Exploding Plastic Inevitable: How the Pope of Pop changed the face of modern art.

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“He created his own universe and became its star.” – David Cronenberg

When Marcel Duchamp produced Fountain in 1917, the general response from the art world was one of outrage, so much so that it was the only piece rejected from the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, an exhibition which based itself on its intent to accept every piece of work it received. It was regarded as a joke – a urinal inscribed with the name “R. Mutt” couldn’t possibly have been seen as art, could it?

Well, yes, it could. Known as “readymades”, Duchamp’s work blurred the lines between benign object and artistic statement, and the criteria by which a work of art was judged. The society chose to reject Duchamp’s work on grounds of indecency and plagiarism, as Fountain was the work of a plumber, not Duchamp. Art or not, it was lost shortly after its rejection, and was never seen again until a replica was made in 1950 for an exhibition in New York.

45 years later, Andy Warhol exhibited Campbell’s Soup Cans; 32 paintings of Campbell’s Soup Cans laid out in a grid, as if on a shelf in a shop. Two years later, he went one better with Brillo Boxes  – plywood sculptures of Brillo packaging. Instead of being shunned, Warhol was hailed as a genius. Why? What separated his work from that of Duchamp? Both artists had taken items that could have been bought by anybody in a shop and put them on display – at what moment had they both become art? At the time of their purchase? At the moment the artist altered them for their own purposes? Or the moment the museum they were displayed in accepted them? Considering Warhol’s work here is practically Duchamp’s adapted to another time, what makes Warhol so original?

Warhol is original because of the purpose behind his work. While Fountain was originally made as a practical joke by Duchamp to question what exactly makes art, Warhol’s work acted as a devastating comment on the role of the consumer in sixties America.

Through his work, Warhol sought to reduce art to its core: a commodity – something produced for a fee. He did this by not only depicting commodities within his art, but going so far as to actually produce his art in a way more commonly associated with that of mass produced factory items. The beginning of Warhol’s move to manufacturing his can be seen in Campbell’s Soup Cans: while the majority of the cans are painted on by hand, Warhol added the epaulets that decorate the bottom of the cans with a stamp: laziness or a sign of the revolution that was to come?

Warhol’s art during the sixties is the most famous he produced in his lengthy career, and is often seen as the face of the pop art movement. Among his most famous subjects were iconic parts of American culture: dollar bills, coke cans and electric chairs. His 1962 piece 200 Dollar Bills is probably the strongest manifestation of what he was trying to achieve through his art – the piece cut out the middleman and went straight in, depicting what drove the contemporary American: the dollar bill. Warhol was raised in a religious home, and worship became one of the main themes within his work. 200 Dollar Bills acted as a metaphor for a capitalist world’s worship of the dollar, and absolutely bridged the gap between commodity and work of art by not only its depiction of money, but through its production – the piece is a 7 1/2 wide painting made through the process of silkscreening; a process used by Warhol during his time as a commercial illustrator.

This theme was expanded upon further by Warhol in 1962 after the death of Marilyn Monroe. In Gold Marilyn Monroe, Warhol commented on America’s relationship with celebrity culture by almost deifying the late Monroe. Her head, printed in garish, clashing colours, floats weightlessly on a background of gold paint, reminiscent of Byzantine Christian paintings of Mary. By doing this, Warhol made Monroe a martyr of the consumer age, and expanded on this in his later diptychs of her face by saying that her status as a celebrity that could be bought or seen pretty much anywhere made her as much of a commodity as a Campbell’s soup can.

So how far did Warhol change modern art? By creating a studio called the Factory and hiring other people to do much of his work, Warhol broke the boundaries of what could be considered a work by an artist. The disassociation of an artist from their work has almost become commonplace in the contemporary world, and Warhol’s influence on these artists is undoubtable. Damien Hirst’s debt to Warhol’s work is one of the highest – Hirst is famous for using repetition within his work, and for hiring other people to do much of it for him. A good example of this is his spot paintings: among his most famous pieces of work, they started out as grids of spots hand painted by the artist himself – already the grid formation echoed the layout of many of Warhol’s earlier works. However, soon Hirst started to employ assistants to draw the spots for him, and then tried to make their appearance as machine like as possible by covering the whole the compass left in the middle of each circle as if the paintings had been constructed mechanically, an undeniable parallel with the mechanical work of Warhol in his Factory.

Warhol was also the first artist to exhibit film as art. His experimental movies, many of them shot in the Factory, launched Warhol’s superstars, and were known for their long takes of their subjects doing not much else but being themselves. Known for his quote about people in the future having their 15 minutes of fame, Warhol both prophesised and launched the culture of reality TV. Through his superstars, Warhol created an ironic critique of Hollywood culture, creating the idea through heiresses like Edie Sedgwick that people need not require talent in drama or music in order to be famous – they need only be themselves.

Warhol’s homosexuality was a major theme within his art. In his 1977 series Torsos, Warhol explored the sexualisation of the male figure in his work, piece which became hugely influential to artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, who depicted acts of gay sex within his work. Just as Warhol’s Pop art pieces had pushed the boundaries between art and illustration, Torsos and Sex Parts blurred the lines between art and pornography.

Through Warhol and Pop art, traditional art had died. Pop art focused on the now, what was real and what was contemporary. Warhol pioneered the idea of the Happening with his Exploding Plastic Inevitable Show featuring the band he produced, the Velvet Underground. It could be argued that any art post-1987, the year of his death, has been influenced by Warhol in one way or another. Warhol’s influence is so great that it could almost be used as a milestone in the history of art – he marked the end of the era of the artist being solely responsible for his work (yes, it is true that artists before him employed assistants, but Warhol’s creative process really was more like a production line than anything else, a small business) – without him, there would have been no Jeff Koons, no Damien Hirst. Without his pioneering of film as an art form, there would be no video installations, no reality television, no 15 minutes of fame. In the words of David Cronenberg, “he created his own universe and became its star,” and his 15 minutes are far from over.

Jordan Butt

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