Byline: David Wallace-Wells
"You're a killer of art, you're a killer of beauty, and you're even a killer of laughter," Willem de Kooning shouted at Andy Warhol, across a party, just months after the 1968 assassination attempt that placed Warhol in a painful corset for the rest of his life and secured, by the perverse logic of the era, his status as a giant of the 1960s.
De Kooning wasn't the only one to see Warhol's frank painting as a frontal assault. In the years since his first Soup Cans show in 1962, Warhol's paintings have acquired a remarkable mythology: they waged a victorious battle against abstract expressionism, introduced a mass audience to fine art, and made American painting truly democratic, shattering category distinctions and reshaping aesthetic criteria as dramatically as Marcel Duchamp had with his Fountain. The Soup Cans were, Gary Indiana proposes in his engrossing forthcoming Andy Warhol and the Can That Sold the World, "the first shots of a total revolution in American culture."
But that Warhol hagiography--outlined and underscored in three enthusiastic new books on the aphasic artist--is as simplistic as de Kooning's Warhol horror. Andy was no great iconoclast. What was good in his work was derivative of precedent pop and its precedent, dada. What seemed innovative was not just bad but insidiously so--his work at the Factory, with Interview, and in his voyeuristic films, which simply replaced the macho-Romantic cult of the New York school with a substitute cult of antinomian downtown entitlement. And to laud Warhol as a prophet of the saturated media culture we inhabit today is to apportion praise according to the perverse logic of our own era, by which we lionize the first person to do anything, even a bad thing.
Pop did represent a revolution in American taste, but Warhol was anything but its vanguard practitioner. Jasper Johns had exhibited his Ballantine--beer-can sculpture, Painted Bronze, in 1960 (and had worked with colloquial imagery through the '50s). The following year, Roy Lichtenstein exhibited his first paintings--large-scale re-creations, faithful down to the Benday dots, of images drawn from the rich trash heap of newspaper advertisements and comic strips. That fall, Claes Oldenburg opened his Store, a trompe l'oeil tchotchke shop, on East Second Street in Manhattan, selling plaster casts of consumer goods--underwear, a jacket, an ice-cream cake--like those he had been exhibiting since 1958. By the time of the Soup Can show, The Store had already been restaged as part of a pop retrospective in Dallas. While Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were inventing pop, and Oldenburg and Lichtenstein refining it, Warhol had been conquering the world of advertising as an illustrator--"the Leonardo da Vinci of Madison Avenue," Women's Wear Daily called him. His 1962 paintings were--as even his deferential biographers Tony Scherman and David Dalton admit in Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol--"a last-minute leap onto a bandwagon that was threatening to leave without him."
He couldn't even get a show for the Soup Cans in New York. The 32 "varieties" were first unveiled at the small Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, at the absolute periphery of the American art world, in the middle of summer, when no one was looking. There was no opening, and Warhol himself didn't bother to visit. Those who did come "tended to shrug," dealer Irving Blum later recalled, and critics were no more impressed. "The initial shock," opined Art International, "wears off in a matter of seconds, leaving one as bored with the painting as with the object it presents." The hand-painted canvases were priced modestly, at $100 apiece, roughly what Warhol had charged a decade earlier for the muddled paintings he produced as an anonymous junior studying commercial art at Carnegie Tech; Blum could sell only five of them.
Warhol wasn't just a latecomer to pop; he was a lightweight. The paintings of the abstract expressionists were personal, arcane, confrontational, and, it was said, shamanistic. …