Essay: Andy Warhol The Americans by David Betz

Andy Warhol The Americans

By David Betz

In the current climate, Warhol’s art feels as if it is from an altogether different time and place — the vibrant and colorful, late 20th century, “go-go” years echoed in the hallucinatory outlines and expressionist color field overlays of Andy’s portraits of Nixon, Carter, and Reagan. Warhol’s portraits hearken back to the postwar zeitgeist, when, for a youthful America, the world seemed charged with limitless possibilities. A time when our national posture was defined by a distinctively American élan — a crass and striving exuberance, and above all a naiveté that now feels irretrievably lost. America was once the winsome ingénue, who, despite being a little rough around the edges, captured the imagination of the world. Yet, since 9/11, she has displayed all the charms of an aging socialite backstabbing her younger rivals at the ball, lobbing catty epithets about like so much precision-guided ordinance. Axis of weasels! Where has all the love gone?

The larger than life images of Warhol’s celebrities—athletes and presidents, movie stars and country music divas— are distorted fun house mirrors reflecting a time when our narcissistic national spirit was optimistic in nature and hence compelling to the rest of the world, powerful enough even to bring the Berlin Wall crashing down. America has always been in the business of self-invention. An almost delusional capacity for wish fulfillment harnessed to the engine of savvy image crafting has always been essential to our national character; look no further than the Declaration of Independence for proof of that. In our once seemingly limitless appetite for self-invention lay hope and possibility. And it is precisely this yearning, this unquenchable, narcissistic desire that percolates under the surface of Warhol’s body of work and makes it so compelling: America’s fascination with itself, of acting out its hopes and dreams, its fixation on the ever present possibility making itself over in a shiny new image. And this feeling of possibility is precisely what’s missing in the current climate of national pessimism and wounded self-esteem. It used to be that you might have grown up on a farm, but they’d tell you, you could always hop on a bus and get discovered at Schraft’s Drugstore on Sunset and Vine. With Bush, the sequel in the White House and the corporatization of Hollywood we seem on the verge of becoming a nation of self-perpetuating elites. It was another time and place when we all believed that, as Henry Miller once so aptly phrased it, “America’s the place where they stick firecrackers up your ass and tell you any man can be president.”

Politicians, athletes, entertainers — you and I — what’s the difference? In our hearts we’re all the same. We’re all Americans, and as Americans we are united by our yearnings for that uniquely American apotheosis, to shed the cocoon of quotidian life and be reborn into the magical shape-shifting realm of celebrity. Andy tapped into this live wire of subconscious desire in everything from his Factory star system, to his portraits of the rich and famous — our unfulfilled, yet ever hopeful desire to one day become the heroes of America’s constantly evolving contemporary mythos. And this is what makes his work so timelessly compelling, it both feeds and feeds off of our dreams in a self-sustaining feedback loop. Ronald Reagan whether he was selling shirts, shilling for Twenty Mule Team Borax, reminiscing about baseball, or waxing poetic about that “shining city on a hill” was essentially an American optimist, the paradigm of what an “aw shucks” small town kid could achieve. And Jimmy Carter the affable idealist, depicted here radiating good humor and high spirits, is an American everyman who busted out of that dusty Plains Georgia peanut warehouse to pursue an idealistic foreign policy and barbecue with his homeboys Willy Nelson and the Allman Brothers on the White House lawn. Even the dark, Darth Vaderesque Richard Nixon, depicted in this exhibition overlaid with lurid expressionistic colors, which echo his waxy unshaven pallor in the 1960 presidential debates, had a rags to riches story, and a visionary flair for statecraft: a duality that forged the distinctively American, tragic arc of his career. The theme that unifies these works lies in our unspoken national consensus, a pledge of allegiance not to the flag but to what it represents: dreams of limitless possibility. Warhol’s best subjects, whether Presidents or movie stars, are all quintessentially American, larger than life figures sustained by a gritty and determined belief in the American Dream.

The iconic power of these Presidential portraits, which Warhol, our first and perhaps greatest appropriation artist, has drawn from original source material and then manipulated in sundry and not-so-subtle ways, derive from his stylistic experiments in the great American laboratory of advertising. Warhol, whose early background was in commercial art, cleverly applied the lessons he learned in fashion illustration to his fine art. His squiggly outlines of women’s shoes could create an almost erotic excitement; with a few quick strokes of his rapidograph he could add a shimmmery glamour to something as essentially banal as mass merchandised girdles and foundations. In those who acted out the American dream on a public stage, Andy had finally found his most compelling subject matter. Andy’s portraits of Carter and Nixon capture the defining essence of his subjects while using the heightened excitement of added line and color to amplify their already larger than life personas, creating images far more deeply compelling and resonant than the campy fun of his eroticized shoes of the 1950’s. Long before the era of Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart, it was Warhol who first used the stratagems of branding and mass production to sell our very Americaness back to us. It was a sea change that redefined the artist’s relationship to his art, its subject matter and his audience, and this is what makes Warhol the pivotal artist of the late 20th century. Without Warhol Jeff Koons and even Madonna would be simply unthinkable.

Andy Warhol’s art is the product of a very specific time and place, of post war American vigor and optimism, of dreams unfulfilled yet still possible. Warhol’s body of work reflects his own naïve yearnings, which transformed this ugly duckling from Pittsburgh into our savviest modern artist, and who, much like his subjects, underwent his own uniquely American apotheosis, to become the cool icon of celebrity itself. This is why we need Andy Warhol’s work now more than ever; it points a way back out of our current bruised self-esteem and diminished expectations, the deflation of our dreams. It is only in once again dreaming those big unattainable dreams, in opening the door to possibility, that the unsettling loss, which defines the current moment, can ultimately be conquered, and that we as American’s can dare to become truly become great again.

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