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Episode 5: Andy Warhol’s "Red Disaster" (1962)

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In 1968, the critic William Wilson wrote an article on Andy Warhol, calling him “the prince of boredom.”  He said this because of Warhol’s propensity to use repetition in his work.  And he did.  A lot.  And maybe you’d imagine that Andy the artist would get a little bored.  Someone else takes a photograph, and then Warhol clips it from a magazine or a newspaper, and he, or, more likely, a team of factory-style assistants, silkscreens the image over and over and over onto large canvases.  Even the act of silk screening gives the sense of the efficient and the industrial, a familiar inked image degrading as it goes, like a flaking off fresco.  Another day, another series of multiples, steady as a metronome, lather, rinse, repeat.

But to think of repetition – boring old repetition – as boring, is to ignore what a truly spectacular device it actually is.  It serves many, many purposes, some of which that are completely contradictory, without breaking a sweat.  Think of repetition in a song: when a chorus is repeated again and again, it becomes the hook, it reinforces the message.  It singles the message out.  It tells you what to listen for.  …and it’s the first thing to stop listening to.  Because, yeah, you get it.  You can sing it without thinking.  Think about when we looked at Christian Boltanski, our last foray into the contemporary gallery: Sylvie’s image was reproduced over and over again until the integrity of the image was degraded down to the basic amorphous shapes, which, as it turns out, was all we needed to tell a larger story, and is an excellent metaphor for the degradation of memory.  Something sharp and specific, after multiple viewings, becomes generic and blunt.  It becomes all the information we need.  And we acclimatize, we adapt.  We watch CNN and the 24-hour news cycle and are pummeled with horrific images, and after a while, simply stop reacting.  And meanwhile, the Prince of Boredom is there, waiting to show us ourselves by holding the mirror up to the mirror.

Andy Warhol was many things, and you’ve heard of them all: artist, filmmaker, fey celebrity, pop genius, the reason you don’t take modern art seriously.  But Pop Art never wanted your sincerity.  It found aesthetics not in the museum, a space they felt was elitist and self-important, but in the every day world.  Nuts to your angst, Jackson Pollock, to your spirituality, Mark Rothko.  Stop taking yourselves so seriously.  There’s art in the advertisements, the billboards, the celebrity, the fashion.  Art can be kitschy and cloying and shallow and fun.

And repetition was Warhol’s go-to device, because nothing is repeated so often as ads.  The graphic art on the labels of soup cans on a shelf.  A photo of Marilyn Monroe in the newspapers.  What is celebrity culture if not the repetition of a pretty face over and over?  And here again we have the contradictory nature of repetition: we fall in love with a face we see endlessly and then we see it so often that we stop seeing it and eventually it’s replaced with something new.

 Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup Cans”; “Marilyn Monroe” (1962)

Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup Cans”; “Marilyn Monroe” (1962)

So how does all this fizz and pop culture apply to the electric chairs you’ve been staring at?  How could we compare looking at multiples of Marilyn and soup with the repetition of deeply disturbing images of violence and impending disaster?  As it turned out, this was a question that Warhol asked himself.

In June of 1962, Warhol was having lunch with a curator friend, who said, in classic counterculture ease: “it’s enough life, it’s time for a little death.”  And can I just say, I love the idea that this is how artists in the 60s talked to each other, because of course they did.  Anyway, in other words, Warhol was told, it’s time to start using your celebrity, your probing interest in this irreconcilable relationship between what we see and what we stop seeing, for something of real cultural value.  Let’s take Pop Art to a darker place, a more political place.  It’s time for a little death.  So from 1962 to 1963, and over the course of 70 or so canvases, Warhol embarked on his Death and Disaster series.  These were images that he had gotten from newspapers and police archives of car accidents, electric chairs, suicides, police brutality, and even tainted cans of tuna fish, and then mechanically silkscreened onto large canvases, so as to retain the graininess of the original image, repeated over and over. 

Silk screening, like any transfer, is a medium that degrades as you go.  You ink up the image and print and print until the ink runs dry.  Every image, as the ink runs out, is going to look a little different.  Then, he often paired the repeated images with a large blank canvas painted the title color, like we have here: the Red Disaster. 

 Warhol, "Tuna Fish Disaster" (1963)

Warhol, "Tuna Fish Disaster" (1963)

So what is he trying to say here?  How is repetition being used?  On the one hand, we have a pretty obvious statement being made, which is reinforced by the Warhol quote that the MFA pairs with the painting: “when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t have any effect.”  Surely Americans living in the 1960s would have become desensitized to the brutal images on newspaper covers, as surely as we’re used to that today.  Choruses lose their punch, and Warhol wanted nothing if not to show us ourselves, absently humming along.  And that lone Sing Sing electric chair, empty, unused, or between uses, as some have eerily suggested, stops being the totally horrifying thing that it is and actually becomes almost visually pleasing – there’s a cool sense of linearity and composition to the repeated images, which begin to mirror the organized structural shape of the chair back. 

So are we supposed to come away from this painting feeling nothing?  And in turn, feel ashamed?  Is that what Warhol had in mind?  Maybe.  And then again, maybe not.  Because I’ve stood with people staring at this artwork who found it more and more disturbing the longer they take it in.  The only legible word in the picture is a placard that says “silence”.  It captures a kind of absence and stillness that freaks people out.  Repetition as reinforcement – this, it screams at us, is an important and unsettling message about our society, about how banal death can really be.  A small chair isolated in a big room.  And, moreover, how we’ve come to adapt to this chilly banality.  And the only refuge for your eyes is a big, blank red canvas – blood, maybe, as some have suggested, or maybe it’s just that cherry red color that was always the title lettering for 1960s horror films – a classic Warhol wink that undermines the horror, and consequently makes the message all the more horrifying.

Maybe Warhol didn’t mean for us to come away with a clear interpretation, or ascribe to him a clear political stance.  Maybe it was just time for a little death.  And maybe the chair is just another celebrity that we can’t get enough of, until we can.