A Posthumous Letter to Andy Warhol

Dear Andy,

I’d like to being by quoting one of your contemporaries, I hope you don’t mind. My friend Alex quoted this to me today, and since I was discussing you and Kurt last night on two different occasions, I found the quote he provided succinct, this letter however, is not.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we should be very careful of what we pretend to be.” — Kurt Vonnegut

I also hope you don’t mind me using your first name, but you are dead so I don’t think you care. Plus this letter is of a personal nature, and I wish to write you as a person interested in who you were and not what you became or have become since your death. The name Warhol carries with it such intensity, it has become its own brand, as you intended. I’ll get to that later, but for now, I’d like to address you personally, albeit posthumously.

It’s harsh to reference the following point so immediately, as I have great affection for you, but you were a sick child in your youth, spent a lot of time in bed and became alienated from your peers. The nervous system disease you carried caused involuntary movements in your arms and legs, not to mention skin problems (blotchiness), which some believed was a result of scarlet fever. It’s no wonder you became a little nuerotic, perhaps even a bit of a hypochondriac, anyone would had they been poked and prodded that much as a child.

andy-as-a-boy

The lack of social time you had with your peers didn’t help either. Not only were you probably a little insecure about how you looked, you probably lacked the strength needed to compete with other males in order to gain friends and/or win the attention of women. Pair that with a doting immigrant Byzantine Catholic mother and a coal mining Rusyan father and its amazing you made it out of Steeltown. You were a first generation American, raised in a manufacturing hub that was booming as you grew up. But you were hamstrung from interacting with it in the ways most boys could and did, however inevitably you would become a manufacturer too.

While bedridden as a young boy (the last place a boy wants to be at that age), you read a lot of magazines and were fascinated by the celebrities and fashionistas featured in them. Your own body ravaged by successive illnesses and frailty, your curiosity in those society deemed “perfect” or “beautiful” seems inevitable. However, rather than just become a recluse germaphobe, you took to drawing in bed, an activity which would compel your career as an advertiser and artist.

I don’t mean to recite your own history back to you, but I think people skip over these details of your youth and focus so heavily on your adult thoughts about the art world, or about pop culture. Society is still fascinated by the stylish nature of your work, its been made into wallpaper, clothing, mousepads, and keychains. I walked through one of the museums devoted to your art in Pittsburgh and while museums should be about presenting the facts about your life, the small amount of interpretation about who you were and what you were interested in seemed so cheap and oversimplified. “Oh he was an outcast, sick, his teachers thought he lacked talent, you know, like they all are……blah blah.”

You were a self described voyeur, a quality which I suppose I share. While I wasn’t sick as a kid, I certainly did not “fit in”. If anything I wish I had a sickness, that way I’d have something to blame for being weird. I’ll spare you the diatribe about why that might have been (or why I remember it that way) and move on to what I’m more interested in with you. Mind you, I haven’t always liked or even cared about your work until this year for some reason.

While you intended your work to become pop art, and conscientiously utilized industrial style processes when creating your work, I’d like to know if you ever intended that your work become purely decorative, because that is what is going on. I recently saw a hotel website that had your work featured in the bathroom. Surely that must make you laugh a little. I was looking at the website with a friend who said “the graphics in the bathroom are nice”. When I asked him where he thought they got them, he said “probably istockphoto”. These are the prints they had hanging next to the crapper.

andywarhol_flowers

I’ve been thinking about your museum, your work and what my friend said about the bathroom art a lot. Here’s what I’ve come up with, I know you are dead and can’t read this, but trying to write directly to you, helps me keep this focused on you and not on me, or the world, or society.

You went into this with a real fascination in how people consume their world, not just art. You were aware that technology and entertainment were making the visual and aesthetic world into graphics and logos, and rather than fight it or mock it, you embraced it and called it art. Humans were making visual symbols of their products that had personal meaning to them and you loved it. I read that when you displayed the Tomato Sauce boxes you thought people would love them. You visualized them all leaving the gallery with one under their arm, but instead the show tanked and people were lost.

warhol-tomatoez

I’ll bypass the ironical joke I cant seem to formulate about the significance of this display metaphorically being about throwing tomatoes at art snobs.

You seemed to be so aware of something in humans that the criticism of your work didn’t bother you. Or maybe it did and the world has decided that you were smug and indifferent in that artist recluse sort of way. I don’t buy it.

I suppose you probably found their rejection or confusion interesting, rather than take it personally. Although I’m a nobody, I find myself doing the same thing with regards to my work. Here’s where I’ll talk about me a little, I guess I really feel nervous about having to choose between making art for the audience to understand and enjoy, and making it because its just what I make. On the other hand, I find myself at a loss for words when it comes to explaining my work, both because I lack practice and because I am way more interested in the confused patron than I am in my own thoughts. What do you make of that?

When I began painting these particular pieces I was first inspired my the materials themselves and then just wanted to “use them” in the best way I knew possible. They didn’t need anything complicated, just color, so that is what I gave them. I wanted to celebrate the texture of the paper and just create things that were visually appealing and soothing in a way. When I took a breath to consider any prospective audience the work might have, I thought maybe patrons would appreciate a mental break. We are all going through so much, that I didn’t want to try to teach anything or comment on anything through art, I just wanted to make some and then share it with others. I thought this was simple.

Instead, the only people that “got it” were the artists, gallerists, and collectors at the show that I participated in last Friday. I had intended to paint something that was approachable, that just celebrated the aesthetic element we might all crave, in all honesty I just wanted to make something pretty. I didn’t want to entertain the art people, or offer some high minded “project” but that is what ended up happening. That objective wasn’t lost on folks that regularly look at art, but most of the crowd just strolled by, stared up and then looked for something framed that they could hang in their bathroom. Or maybe they just didn’t like it.

gallery-shot-4

That sounds really dismissive and patronizing, but it’s not meant to me. I blame myself. I had set out to make something that was just that, something pretty and approachable that you could hang. Instead I accidentally ended up presenting conceptual art that was “interpretive” instead of just decorative.

So why am I writing you about it?

I suppose because I share your interest in consumer behavior and figured you could relate. At one point the crowd was so cramped that people didn’t even want to make the right turn into the room I was in. Despite being crowded and hot, they literally would look at an empty room filled with art and walk by it, pushing their way towards the free wine tasting. At one point I actually said “there’s plenty of room in these rooms back here” and the crowd began to break up and enter the space. I was amused by the relieved looks on their face once I said it, they could SEE that the room was empty but didn’t even think to walk in to experience the spaciousness. One woman actually thanked me as she strolled back into the other rooms.

So I’ve digressed and ended up writing selfishly about myself when addressing you. This first show has taught me a lot, and as you can see I still haven’t distilled it down to any clear or clever reflections.

Overall, I see how your work has been memorialized and wonder if you would laugh a little. I think people still think you are trying to capture the glitterati of your generation, or that you were really interested in their beauty or mocking their beauty. I’m still not sure that people know that the joke or art is really about them. Why we are fascinated in cramming ourselves around corners to see what everyone else is looking at. Why we think certain people are beautiful or iconic. You weren’t too proud to create homages to people you really did worship and fully participated as your own audience as well. I find that remarkable.

Ultimately, like the steel manufacturing city which birthed you, you would mechanize your processes and methodically churn out works of art like iron beams, erecting a huge homage to the hyper-industrialized culture that was careening forward, complete with your own staff of assistants (who actually did your work for you!). You even ended up starting your own celebrity gossip magazine, which pretty much makes sense, since that is where it all started for you right?

I guess I just don’t think that people (by which I mean even the art school intellectuals) get the double sided mirror that you were building. But even folks that don’t consume that much art walk by your work and label you a celebrity whore. While in the museum, I heard “the man was an ego maniac” once, some lady whispered that you were a “starf*cker” and another said “big deal, he was an ad man, today he would be working as a graphic designer”. They don’t get that you created / produced that entire way of thinking. That the graphic world wasn’t considered aesthetic before you, and that your thought process had created a consciousness about our industrial world that hadn’t existed.

And don’t feign indifference towards my compliments, you know you like them. But just like your double sided mirror, I mean to use them as a reflection of us or me rather than you. What our interest was and is, in you has to do with why you found us so interesting right?

Despite being buried in a velvet suit and platinum wig, despite your casket being doused in Estee Lauder’s perfume you managed to remain an immigrant’s son and were buried in a suburb of Pittsburgh. You set up factories and made products that would sell for millions, after having created ads for companies who sell products for the millions.

I guess I wonder if you were even aware of the deeply personal nature of your work. You were playful and romantic, and had a huge love for our fragile nature, one that you shared because of your own physicality. You created simple art that had great meaning to people, even if it wasn’t the same meaning you found in your work. You embraced being an outcast, even in the world of outcasts, and were right to call yourself a producer rather than just an artist. You were a true visionary in the way you approached the natural and man made world. You and Mark Twain knew that humanity had to be guided not told, and you both led by illustration and allegory rather than harsh words or commentary. As another contemporary of yours said the medium is “a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”

You wanted your work to be accessible, to be mass market, and managed to create work so commercial people found it fit for a commode rather than only galleries and collections. Yet the value of your pieces and originals hasnt diminished. Its incredible. Many people might not even recognize your flowers in their hotel crapper, and I think you hoped this would happen. You have become a commode-ty, art that we just consume for visual enjoyment. You produced yourself into an object and by becoming so detached personally from your art, your personal life’s work is as ordinary to us as tomato soup.

rich-people-and-soup

Anyways, I hope you are resting in peace, things are rather hectic down here. There’s another artist that is sort of doing something similar with what you did with celebrities. Everyone thinks he is fresh and original, and that his work is changing the world, I myself think he’s ripping you off. That’s an oversimplification and hes aware that he’s a phenomenon, I just think you are owed a hat tip.  People are still doing your work, they just don’t know it, thats how transcendent you were and are.   You created and manufactured an visual lexicon that is spoken widely but rarely credited.  But again, you knew would happen, I’m convinced of it.

Thanks for listening though, hope heaven is cool. Please say hi to Tim Russert and Elliot Smith for me. I trust Paul Newman is keeping everyone entertained.

Dorothy

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