular culture and presenting them almost unchanged as high art. But the Pop style Warhol pioneered in his 1962 paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup cans occupied only a small part of his career. By 1965 he had officially given up painting in favor of much weirder, more conceptual creations: four-minute-long filmed portraits of his “superstars”; a novel that consisted of 24 hours of transcribed conversation; a lecture tour where his talks were delivered by a hired double.
These projects come closer to revealing the true genius of Warhol than his paintings do. Before him, talk about art usually centered on what it looked like and how an artist achieved visual effects. But Warhol insisted that the idea behind a work of art mattered more than its appearance; once an artist did this mental work, what happened in the studio was just manual labor.
The ultimate example of Warholian weirdness came 50 years ago this month, when Arts Magazine published a feature on Warhol’s “Travel Piece,” which consisted of nothing more than the artist arranging for two of his friends, the art critics Gregory Battcock and David Bourdon, to spend a weekend in Paris and keep records of their banal social encounters there. Warhol didn’t go along, so the Polaroid that graced the magazine’s cover, showing Battcock in his Paris hotel, wasn’t even snapped by him. The artist’s only role in the “piece” was to release it under his name after footing the bill. (Bourdon was peeved that he bought them a discount flight and put them up in a lousy hotel.)
“Andy’s idea is without precedent. His particular way of presenting the travel event itself is totally new,” Battcock said after the Paris trip. Indeed, the whole piece—even the notion that it was a “piece”—still feels transgressive a half-century later. It foreshadows the 21st-century art movement known as “relational aesthetics,” which insists that the things humans do for and with each other—even cooking and serving a curry, as in a project by the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija—can count as artistic acts when brought into being by artists.
In his 1917 work “Fountain,” Marcel Duchamp signed an ordinary urinal and submitted it to a show as art. In a sense, Warhol and his descendants in relational art are taking Duchamp’s urinal and offering it up for actual use in a men’s room, and saying this use is art, too. Two years after “Travel Piece,” Warhol made his Duchampian roots still more explicit in an untitled piece that involved a different kind of sanitary equipment. He bought a vacuum cleaner, vacuumed an art gallery’s carpet and then signed the dust bag as a record of what he’d done. After almost five decades of utter neglect, photos of Warhol’s vacuum piece were included in his recent retrospectives at the Whitney Museum in New York and Tate Modern in London. Curators are coming to insist that there’s more to Warhol than Pop.
Once he abandoned paint and canvas, Warhol began to cast himself as his most important art supply.
Once Warhol had abandoned paint and canvas, back in 1965, he began to cast himself as his most important art supply, finalizing his classic persona as a celebrity artist—dark glasses, biker’s jacket, empty-headed stare. That October, Warhol’s appearance at the opening of an exhibition in Philadelphia caused a near-riot among the thousands of Andymaniacs who had shown up. But it was only two decades later, near the end of his life, that Warhol finally gave that “work” its official title. He had the words “Andy Warhol/Invisible Sculpture, 1985/mixed media” typed onto a wall label set beside an empty pedestal, then stood next to it as the art object on display. He told a critic that it—he—was an object he’d been working on for 20 years.
Such “works” show that Warhol was really a conceptual artist, much more concerned with ideas than objects. His early paintings—the Soup Cans, Marilyns and Elvises—are now widely considered to be masterpieces and priced accordingly. If New York’s Museum of Modern Art were ever to part with its wall of Soups, they’d fetch an easy half-billion. But for most of their first viewers, whether fans or foes, Warhol’s Pop works were all about the ideas behind them. They felt there was nothing worth looking at in the objects themselves—as little as there is in Warhol’s travel and vacuum pieces.
In December 1962, shortly after Warhol’s first New York solo, the art critic Hilton Kramer complained that “fraudulent” Pop Art was “interesting for what is said about it rather than for what it intrinsically is.” But Duchamp himself flipped that idea around into praise: “If you take a Campbell’s soup can and repeat it 50 times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is the concept that wants to put 50 Campbell’s soup cans on a canvas,” he said.
Despite the fool that Warhol liked to play, that conceptual intelligence is what makes him matter. “He’s the most brilliant person I’ve ever met, and he never forgets a thing,” recalled Suzie Frankfurt, a friend who met Warhol in the 1950s. “But he comes on as really stupid.”
—Mr. Gopnik is the author of the new biography “Warhol,” which will be published on April 28 by Ecco, a division of HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).
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