Die, Warhol, Die

catalogue essay for the exhibition ANDY WARHOL, Queensland Art Gallery, 2007, Brisbane

Unto death art departs

Mimetic or representational art - by inference or statement - purports to create. Yet it mostly highlights the absence of that which it illustrates. Its images and forms are coated with an ectoplasmic patina, luridly evoking the departed face, the forgone body, the unreachable landscape. Forwarding a poetics of loss, epochs of art's numerous pantheons collectively espouse beauty. But all those gorgeous fleshy bodies and their luminescent aura are as much a theatre of dissection and visceral exposure as they are a cathedral for aestheticism. Repressed by the long arcs of classicism, spiritualism and romanticism, art history eventually convulsed modernism: a mind-set that wilfully celebrated acts of destruction over gestures to creation.

Modernist practices intensify the fragmented, heighten the epidermal, evacuate the internal, obliterate the recognisable. Nudes, animals, objects, landscapes - all become memes employed under the modernist rubric to demonstrate deformable executions of their accepted morphology. Modernism's collapse between creation and destruction at both topical and formal levels inevitably draws fuel from the volatile combine of sex and violence. If one then accepts that the history of visual arts is an unfolding network of image-making and shape-forming compelled by the fusion of erotic and necrotic impulses, then Warhol's position within modernism is a dazzlingly reflective moment in art history.

Counter to abstractionist teleology, Warhol's oeuvre is dedicated to a envigourating malpractice on abstraction. He remains focussed not on the cosmological energies unleashed through non-representational formulation, but on the transfiguring aura around legible surfaces which rise beyond their mimetic anchorage. In this sense, Warhol literally abstracts representation. Within his streamlined ocular concerns, nothing lives, and all is matter. Registering experience thus becomes a pure and engulfing connection with the forensic surface of this thing people call 'the world'.

There is little if any of Warhol's world that is not about death. To pore over his work requires an embrace of the mortal generally, the morbid occasionally, the necrotic continually. Talk of mass media, pop culture, societal fame, graphic reproduction - these form a taxonomy of avoidance, soft-shoeing around Warhol's core parafiliac condition and his fetishistic love of the skin-deep. His image-making then is essentially a series of inventive and reinventive modes of rendering akin to mortician operations. From feeble tracing to lethargic screen-printing to flash over-exposing to filmic surfacing, Warhol's hand is less a director of energy in the heroic Promethean lineage and more a registrar of non-energy in the alchemical Frankensteinian lineage.

Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (subtitled The Modern Prometheus) delves deep into the surface effects of Frankenstein's fetid operations, describing in detail the handiwork in his "workshop of filthy creation". Shelly focuses on the doctor's visceral practice so as to recall it in the form of a haunting assemblage of all its morbid constituency. In this proto-modernist and highly reflexive sense, Shelly's potent descriptive prose promotes an act of 'becoming flesh' from word - of allowing Promethean purpose to become unbound, post-human, deathly. The result is a perceptual template that highlights how abject viscera is excluded from humanist descriptive endeavours despite unavoidably invoking its aura in the act of 'capturing life'.

Modernist visual practice excites this approach to rendering by detaching, distilling and dismembering skin, limb and organ from the human form (think Picasso, Rauschenberg, DeKooning, Wesselmann, Segal, et al). Corpses replace bodies; death masks replace faces; voids replace landscapes; still death replaces still life. Warhol foregrounds this death aesthetic more than all the celebrated abstractionists and popists because he dilates sensational surface effects in his work. Of course all Modernism offers itself up to such mortal atmospherics (modernist intersections with the female nude especially bear this glorious repulsion), but Warhol's infamous gaze disallowed any distraction from the necrotic vibrations triggered by his subjects and their handling.

Death becomes him

In numerous biographies, much has been made of Warhol's desperate tie to Catholicism and a seeming fear of death. To that extant, a post-death mythology now hangs over Warhol, figuring him a supreme voyeur of virile gay kink while keeping his distance in synthetic wigs and wearing expensive jewellery under his black sweater. The post-Solanis/late-period body of Warhol - face sagging into a Munch-like death mask, bullet-scarred torso resculpted into Dali-esque melted folds, feeble frame collapsing into a dispossessed puppet of himself - is part a neurotic denial of its decay and part an obsessive play with its own corporeality. Living out his own Dorian Grey portraiture, Warhol became death in a manner akin to how his subject matter became death.

More than an affected stance, death was the fibre of Warhol's constructed world in sedimentary and totalising ways. Three subcutaneous layers of Warhol's death aesthetic are veined throughout his photographically derived work across three and a half decades. More than simply reiterating a morbid compulsion, these layers harmonise and modulate each other to produce inter-relationships between energies whose transcendence and subsidence invoke life as much as death.

Firstly, the human icons Warhol screened and painted encode dying - from the mythic visages of public identities (1962-64) to the rich-and-famous snared in his commissioned portraits (1970-79). Specifically, Warhol's facial gaze freezes people in the process of dying. Elvis' tamed rocker figurine pose, Marilyn's medicated facial slur, Jackie's chilled curtained Goth, Mao's towering mausoleum of the self, the FBI's ready-to-be-executed gallery - their vulgar demeanour is emblazoned by Warhol's reproductive acts so as to reveal their fading vitality. Too much make-up, too much alteration, too much living, too much killing: these faces declare their fatal plummet at the point of their photographic inscription. Warhol's cinematic forays into portraiture (13 Most Beautiful Women, 13 Most Beautiful Boys, 50 Fantastics, 50 Personalities, the Beauty and Screen Test series - all between 1964 and 1966) similarly halt moments of existence. Indeed, his filmic portraits foreground the granular decay of their representational surface with greater effect. Watching the innumerable Factory denizens and assorted Super Stars stare into the lens is like watching them die right before their eyes.

Secondly, the human body parts Warhol painted, photographed and filmed promote living. They express a fetid yet vibrant sense of the body's physical sustainability. Emptied of humanist explication, their depiction is a statement of physical energy. Even if the bodies are dead - as they are in their disrecognised state in the various car crash newspaper images (the numerous Car Crash and Disaster works serialised across 1962-63) - they exude a palpable meatiness in their destruction. The spectre of death at its moment of eventfulness sharpens its corporal status, and Warhol's bodily capture privileges this sensation. While much is still made about Warhol's 'impassivity' via the cooling principles of electronic media reproduction, his appropriation of newspaper disaster images was prescient. Post-war America celebrated its victory against the Axis in WWII by hysterically intensifying mass industrial production. Factories that once made bomber planes to kill masses, changed over to make boomer cars to kill individuals. The 1950s acceleration of breeding, speeding, crashing and burning was a heady cocktail which detonated the rise in road accidents. Newspapers innocently documented the carnage, and unwittingly thrust the public into a pre-McLuhan moment of coolly-depicted death haze. Warhol clinically and precisely imported those image triggers into his artwork - refusing to either ameliorate their trauma or interlocute an ethics of reproduction. More than 'becoming death', Warhol initiated an act of 'becoming media'. In doing so, his once-removed reproduction returned these abjected vessels to a corporeal state, trapping them in the acidic amber of his glaring surfaces.

Thirdly, Warhol's presentation of inanimate objects allowed being. The Brillo boxes, cow wallpaper, flower photos, etc. have often been regarded as theatricalised acts of banality. Yet such pithy hierarchies of taste were never part of Warhol's world. Pop apologists and sociologically infected critics will forever presume anything Pop to be borne by 'kitsch' or 'camp' sensibilities. But in a broader philosophical sense, Warhol's objects evacuate themselves of determined meaning in order to allow their innate formal distinction to gain visual ground. Just as the inhuman serial killer discounts all fundamental differences between the animate and the inanimate, Warhol serially objectifies these objects. He returns them to a legitimate non-judgemental plane of self-existence devoid of human framing or contextualisation. Their presumed devaluation is but the result of applying a humancentric perspective. Warhol's killer gaze could see life in the inanimate, just as he saw death in the living.

He becomes death

In terms of Warhol's painting, it is the electric chair (variously titled and suffixed as Electric Chair and Disaster in multiple combinations between 1963-67) that creates the purest choral effect of the three modulating principles of dying, living and being. These paintings' absence is deafening: no body marks its presence in the space, no human procedural actions are inferred, so that the image seems to have photographed itself. Like a self-portrait of death, the electric chair image is less a mere haunting token and more a totemic statement of the force of death wielded within institutionalised practices.

If Warhol is about America, then the electric chair is the seat of American culture. Like a transmogrified porch rocking chair, this fusion of Gothic American folk and maverick industrial inventiveness declares its own ingenuity as applied to the act of killing. This is the frontier West gallows re-designed by Frankenstein. Most importantly, the emptied tonality of the image through Warhol's unperturbed importation filters out all humanist distortion to allow the image to deeply resonate the object's semiological overtones. In a swooping decapitation of the head of romanticism, Warhol's identification with the electric chair as image and icon says nothing about humanity. In doing so, the image becomes death in order to demonstrate death.

While the disquieting effect of the electric chair is not so potently divined in Warhol's paintings and screen prints, its totemic function is laterally evident in his cinematic endeavours. The unflinching documentation of the Empire State Building (Empire, 1964) is the most immediate example. Here is a building that at one point symbolised America's instatement of the metropolis, represented by a Euro-phallic thrust dressed-up in tacky deco ornamental drag. But Warhol's filming of its 'objecture' - making it into a 'star' as he claimed - documents the nothingness of its grand presence. A blunt form of concrete and steel, it simply stands there while the world passes by. Warhol's film captures life energies and elemental forces which co-exist with its frozen stature, and the extended temporality of Empire nullifies the object while dynamizing its aura. A cosmological dread hangs over the film, as night descends in a poetic suggestion of life closing down. The Empire State Building eventually ascends to being a beacon of ghostly nothingness in a void of filmic black incapable of registering detail upon its photochemical plane.

Films like the Kiss series, Sleep, Eat, Haircut (all 1963), Shoulder (1964) and Face (1965) apply Empire's cine-ghosting to living bodies. Kiss is the definitive statement on Warhol's febrile mix of necrotic and erotic drives. Couples become marionettes of meat, performing slug-like probes of each other's orifices, silently egged on to kiss until death do they part. In each reel, these mortal boys and girls are born, kiss, and die in a self-immolating chemical fire as the celluloid burns bright and eventually flares into the white heat of non-existence. Kiss is Warhol's most transcendental work. The insinuation is that these once-human beings are now in another dimension, forever kissing, forever eroticised, and repeatedly 'necroticised' with each playing of the film.

Sleep similarly fetishes an extended state of narcolepsy. Apparently feigning a controversial disavowal of cinematic action, Sleep seems to be a put-on. Surely watching someone sleeping on-screen is akin to falling asleep during a boring movie? But Sleep bears little relation to such simplistic qualifications of cinematic engagement. More a moving painting in the vanitas tradition of painting decayed and/or dead objects, the sleeping John Giorno portrays his self-effacement in front of the camera lens. Rendered unconscious through direction as well as recording, he is alive, yet all we experience is his lumpen mass like a soft, still sculpture. He may as well be dead.

If Warhol were a Classicist, his obsession with death would place him within the memento mori tradition. But Warhol was a modernist at the precipice of the post-modern. As such, his formal concerns and strategies remain centred on multifarious acts of becoming - of moving into states of dying, living and being. His morbid works express little concern for reminding 'us' that we are mortals. Discounting 'us' entirely, Empire, Sleep and Kiss are pregnant with murderous impulses which elsewhere in modernism have been subsumed by chauvinistic painterly acts. In Warhol's world, the Empire State Building is waiting to be blown up; people kissing are waiting to be attacked; people asleep are waiting to be killed. In Warhol's world, you are already dead, because he became death a long time ago.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Andy Warhol Foundation.