Vanessa Place on Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol at Work. Archival film footage showing Andy Warhol making a silkscreen painting, from the film Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein: USA Artists, 1966; collection, Indiana University. Part of Making Sense of Modern Art Mobile, SFMOMA’s handheld multimedia tour

“Making Sense of Modern Art Mobile,” SFMOMA’s handheld multimedia tour, includes a one-minute, two-second clip of Andy Warhol and an unidentified bottle-blond man making a silkscreen painting. The clip, titled Andy Warhol at Work on the SFMOMA website, is captioned: “Archival film footage showing Andy Warhol making a silkscreen painting.” The clip is set in industrial studio space; Hollywood ’60s pop pops throughout, like the soundtrack to a movie in which Walter Matthau is introduced to swinging hippies or Greg Brady decides to become one. This is the first clue that what we are watching is not Andy Warhol at work, but the work of Andy Warhol.

The clip begins with Warhol not quite straightening out a big sheet of canvas on the floor, leaving two long wrinkles somewhere in the middle, then helping the Blond move a large framed stencil down to the canvas. The Blond is wearing rubber household gloves; Warhol is not. The Blond’s gloves are stained. Warhol’s hands are not. The Blond is wearing a short-sleeved striped shirt with a white short-sleeved shirt underneath; Warhol is wearing a long-sleeved white shirt with a striped long-sleeved shirt underneath. Warhol’s got moddish black boots and pegged pants, the Blond a DA and work shoes, both more Teddy than trippy. Warhol looks thoughtfully over his Ray-Bans, his face thin and soft. The Blond’s features are never quite seen. They push the fill blade across the stencil. The Blond is athletic, he pushes hard, his veins snake, his head daps down with effort. Warhol does not push hard: at one point, he uses one hand. There is an upside down Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato) (1962) in the background, a Gallo-type gallon wine jug to the right side. They swipe the screen twice. They lift the frame off, the camera stays on the canvas on the floor — it’s Marlon Brando (1966), the still shot from The Wild One (1953). The clip goes black, then ends with: “Artist interviews at SFMOMA are supported by a generous grant from the Kadima Foundation.”

In SFMOMA’s Andy Warhol at Work, Warhol’s work is shown to be the spectacle of production, and all the institutions thereof. The clip is operatic: the set straight out of La Bohème, down to the vin ordinaire; the artist is his oeuvre, his oeuvre a series of arias, signaled by the inverted Soup Can, an overturned overture. The recitative is set out in the movements between the two men, a Così fan tutte version of star-crossed lovers in which the lovers themselves are iconic and fungible, or iconic because fungible, fungible as iconic — “One is as good as another because neither is worth a thing.” That neither is worth a thing means that both are das Ding, serving as mutual objects of desire, and of our desire as well. That they are other to each other is part of the clipped mise-en-scène: the Blond’s hairdo and dye suggest rough trade; his status as Warhol’s boy shown by the stripes of his overshirt, his art-world innocence by the white of his undershirt, the shirt worn closest to the skin. Warhol’s soul status as prisoner of art bleeds through his bourgeois button-down shirt: like all managerial types, he has the heart of a serf. And so Warhol’s hands paint up just a little, just at the end. He’s not an art worker, but a piece of art work. Like Damien Hirst’s, Warhol’s work is always a work in progress. The historical difference lies in the kind of Progress idealized. Warhol’s Progress series was still Image, still art. For even Art as Business had the look, which is the business, of Art. Hirst’s Progress series is about distribution, business is part of it, sure, but it’s more circulation than cache. Hirst sells time-shares. Warhol sold Warhol. That Warhol and the Blond are other to the ongoing and shifting locus of ideal being is signified by the triangulation and fabrication of Marlon Brando as Ding an sich, the point at which persona itself becomes punctum. That Warhol and the Blond are other to us is signified by the fact of the film clip we can only watch as art-witness. In its Andy Warhol at Work, SFMOMA underscores the Duchampian link, which is of course infra-mince, between Warhol and Warhol, eliding and further effacing the Blond along with the “r” that should have been slipped in the middle of “at.” As Duchamp noted, “Art history does not progress.”

It is here, in this “not progress” of art history, that SFMOMA’s Andy Warhol at Work serves our petted desire for the Thing as well: we get to see Art as if it can be caught in an object as such, as if it exists now and as-then, as if it were ever new and could be held in the palm of our hand and played for the cost of museum admission. Which it cannot. For the final fact remains that it is the generous and enabling grant of the Kadima Foundation that is rightly the money shot, the lingering ­argument for a triangulated art that moves from nature morte to portrait mori to the mass distribution of the insensible. Still, it’s super cool.

“Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”

“What’ve you got?”


Someone on Twitter said: “Vanessa Place killed poetry.” Place was the first poet to perform as part of the Whitney Biennial; a content advisory was posted.

Our One on One series features artists, poets, and others, responding to single works in SFMOMA’s collection. You can follow it here.

Comments (4)

  • The Blond is Andy’s assistant, Gerard Malanga.

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    Andy is dead. Too bad.

  • Steve Benson says:

    i really liked reading this. It reminded me of Hilton Als’s piece on Prince in the new Harper’s. But it’s really very different. I like how the language goes florid and I can either follow it or just let it hit my like rain. All your points are well-taken, far-reaching, and disturbingly interesting.

  • Steve Benson says:

    There should be a window that pops up and asks, “Have you proofed your comment? Are you sure it’s the very best you can do? Is there anything you’ve said that you will later think better of, since after all it might go anywhere?”

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