Saturday Disasters: Trace and Refer( 311

in Early Warhol

Thomas Crow

The public Warhol was not one but, at a minimum, three persons. The first, and by far the most prominent, was the self created one: the product of his famous pronouncements and of the allowed representations of his life and milieu. The second was the complex of interests, sentiments, skills, ambitions, and passions actually figured in paint on canvas. The third was his persona as it sanctioned experiments in nonelite culture far beyond the world of art.' Of these three, the latter two are of far greater importance than the first, though they were normally overshadowed by the man who said he wanted to be like a machine, that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, that he and his art were all surface: don't look any further. The second Warhol is normally equated with the first; and the third, at least by historians and critics of art, is largely ignored.

This essay is primarily concerned with the second Warhol, though this will necessarily entail attention to the first. The conventional reading of his work turns around a few circumscribed themes: the impersonality of the images he chose and their presentation, his passivity in the face of a media saturated reality, the suspension in his work of any clear authorial voice. His choice of subject matter is regarded as essentially indiscriminate. Little interest is displayed in his subjects beyond the observation that, in their totality, they represent the random play of a consciousness at the mercy of the commonly available commercial culture. The debate over Warhol centers on whether or not his

art fosters critical or subversive apprehension of mass culture and the power of the image as commodity(2)an innocent but telling way to that numbing power(3), or exploits it cynically and meretriciously.4

A relative lack of concentration on the evidence of the early pictures has made a notoriously elusive figure more elusive than he needs to be-or better, only as elusive as he intended to be. This discussion could, I think, be recast by addressing a contradiction at its core. The authority normally cited for this observed effacement of the author's voice in Warhol's pictures is none other than that voice itself. It was Warhol who told us that he had no real point to make, that he intended 'no larger meaning in the choice of this or that subject, that his assistants did most of the physical work of producing his art. Indeed, it would be difficult to name an artist who has been as successful as Warhol was in controlling the interpretation of his own work.
In the end, any critical account of Warhol's achievement as a painter will necessarily stand or fall on the visual evidence. But even within the public "text" provided by Warhol, there are some less calculated remarks that qualify the general understanding of his early art. One such moment occurs in direct proximity to two of his most frequently quoted pronouncements: "I want everybody to think alike" and "I think everybody should be a machine." In this section of his 1963 interview with G. R. Swenson, he is responding to more than the leveling effects of American consumer culture. His more specific concern is rather the meanings normally given to the difference between the abundant material satisfactions of the capitalist West and the relative deprivation and limited personal choices of the Communist East. The sentiment, though characterized by the prevailing American image of Soviet Communism, lies plainly outside the Cold War consensus: "Russia is doing it under strict government. It's happening here all by itself... Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we're getting more and more the same way."' These words were uttered only a year or so after the Cuban Missile Crisis and within months of Kennedy's dramatic, confrontational appearance at the Berlin Wall. It was a period marked by heightened ideological tension, in which the contrast of consumer cultures observable in Berlin was generalized into a primary moral distinction between the two economic and political orders. The bright lights and beckoning pleasures of the Kurfurstendam were cited over and over as an unmistakable sign of Western superiority over a benighted Eastern bloc. One only had to look over the Wall to see the evidence for oneself in the dim and shabby thoroughfare that the once-glittering Unter den Linden had become. In his own offhand way, Warhol was refusing that symbolism, a contrast of radiance and darkness that was no longer, as it had been in the 1950s, primarily theological, but had become consumerist in character. The spectacle of overwhelming Western affluence was the ideological weapon in which the Kennedy administration had made its greatest investment, and it is striking to find Warhol seizing on that image and negating its received political meaning (affluence equals freedom and individualism) in an effort to explain his work. Reading that interview now, one is further struck by the barely suppressed anger present throughout his responses, as well as by the irony in the phrases that would later congeal into the cliches. Of course, to generalize from this in order to impute some specifically politicized intentions to the artist would be to repeat the error in interpretation referred to above, to use a convenient textual crutch to avoid the harder work of confronting the paintings directly. A closer look at such
statements as these, however, can at least prepare us for unexpected meanings in the images, meanings possibly more complex or critical than the received reading of Warhol's work would lead us to believe.
The principal thesis of this essay is that Warhol, though he grounded his art in the ubiquity of the packaged commodity, produced his most powerful work by dramatizing the breakdown of commodity exchange. These were instances in which the massproduced image as the bearer of desires was exposed in its inadequacy by the reality of suffering and death. Into this category, for example, falls his most famous portrait series, that of Marilyn Monroe. He began the pictures within weeks of her suicide in August 1962, and it is remarkable how consistently this simple fact goes unremarked in the literature. 6 Her death was something with which Warhol clearly had to deal, and the pictures represent a lengthy act of mourning, much of the motivation for which lies beyond our understanding. (Some of the artist's formal choices refer to this memorial or funeral function directly, especially the single impression of her face against the gold background of an icon (Gold Marilyn Monroe, Museum of Modern Art), the traditional sign of an eternal other world.) Once undertaken, however, the series raised issues that continue to involve us all. How does one handle the fact of celebrity death? Where does one put the curiously intimate knowledge one possesses of an unknown figure, and how does one come to terms with the sense of loss, the absense of a richly imagined presence that was never really there? For some it might be Monroe, for others Buddy Holly or a Kennedy: the problem is the same.
Any complexity of thought or feeling in Warhol's Marilyns may be difficult to discern from our present vantage point. Not only does his myth stand in the way, but the portraits' seeming acceptance of the reduction of a woman's identity to a mass-commodity fetish can make the entire series seem a monument to the benighted past or unrepentant present. Though Warhol obviously had little stake in the erotic fascination felt for her by the male intellectuals of the fifties generation, de Kooning and Mailer for example,' he may indeed have failed to resist it sufficiently in his art. It is far from the intent of this essay to redeem whatever contribution Warhol's pictures have made to perpetuating that mystique. But there are ways in which the majority of the Monroe paintings, when viewed apart from the Marilyn/Goddess cult, exhibit a degree of tact, even reverence, that withholds outright complicity with it.

That effect of ironic remove began in the process of creating the silk-screen transfer. Its source is a bust-length publicity still in black and white taken in 1953 for the film Niagara.' The print that Warhol used, marked for cropping with a grease pencil, survives in the archives of his estate. A face shot in color from the same session was one of the best-known images of the young actress, but Warhol instead opted for a physic ally- smaller segment of one taken at a greater distance from its subject. In its alignment with the foursquare rectangle of Warhol's ruled grid, the face takes on a solid, self-contained quality that both answers to the formal order of Warhol's compositional grids and undercuts Monroe's practiced and expected way of courting the male eye behind the camera. An instructive comparison can be made between the effect of Warhol's alteration of his source and James Rosenquist's Marilyn Monroe I of 1962 (Museum of Modern Art); or all of the fragmentation and interference that the latter artist imposes on the star portrait, its mannered coquettishness is precisely what he lingers over and rreserves.9

The beginning of the Marilyn series coincides with the moment of Warhol's commitment to the silk-screen technique, and there is a close link between technique and meaning. Compared to the Rosenquist or to the vivid, fine-grained color of the studio face portrait, his manipulation and enlargement of a monochrome fragment drain away much of the imaginary living presence of the star. The inherently flattering and simplifying effects of the transformation from photograph to fabric stencil to inked canvas are magnified rather than concealed. The screened image, reproduced whole, has the character of an involuntary imprint. It is a memorial in the sense of resembling memory: powerfully selective, sometimes elusive, sometimes vividly present, always open to embellishment as well as loss.

In the Marilyn Diptych (Tate Gallery), also painted in 1962, Warhol lays out a stark and unresolved dialectic of presence and absence, of life and death. The left side is a monument; color and life are restored, but as a secondary and invariant mask added to something far more fugitive. Against the quasiofficial regularity and uniformity of the left panel, the right concedes the absence of its subject, displaying openly the elusive and uninformative trace underneath. The right panel nevertheless manages subtle shadings of meaning within its limited technical scope. There is a reference to the material of film that goes beyond the repetition of frames. On a simple level, it reminds us that the best and most enduring film memories one has of Monroe-in The SevenYear Itch, Some Like It Hot, The Misfits-are in black and white. The color we add to her memory is supplementary. In a more general sense, she is most real and best remembered in the flickering passage of film exposures, no one of which is ever wholly present to perception. The heavy inking in one vertical register underscores this. The passage from life to death reverses itself; she is most present where her image is least permanent. In this way, the Diptych stands as a comment on and complication of the embalmed quality, the slightly repellent stasis, of the Gold Marilyn.

Having taken up the condition of the celebrity as trace and sign, it is not surprising that Warhol would soon move to the image of Elizabeth Taylor. She and Monroe were nearly equal and unchallenged as Hollywood divas with larger-than-life personal myths. Each was maintained in her respective position by a kind of negative symmetry with the other, by representing what the other was not.

He then completed his triangle of female celebrity for the early sixties with a picture of Jacqueline Kennedy in the same basic format as the full-face portraits of Monroe and Taylor. The President's wife did not share film stardom with Monroe, but she did share the Kennedys. She also possessed the distinction of having established for the period a changed feminine ideal. Her slim, dark, aristocratic standard of beauty had made Monroe's style, and thus her power as a symbol, seem out of date even before her death. (That new standard was mimicked within the Warhol circle by Edie Sedgewick, for a time his constant companion and seeming alter ego during the period.) Warhol rein-
forced that passe quality by choosing for his series a photograph
of Monroe from the early fifties; by that simple choice he measured a historical distance between her life and her symbolic function, while avoiding the signs of aging and mental corapse. The semiotics of style that locked together Warhol's images of the three women represents, however, only one of the bonds between them. The other derived from the threat or actuality of death. The full-face portraits of the Liz series, though generated by a transformation of the Marilyns, in fact had an earlier origin. Taylor's famous catastrophic illness in 1961-the collapse that interrupted the filming of Cleopatra-had entered into one of Warhol's early tabloid paintings (Daily News, 1962). The contemporaneous rhythm of crises in the health of both women had joined them in the public mind (and doubtless Warhol's as well) in that year; it was a bond that the third would come to share in November 1963. The Kennedy assassination pictures are often seen as an exception in the artist's output, exceptional in their open emotion and sincerity," but their continuity with the best of his previous work seems just as compelling. As with the Marilyns, the loss of the real Kennedy referent galvanizes Warhol into a sustained act of remembrance. Here, however, he has a stand in, the widow who had first attracted him as an instance of celebrity typology. Again, he limits himself to fragmentary materials, eight grainy news photographs out of the myriad representations available to him. These he shuffles and rearranges to organize his straightforward expressions of feeling: in Nine Jackies of 1964 (Sonnabend Collection), one sees the irrevocable transformation of the life of the survivor, Jackie happy and Jackie sad, differentiated by the color of the panel; the print Jackie II of 1966 uses a simple doubling within one undivided field both to multiply the marks of stoicism and grief and to make the widow less solitary in her mourning. The emotional calculus is simple, the sentiment direct and uncomplicated. The pictures nevertheless recognize, by their impoverished vocabulary, the distance between public mourning and that of the principals in the drama. Out of his deliberately limited resources, the artist creates a nuance and subtlety of response that is his alone, precisely because he has not sought technically to surpass his raw material. It is difficult not to hare in this, however cynical one may have become about the Kennedy presidency or the Kennedy marriage. In his particular dramatization of medium, Warhol found room for a dramatization of feeling and even a kind of history painting.

My reading of Warhol has thus far proceeded by establishing relationships among his early portraits. It can be expanded to include the apparently anodyne icons of consumer products for which the artist is equally renowned. Even those familiar images take on unexpected meanings in the context of his other work of the period. For example, in 1963, the year after the Campbell's soup-can imagery had established his name, Warhol did a series of pictures under the title Tunafish Disaster. These are, understandably enough, lesser known works, but they feature the repeated images of an analogous object, a can of A&P-brand tuna. In this instance, however, the contents of the can were suspected of having killed people, and newspaper photographs of the victims are repeated below those of the deadly containers. The wary smile of Mrs. McCarthy, the broad grin of Mrs. Brown, as each posed with self-conscious sincerity for their snapshots, and the look of the clothes, glasses, and hairstyles speak the language of class in America. The women's workaday faces and the black codings penned on the cans transform the mass produced commodity into anything but a neutral abstraction.

More than this, of course, the pictures commemorate a moment when the supermarket promise of safe and abundant packaged food was disastrously broken. Does Warhol's rendition of the disaster render it safely neutral? I think not, no more than it would be possible for an artist to address the recent panics over tampering with nonprescription medicines without confronting the kinds of anxiety they express. In this case, the repetition of the crude images does force attention to the awful banality of the accident and the tawdry exploitation by which we come to know the misfortunes of strangers, but it does not mock attempts at empathy, however feeble. Nor do the images direct our attention to some peculiarly twentieth-century estrangement between the event and its representation: the misfortunes of strangers have

made up the primary content of the press since there has been a press. The Tunafish Disaster pictures take an established feature of Pop imagery, established by others as well as by Warhol, and push it into a context decidedly other than that of consumption. We do not consume the news of these deaths in the same way that we consume the safe (one hopes) contents of a can.

Along similar lines, a link can be made to the several series that use photographs of automobile accidents. These comme….

sudden and irreparable injury. (In only one picture of the period, Cars, does an automobile appear intact.) Does the repetition of Five Deaths or Saturday Disaster cancel attention to the visible anguish in the faces of the living or the horror of the limp bodies of the unconscious and dead? We cannot penetrate beneath the image to touch the true pain and grief, but their reality is sufficiently indicated in the photographs to force attention to one's limited ability to find an appropriate response. As for the repetition, might we just as well understand it to mean the grim predictability, day after day, of more events with an identical outcome, the leveling sameness with which real, not symbolic, death erupts in our experience?

In his selection of these photographs, Warhol was as little as ever the passive receptor of commonly-available imagery. Rather than relying upon newspaper reproductions that might have come to hand randomly, he sought out glossy press-agency prints normally seen only by professional journalists." (Some of these were apparently regarded as too bizarre or gruesome ever to see print; that is, they were barred from public reproduction precisely because of their capacity to disturb.) They have in common with the celebrity portraits and product labels discussed above a fascination with moments where the brutal fact of death and suffering cancels the possibility of passive and complacent consumption. And he would take this further. Simultaneously with his first meditations on the Monroe death, Warhol took up the theme of anonymous suicide in several well-known and harrowing paintings. Bellevue 1 (1963) places the death within a context of institutional confinement. And again the argument could be offered that the repetition of the photographic image within the pictorial field can increase rather than numb sensitivity to it, as the viewer works to draw the separate elements into a whole. The compositional choices are artful enough to invite that kind of attention. Take, for example, the way the heavily inked units in the upper left precisely balance and play off the void at the bottom. That ending to the chain of images has a metaphoric function akin to the play of presence and absence in the Marilyn Diptych-it stands in a plain and simple way for death and also for what lies beyond the possibility of figuration." In the 1962 print on paper Suicide, the implacable facade of the building from which the victim has jumped (we can see neither its top nor its bottom) becomes an area of obscure abstraction marked only by dim ranks of unseeing windows; it is the dark complement to the bright wedge that surrounds the leaper's horrific silhouette.

The electric-chair pictures, as a group, present a similarly stark dialectic of fullness and void. But the dramatic shifts between presence and absence are far from being the manifestation of a pure play of the signifier liberated from reference beyond the sign. They mark the point where the brutal fact of violent death entered the realm of contemporary politics. The early 1960s, following the execution of Caryl Chessman in California, has seen agitation against the death penalty grow to an unprecedented level of intensity." The partisan character of Warhol's images is literal and straightforward, as he is wont to be, and that is what saves them from mere morbidity. He gave them the collective title Disaster and thus tied a political subject to the slaughter of innocents in the highway, airplane, and supermarket accidents he memorialized elsewhere. He was attracted to the open sores in American political life, the issues that were most problematic for liberal Democratic politicians such as Kennedy and Edmund Brown. At this time he also did a series on the most violent phase of civil-rights demonstrations in the South; in the Race Riots of 1963, political life takes on the same nightmare coloring that saturates so much of his other work.

We might take seriously, if only for a moment, Warhol's dictum that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, but conclude that in his eyes it was likely to be under fairly horrifying circumstances. What this body of paintings adds up to is a kind of peinture noire in the sense that we apply the term to the film noir genre of the forties and early fifties-a stark, disabused, pessimistic vision of American life, produced from the knowing rearrangement of pulp materials by an artist who did not opt for the easier paths of irony or condescension.

By 1965, of course, this episode in his work was largely over; the Flowers, Cow Wallpaper, silver pillows, and the like have little to do with the imagery under discussion here. Then the cliches began to ring true. But there was for a time, in the work of 1961-64, a threat to create a true "pop" art in the most positive sense of that term-a pulp-derived, bleakly monochrome vision that held, however tenuous the grip, to an all-but-buried tradition of truth-telling in American commercial culture. Very little of what is normally called Pop art could make a similar claim. It remained, one could argue, a latency subsequently taken up by others, an international underground soon to be overground, who created the third Warhol and the best one.


1. There are as yet only fragmentary accounts of this phenomenon. For some Preliminary comment, see Iain Chambers, Urban Rhythms: POP Music and Popular Culture (London, 1985), pp. 130ff.

2. See, for example, Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, trans. j. W. Gabriel (London, 1970), passim.

3. See, for example, Carter Ratcliff,
Andy Warhol (New York, 1983), Passim. For an illuminating discussion of the Power and effects of this view in West Germany, see Andreas Huyssen, "The Cultural Politics of Pop, " New German Critiques 4 (Winter 1975), pp. 77-98.

4. See, for example, Robert Hughes, "The Rise of Andy Warhol," in B. Wallis, ed.,
Art after Modernism (New York, 1984), pp. 4557.

5. In an interview with G. R. Swenson, "What Is Pop Art,"
Art News 62 (November 1963), p. 26. Warhol's assistant during the sixties, Gerard Malanga, offered this interpretation of
the passage in a recent interview (Patrick S. Smith,
Warhol: Conversations about the Artist -[Ann Arbor, 19881, 163): "Well, Andy's always said He said somewhere that he
thought of himself as apolitical. And if you remember reading that really good interview with Andy by Gene Swenson in '63, in
Art News, when Andy talks about capitalism and communism as really being the same thing and someday everybody will think alike--well, that's a very political statement to make even though it sounds very apolotical. So, I think, there was always a political undercurrent to Andy's unconscious concern for politics, or of [sic] society for that matter."

Crone, p. 24, dates the beginning of the Monroe portraits in a discussion of silk-screen
technique without mentioning the death. Ratc
iff, p - 117, dates the frst portraits to August
in a brief chronology apended to his text, so without mentioning hr death in the same

7. De Kooning titled one of his
Woman series after her in 1954. Norman
Mailer's fascination with the actress is rehearsed at length in Marilyn: A Biography (New york 1983). Warhol was himself fascinated by the aura that surrounded the first generation of the New York school and was calculatedly looking for ways to move into their orbit. His interest in de Kooning, though no doubt real, has taken on a spurious specificity based on remarks mistakenly appended to the 1963 Swenson interview when it was reprinted in John Russell and Suzi Gablik, Pop
Art Redefined (New York, 1969). The statement (p. 118) "de Kooning gave me my content and my motivation" actually comes from Swenson's interview with Tom Wesselmann (see Art News 62 [February 19641, P. 64). 1 and others had given credence to this scholarly virus in the past. The record was publicly corrected by Barry Blinderman (letter to the editor, Art in America 75 [October 1987], P. 21). The misattribution has, however, reappeared in the catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Warhol: A Retrospective (New York, 1989), pp - 18, 23n.


8. The print, from a photograph by Gene Kornman, was uncovered in the archives of the Warhol estate by the organizers of Andy Warhol: A Retrospective (an illustration of the print with Warhol's markings appears on p. 72). Before it had come to light, I had surmised that he had used a portion of the color face portrait in a composite image, basing that conjecture on the seemingly identical aspect of the hair in that photograph and in the Warhol screen (see my comments and an illustration of the other portrait in Art in America 75 [May 19871, p. 130). I am grateful to Jennifer Wells of the department of painting at the Museum of Modern Art for her knowledge and assistance on this and other points.

9. See Crone, p. 24, who dates Warhol's commitment to the technique to August 1962. The first screened portraits, he states, were of Troy Donahue. Marco Livingston ("Do It Yourself. Notes on Warhol's Techniques," Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, p. 69) states that Baseball (Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City) was among the very earliest, along with "Disasters" on both paper and canvas, such as Suicide (Adelaide de Menil collection).

10. See, for example, Coplans, p. 52. The source of most of the photographs was Life 55 (29 November 1963), pp. 22, 31 (6 December 1963), pp. 43, 48.

11. See interview with Gerard Malanga in Smith, Warhol: Conversations about the Artist, p. 163.

12. This control, of course, could take the form of understanding and anticipating the characteristic imperfections and distortions of the process; that is, of knowing just how little one had to intervene once the basic arrangement, screen pattern, and color choices had been decided. For a firsthand account, see the illuminating
if somewhat sel-fcontradictory comments of Gerard Malanga in Patrick Smith, Andy Warhol's Art and Films (Ann Arbor, 1986), pp. 391-392,398400.See also Livingston's remarks ("Do It Yourself," p. 72) on the ways in which the rephotographed full-sized acetate would be altered by the artist ('for example, to increase the tonal contrast by removing areas of half-tone, thereby further flattening the image") before its transfer to silk screen, as well as on the subsequent use of the same acetate to plot and mark the intended placement of the screen impressions before the process of printing began. Warhol's remarks in a conversation with Malanga (Print Collector's Newsletter 1 [JanuaryFebruary 19711, p. 126) indicate a habit of careful premeditation; he explains how the location of an impression was established if color was to be applied under it: "Silhouette shapes of the actual image were painted in by isolating the rest of an area on the canvas by means of masking tape. Afterwards, when the paint dried, the masking tape would be removed and the silk screen would be placed on top of the painted silhouette shape, sometimes slightly off register."

13. For a summary of press accounts of the affair, see Roger E. Schwed, Abolition and Capital Punishment (New York, 1983), pp. 6