Magazine article The Spectator

Repetition Turned into Original Art

Magazine article The Spectator

Repetition Turned into Original Art

Article excerpt

Most people, the artist Andy Warhol once observed, are happy to watch more or less the same thing every night on television. He, he went on, was different. He preferred to watch exactly the same thing, time after time. The more repetitions, the more good and empty he felt. As with a great many things Warhol said this observation is both funny and weird. And he succeeded, as is demonstrated again and again in the huge and marvellous Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern (until 1 April) in making that Zen taste for the repetition of trivia the foundation of profoundly original art.

Warhol was an extremely witty man. I am especially fond, for example, of his response to the solemn question, `What is art?' `Isn't that a guy's name?' But, notoriously, the price paid by wits is not to be taken seriously by the dull majority. That, perhaps, is part of the difficulty many of us have with Warhol. He seems too cool, too shallow, too flip to be a serious and important artist. Many of his practices - the employment of assistants to turn out work, which in any case often consisted of silkscreened photographs - can seem outrageously cynical (in the past I have had difficulty in understanding and appreciating Warhol's work, for exactly that reason).

But both his art and his wit, on reflection, spring from the same source. Most of the time, Warhol simply stated how things were as he saw them, and - because he had such an unusual take on the world - the result on first hearing sounds funny. `When you think about it,' he remarked, `department stores are kind of like museums.' But, actually, when you think about it, department stores really do resemble museums - in their encyclopedic range of contents, in the way those are set out in glass cases, and so on.

It's just the same with Warhol's art. What initially appears outrageous turns out to be merely logical in an original manner. It wasn't necessary - for what he wanted to do - to draw the image. A photographic silkscreen was better. To check this, in the exhibition, simply compare his early efforts, which he executed in a conventional manner by hand, with the later ones (Warhol's early work, though perfectly competent is boring and verging on bad). He didn't need to squeegee the ink through every silkscreen, any more than Rubens needed to paint every inch of the Banqueting House ceiling. All he needed to do was plan the work and oversee the result, so that was all he did.

The results, especially from the five year period, 1962-67, from which most of his best-known and best work comes, is a provocative remix of elements that are quite traditional in themselves.

Consider `Marilyn Diptych' from 1962, 25 coloured Marilyn Monroes flanking 20 black-and-white ones, arranged on a grid, the monochrome ones getting steadily fainter towards the right. Formally, most of it comes from abstract art. To see an earlier version of the device, simply stroll along Bankside to the excellent Klee exhibition at the Hayward. In the Warhol, the variations produced by more or less ink on the silkscreen produce variety within the monotony of the grid in the way that changes of colour and tone would in the Klees. The strong, simple, flat areas of colour come from abstraction, too. But the image, of course, is nothing to do with modernist art at all. It's a mug shot of a film star, which is on the one hand cheap and tacky, on the other gives meaning to the cliche `screen goddess'. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.