What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

September 24, 2012 Issue

It’s interesting to compare Peter Schjeldahl’s excellent “Going Pop,” in this week’s issue, with some of his other Warhol reviews. He’s written at least four previous pieces: “Andy Warhol” (The 7 Days Art Columns, 1990); “Warhol and Class Content” (The Hydrogen Juke Box, 1991); “Andy’s Place” (“Critic’s Notebook,” The New Yorker, September 19, 2005); and “Warhol in Bloom” (The New Yorker, March 11, 2002; included in Let’s See, 2008). Warhol is crucial to Schjeldahl’s blissed, ‘60s way of seeing. In his early “Andy Warhol,” he calls Warhol’s 1965 Paris Flowers show a “conversion experience.” He says something similar in “Warhol in Bloom,” a review of Tate Modern’s 2002 Warhol retrospective, installed by Donna De Salvo:

Announcing that pleasure will be the show’s keynote, De Salvo begins with a group of Flowers – large silk-screen paintings from 1964 and 1967 that ring changes on a motif of flat hibiscus blossoms against a grainy ground of grass blades. (Warhol cribbed the image from a tiny black-and-white ad in a magazine.) The choice elated me, because a Flowers show in Paris, in 1965, was one of two experiences I had that year that inspired a vocational devotion to art. (The other was a Piero della Francesca fresco in Tuscany.)

In “Andy Warhol,” Schjeldahl says, “I love Warhol, with a fan’s love. It isn’t so much a warm place in my heart, an organ not notably engaged by this artist, as it is a flat spot among the folds of my brain, from where said brain got run over in the ‘60s.” Almost fifty years on, has Schjeldahl’s Warholian passion cooled? Not at all. According to his latest piece, it’s hotter than ever. In “Going Pop,” a review of the Met’s “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” he refers to Warhol’s “triumph,” "clairvoyance,” “greatness,” “command,” “genius.” He says, “The gold standard of Warhol exposes every inflated value in other currencies.”

Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait, 1967

What impresses me about Schjeldahl’s Warhol fixation is the case he repeatedly and persuasively makes for Warhol as colorist, as painter. His “Warhol and Class Content” contains a fascinating description of Warhol’s silk-screen technique that emphasizes its “painterly” aspect:

There is no sense of pastiche about Warhol’s portraits. Their form evolved from his silk-screened multiple images of the sixties, with the important addition of a technique, derived from certain dime-store fine-art reproductions, that involves printing the image on a prepared irregular surface, giving the illusion of “original” facture. Warhol transforms the technique by using it very broadly, for a variety of ends; there is no Lichtenstein-like satirical acknowledgment of its source. Still, a lot of people, Newsweek’s art critic among them, fall for the commonsense illusion that the acrylic paint is applied on rather than under – or is perhaps identical with – the silk-screen enamel. The fact is that nearly all color, including that of eyes, lips, and hair, is laid down before the screening; only occasionally and sparingly does Warhol add important touches with a brush, adjusting the balance of photo and paint in paint’s favor. The wet-in-wet handling (where it is thick; often it is flat, posterlike) dries before receiving the image, which gets its “painterly” look from being distorted by the topography. Warhol had developed the aesthetic and expressive possibilities of this technique in nonportrait paintings for years, notably in a series of large, mysterious near abstractions called Shadows. His ability to improvise with it has reached such a point of casual assurance that one can easily miss its virtuosity.

In the same piece, Schjeldahl also adverts to Warhol’s “endlessly variegated palette of aggressively ‘odd’ flavorful hues and tints.” In “Warhol in Bloom,” Schjeldahl says, “Warhol was a supreme colorist who redid the world’s palette in tart, amazing hues such as cerise, citron, burnt orange, and apple-green.” And in “Going Pop,” he describes Warhol’s two 1967 self-portraits (“One of them gravitates toward glowering reds, set off by a sudden yellow, and the other toward blackish blue, with blood orange, ochre, and aqua”) and says,

Warhol’s eye for improbable chromatic harmonies cannot be overrated. He once said that he wanted to be Matisse. He may have meant only that he wanted that kind of fame, but his potently symbolizing way with colors – which, like scents, are a royal road from the outside world to our emotions – merits comparison with Matisse, in a spectrum of hues that postdate the Frenchman’s palette.

Granted, other critics have praised Warhol's color, too [e.g., Sanford Schwartz, in his "Andy Warhol The Painter" (Artists and Writers, 1990)], says that Warhol “still seems audacious in his use of silver and turquoise, lavender, orange, and brown”). But their descriptions seem bland in comparison with Schjeldahl’s. Like his hero Warhol, Schjeldahl bedazzles. I love him, with a fan’s love.

Second Thoughts: Schwartz’s “Andy Warhol The Painter” does contain at least one inspired line: “But the actual pictures have a powdery and breathing surface; you want to get close to the canvas itself.” 

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