Andy Warhol – Artistic or Autistic?

Exhibit: Warhol sobre Warhol
Gallery: La Casa Encendida

Ronda de Valenica, 2
Everyday: 10 -22
Entrance: free

Due
to his soup-can choice of subject matter and bizarre persona, t
he perennial question with
Warhol is “Was he taking the piss?” It is, after all, a valid question for a
man who actually urinated on an entire series of canvasses to achieve certain
color effects. These canvasses, called the “Oxidation painting”, were primed
with a copper-based paint then “pissed” on by one of Warhol’s trusted, how
shall we say, “Urinists”? Detail-oriented to the end, Warhol found that he
preferred collaborators who had a high intake of vitamin B – apparently it
further heightens the desired color changes.

Of course, critics and
public alike were irate (notice I avoided the pun “pissed off”) by yet another example
of Warhol nonchalantly presenting the art world with material not considered
worthy or relevant. Entering the “Warhol Sobre Warhol” exhibit at Casa
Encendida, one has the opportunity to grapple with these issues and more: How
can a man who was unapologetically superficial have spawned decades of
philosophical debate over the meaning of his work? How can someone who comes
across in interviews like an indecisive and terminally shy eight-year-old
become a giant in the world of art? And how is it that he always managed to
have that bizarre startled, yet expressionless, look on his face? Halfway
through the exhibit, you begin to think he was actually a pioneer
in the Botox movement as well.

To begin with the title,
“Warhol Sobre Warhol” would indicate a certain level of Warholian
self-examination. Warhol, who had a habit of replying with mono-syllabic
answers, is one of the most mysterious artists of the last century. For anyone
even remotely interested in his career, the title conjures up images of
unpublished journal entries, previously unseen self-portraits, or at least him
properly answering interview questions. Unfortunately, you get very little of
this. A better title, I believe, would have been “A Bunch of Random Warhol Stuff”,
but I admit it probably wouldn’t market as well.

So, in spite of the name
being a bit of a misnomer, the exhibit is a great overview of Warhol. From the
days of his commercial work through all that followed – celebrity portraits,
the factory, the attempt on his life, the drag photos – it’s all there. The
only significant omission is the “Piss Series” – sorry.

Of course, several of the
famous tri-colored portraits make a showing – a staple of Warhol exhibits. The
most notable are the ten enormous canvasses of Mick Jagger. Beyond the the
glossy naiveté of the work, it’s interesting to note that Warhol saw himself as
“as a modern day portrait painter capturing the noblemen and royals of our
time”. Aside from this heady explanation, one can’t help but marvel at the
pictures’ style as it looks like these 1975 portraits prefigured much of the
80s aesthetic.

Aside from the famous
portraiture, we also see snippets of all the “friends” he photographed or
captured on film. The list is long and luscious – the names read like a who’s
who of American culture: Susan Sontag, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed, Merce
Cunningham, Jean-Michel Basquiat, etc.  A truly impressive feat for a man who
had notoriously absent social skills and said of himself, “I’m the type who’d
like to sit home and watch every party that I’m invited to on a monitor in my
bedroom.”

Of all of these associates,
La Casa Encendida devotes an entire room to the Christopher Makos photographs.
Makos, a long-time companion of Warhol’s, spent an entire decade documenting Andy’s
life from Barcelona to Beijing. Due to their close friendship, we do
see a slightly looser Warhol (but only slightly) as he cross-dresses and poses
for Makos. Also interesting in this room is a short looped video segment where
Warhol is having the make-up applied for the shoot. I seized upon the
opportunity to see if the perpetually vacuous expression in the photos was
merely a series of poses or some sort of permanent condition. In the name of
being diplomatic, I’ll let Andy posthumously answer than question himself:

”Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there
– I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. Right when
I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television.”

So where does all of this
leave you in terms of a deeper perspective on Warhol? Will you have gotten any
closer to resolving the mysteries of one of the 20th centuries most
influential and enigmatic artists? Yes and no. You will likely leave with more
facts, but more contradictions as well. In order to synthesize all of this
information coherently, an important element might be a theory put forth by
Michael Fitzgerald in his book, “Autism and Creativity” (2004, Psychology Press). In it he argues that
many of the most creatively talented artists and thinkers in history exhibited
classic signs of Asperger’s Syndrome, a species of autism.

The symptoms include
a preference for repetition, difficulty in social interactions, eccentric
behavior, extreme focus and productivity, an obsession with detail, a tendency
to go from the specific to the general and minimalized language. Although many
historical figures are thought to have had Asperger’s, the Warhol case may be
stronger due the fact that so many artifacts from his life remain.

Although many specialists
agree with the theory, some people find it insulting asserting that it strips
his art of merit by lowering creativity to mere pathology. Given Warhol’s
bizarre behavior, it certainly is a tempting theory, though. While explaining his
behavior it may also save him from the charge of “taking the piss”. His love of repeating images, the absence of
abstract concepts, his expressionless gaze and lack of verbal skills all make
sense in this light. Long story short,
Warhol may have simply been wired in a fundamentally different way.

After all, Asperger’s is
only an insult if you view it as such. Fitzgerald would contend that Warhol is
a member of a club that might also include such greats as Socrates, Darwin, Yeats
and Einstein. Pathology or not, it’s a club I’d sign up for.

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