The Critical Response to Andy Warhol

Article excerpt

Pratt, Alan R., Ed. (1997). The Critical Response to Andy Warhol. Westport, CT Greenwood Press. 306 pages, (ISBN 0-313-29291-4).

Ralph Smith (Levi & Smith, 1991) noted that criticism has many functions: "to cultivate artistic perception, to make a reasoned assessment of artistic quality, to improve the intellectual environment in which we think about art, and to appreciate art's multifarious values" (p. 87). Terry Barrett (1990) cited a variety of methods for art critics that covers "a much broader range of activities than just the act of judging" (p. 2). Citing aesthetician Morris Weitz, Barrett summarized that critics describe, interpret, evaluate, and theorize about art. While critics may do just one rather than all of those activities, Weitz concluded that this activity would still be criticism.

Alan R. Pratt, the editor of The Critical Response to Andy Warhol, has selected 62 critical essays on the artist which provide an opportunity for students and scholars to explore many aspects of criticism. Pratt is an Associate Professor of Humanities at Embry-Riddle University, Daytona Beach, Florida. He seems to have heeded critic Donald Kuspit's criterion for good critical writing with his selection of essays for the book as they are all "honest in their judgment, clear in their writing, straightforward in their argument, and unpretentious in their manner" (quoted in Barrett, 1990, p. 10).

The essays in Pratt's collection show how Warhol achieved the position of interpreter of popular culture. In writing about Andy Warhol, Theodore Wolff (1996) observed that,

Some artists have the good fortune to appear at exactly the right time and place. One thinks of Jackson Pollock hitting his stride at precisely the moment his revolutionary approach to painting was most likely to be taken seriously by the American art community. And of Andy Warhol bursting upon the scene with his iconoclastic Pop Art images just as large numbers of art critics and curators were becoming bored with the highminded seriousness of Abstract Expressionism. (p. 11)

Pratt has arranged this book in chronological order, revealing a certain evolution in critical writing about Warhol. Serious critical literature about Andy Warhol began in 1962, the same time he began making "fine art" silk screen images of dollar bills, coke bottles, soup cans and celebrities. The early critical essays about Warhol in this book focused on detail about his studio techniques, technical information about his use of color (alizarin, cerulean), the registration techniques of his silk-screens, his choice of sculpture materials, and his film-making techniques. Efforts at explanation and evaluation at this stage by the critics were somewhat tentative. But by 1964, critics were more aggressive about explaining Andy Warhol from a more conceptual perspective. For example, Robert Rosenblum's 1964 essay discusses how the fetishes of commercial art evolved into super-fetishes that were turned into icons in Warhol's popular culture images.

About this time, Warhol also created works on more difficult subjects, such as his Death and Disaster Series on suicide, the death penalty, and automobile accidents, which were characterized in Lucy Lippard's review (1966) as "one of the few forceful statements on this aspect of American life to be found in recent American painting" (p. 27). This sort of direct social commentary stands in contrast to his popular culture work but appeared to cause critics to attribute a deeper level of meaning to his pop art work. Increasingly in the literature, Warhol's work was portrayed as an accurate reflection of the commercial, mass-produced, and somewhat sleazy nature of modern American society. In contrast, other critics branded him a fraud surrounded by adoring but amoral fans while offering, at best, second-rate art work. Bosley Crowther's 1966 essay suggests that Warhol and those like him are "too solemn to see the absurdity in themselves" (p. …