Saturday, May 4, 2013

From the Print Room Archives: Andy Warhol in the Flesh

When I started as an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I knew I needed a part-time job. I was prepared to wash dishes. But through a combination of pure accident and prescient timing I was hired at Oberlin’s prestigious Allen Memorial Art Museum as a Print Room assistant, a position that before my job interview, knowing little about the inner sanctums of art museums, I had mixed up in my head with Copy Room assistant. I had the vague notion that I would be Xeroxing flyers for minimum wage when, reporting to the museum for my interview, I was greeted in the lobby by a young curator with a freshly-issued PhD. She took me up to a tiny office in a large, airy room that was not in fact for photocopying but for storing and displaying the museum’s exquisite collection of prints, drawings and photographs the Print Room assistant-to-be would help manage and oversee.

Gobsmacked, armed with a couple of art history survey classes and the attitude that this was ridiculously, almost surreally, better than washing dishes – better, even, than Xeroxing – I stated my case and the curator, almost as new to Oberlin as I was and without knowing any better, gave me the position without waiting to interview the mob of upperclassman art history majors who were more richly deserving, and infinitely more qualified, than I. But I was dutiful and a quick study, and perhaps more importantly, utterly in awe. Three times a week I signed in for my ring of keys that unlocked the old wooden cupboards beneath the print gallery display cases where resided the long, shallow black solander boxes filled with matted prints. I would unlatch a box and delicately pick up each print in turn, peel off the strip of glassine beneath the mat to uncover the naked image it sheathed. My job was to pull prints from storage for research visits or classes; in this way, I held etchings by Rembrandt and by Whistler, the ragged modern woodcuts of Kirchner and Nolde which seemed to me, on each viewing, both furious and sad, and a pastel of a nude woman by Matisse that electrified me with its sudden intimacy, as though, unseen by either artist or model, I had drawn back a curtain on the spongy brightness of her defiant sensuality.

I learned quickly, but not from lectures or textbooks – I learned from the artworks themselves. Entire movements, periods and cultures – Japanese woodblock prints, the satiric eighteenth century engravings of Hogarth and Grandville, loose pages from medieval illuminated manuscripts – communicated themselves to me as archives without histories, until pulling prints became not unlike a daily descent into a dark, empty movie theater where all you could see were images, images, images flickering in the shadows and sublimely untethered from narrative. And yet, because I had the privilege of touch as well as sight, I couldn’t reduce the prints to the ethereal projections and illuminations of cinema or the bottomless pictures on the television screen. I began to see them simultaneously as image and as thing.

Andy Warhol was not the first artist who sought to create prints that turned graphic art into a movie theater or televisual experience, but he is probably the most famous. (“It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented,” he put it. “They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.”) His mass-produced screenprints and lithographs (created at the studio he appropriately called The Factory) communicated the sensual grammar and ironic repetitions of the television age through a medium that is, after all, based on replication. Prints are multiples, and Warhol saw a world that expressed itself in multiples. Trading on the fine line between celebrity and anonymity, his photo-roll screenprints of popular icons of the 1960s – Marilyn, Jackie, Elvis, Mao – were garishly over-painted with mood make-up as though they’d been embalmed by their own ubiquity and fame. These portraits were funeral masks, but in their repetitions and color variations they also did for celebrity culture what Monet did for the fields and haystacks of Giverny: they were near-mythic, cruelly prescient representations not of what we see but of how we see. Warhol didn’t dehumanize his subjects any more than he canonized them: the culture had already done both. In some prints, beneath the almost synesthetic cacophony of glossy highlights, you could almost sense a tremor of life from behind the mask, a desire to be released.

In those first weeks pulling prints, I would never have thought to turn to Warhol to understand the feeling of discovery I had, or the repetitions and variations of printmaking itself, which I was beginning to love, or the paradox of these artworks as both image and thing. I had studied Warhol and seen his bananas and soup cans on PowerPoint slides in the classroom, so I thought I knew something about him and his postmodern punch line about the banal repetitions of modern culture. And so, when a professor in the art department, a printmaker who taught a workshop on screenprinting, requested our edition of Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair series from 1971 for his students, I figured I knew what to expect. The sequence of ten sheets modulated the same screenprinted newspaper photograph of an empty electric chair through different color variations. Because of their enormous size (35 x 48 inches) ours had never been matted; they were kept in an oversize drawer and we had to gingerly slip them out using heavy pieces of matboard as support and transport them on carts, a task I was too nervous to execute on my own and so had one of our preparators handle instead.

I was asked to monitor the class, making sure the artworks I’d pulled for the session were protected from any accidents that might happen in a room flooded with students. No one had told me that because this professor was an artist accustomed to handling prints, and because he had a longstanding relationship with the museum, he, like me, was allowed to handle the artwork himself. As I looked on from my perch in the back of the room, he picked up one of the Electric Chair prints from where I’d left it lying flat on the island in the middle of the room and swooped it up into the air to display to his students, dangling from where he held each corner between his thumb and forefinger. As he proceeded in the same manner with each sheet, I was transfixed, both by the professor’s practiced intimacy with these delicate, free-floating prints I was still so terrified of damaging with my own clumsiness, and by the revelation of the prints themselves in what struck me, knowing them only in digital reproduction, as their corporeal form. The colors and textures were so intimate, the emotional pitch of each print so distinct from the last, the cumulative effect of the series, with its vanitas theme, so irresistibly haunting, that I realized I didn’t know Warhol at all. This work was far from a postmodern punch line about the banality of visual reproduction. For the first time I saw the exquisite pathos of Warhol’s replication as an attempt to unfold, through the pretense of alienation, a new awareness of the emotional mechanism behind both detachment and allure. It was as though, in these prints, you were watching flesh become ghost, with the sensuous application of color transforming the prints themselves into something fleshy and real.

For me, the experience of seeing Warhol’s prints in this way – in the flesh, so to speak – was perhaps the most meaningful initiation into the special power works of art have to startle you into new awareness when you visit them in person. It was my education into what kind of education it was I was getting, exactly, through my physical contact with prints at the museum each week. But I’ve heard other stories of people similarly affected by the surprisingly intimate work of an artist they were used to thinking of through the lens of irony and alienation. A professor friend of mine recalled an evening she had been invited to dinner at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home of Ellen Johnson, a famous art historian and former curator at the Allen. That day, a package had arrived from Warhol’s gallery, and Johnson, perhaps to entertain her guests or perhaps deliberately to shock them, unwrapped it in their presence. It was a Jackie screenprint on canvas from 1963 that Johnson would later donate to the Allen Memorial Art Museum. In it, Jackie gazes off glassy-eyed out of the corner of the print, both intimately present and dazzlingly remote in her sea of blue, as though lost in a Debussy tone poem. I’ve come to think of the privilege of discovering works of art in person as a sort of rescue mission, a cultural resuscitation that brings you closer to the true emotional timber of the art even as it forces you into an awareness of the alienated way we so often look and see, with computer screens, PowerPoint slides, even high quality paper reproductions operating, however subtly, as Warholian funeral masks for the sensual substance of works of art.

Amanda Shubert is a graduate student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

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