Andy Warhol's Red Beard

Article excerpt

The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.-Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp," 19641

Sometime in late 1948 or early 1949, during his final year of art school at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol changed his style. According to one of his classmates, he had been working in a manner indebted to Aubrey Beardsley that had earned him respect and interest from his fellow students and the support of the two most widely respected instructors when his friend and classmate Philip Pearlstein convinced him to look for a new influence.2 Apparently, Pearlstein informed Warhol, some of the more conservative faculty did not approve of the influence drawn from Beardsley. This criticism was probably not focused only on the decorative prettiness of the Beardsleyesque drawing style-from his art school days through the 1950s, Warhol regularly made drawings with long and flowing fine lines, for example, and often ornamented with fine speckles, intricate scrolls, and intermittent strands of ink-or on his use of untoward or indecorous subject matter, something Warhol was routinely enthusiastic about as well. Also suspect, no doubt, was the Beardsley legacy of tainted ambition for the social place of art.3 The charged mix of innocent form and less than decorous subject matter in Beardsley's delicately drawn grotesqueries had served various ends in the 1890s, of course, not the least of which was to threaten some of the loftier social distinctions made in the name of art by opening its preserve to baser social ambitions and practices: "May not our hoardings claim kinship with the galleries, and the designers of affiches pose as proudly in the public eye as the masters of Holland Road or Bond Street Barbizon," he could propose in 1894, for example, while savoring the imagined affront that "London will soon be resplendent with advertisements."4

The young Warhol would have had limited knowledge of this history. He came to position his work similarly between innocence and worldliness (thereby moving toward his eventual association during his art school years with Beardsley) by another path, one that I will be exploring here at some length.5 Since childhood, he had been particularly fond of making art inspired by various contemporary mass-cultural sources, and he had a special and long-lasting obsession with the child star Shirley Temple. Temple, it will be demonstrated, provided Warhol with something that would serve him well throughout his career: she modeled a manner of operating in the world-a style or comportment-that mixed both child and adult functions and attributes, both innocence and savoir faire. Like Beardsley's utopian image of London, the figure of Temple was also "resplendent with advertisements," of course; that is, her persona and her appeal were irrevocably tied to her exceptional social and economic position as a star. But despite the appeal and success of this early influence, when challenged by several of his art instructors Warhol accepted the criticism and sought out a new influence. As one classmate put it (perhaps a little too bluntly), "Andy painted the way he wanted and they flunked him. So he went to summer school and painted the way they wanted."7 Downplaying the Beardsley line and sublating the mixed bearing and resplendent sheen he drew from Temple, he took on the 1930s, Social Realist themes, and coarse, ragged-line, blotted-ink drawing style of Ben Shahn.

What I undertake here is an analysis of influence: the influence of two very different sorts of artists, Ben Shahn and Shirley Temple, and two very different sorts of social roles for artists, those of the moralist and the darling, on the work of Andy Warhol. It is the confluence in 1948 or 1949 of these two artistic influences drawn from distinct and largely discrete cultures of the 1930s-the fellow-traveler culture of the Red Decade on the one hand and Hollywood's golden age on the other-and its significance for Warhol's tremendously influential work of the 1960s, that is the subject of this paper. …