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Book Review: Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol by Tony Scherman and David Dalton

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Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, Tony Scherman and David Dalton's new look at one of the most controversial figures in the mid-twentieth century art world, sets out both to correct some of the many myths surrounding the man as well as, more importantly, explain and reevaluate the nature of his aesthetic and its cultural effect. It ends up, however, concentrating as much, if not more so, on the bizarre characters he attracted, cultivated and encouraged and their convention flouting behaviors. The life Warhol lived and the assorted characters he chose to live it with seem to be as important to the authors as the work he produced. The reader can easily come away from this book with the clear impression that Warhol's life is what makes his art important, rather than that it is his art that makes his life worth reading about.

While the authors devote some space to Warhol's early life, the main focus of their book is the decade of the sixties, the period of the artist's greatest success — or notoriety, depending on your point of view. It is the period of the Campbell's Soup Cans, the Brillo Boxes, the Marilyns and the Lizes. It is the period during which he developed his process of photo silk screening, during which he turned to the arcade photo booth as his source for multiple images. It is the period of the underground films — from the notorious stasis of Sleep to the successful dual screened images of The Chelsea Girls. This is the era in which Pop Art became a cultural force on the art scene, and Andy Warhol, a working class export from Pittsburgh, became its public face.

Although by now, Pop Art generally and Warhol in particular, have achieved a status and recognition in the art world that would seem to obviate the need for defense, there are still those among the great unwashed who don't quite get it. They don't quite understand what it is about a replica of a can of mushroom soup that makes it art (just as they don't understand what it is about abstract expressionist dripping that makes it art). They don't see what hours of a sleeping man has to do with cinematic brilliance. For these doubters, Scherman and Dalton provide what are more or less the standard explanations.

They point to gallery director and critic, Ivan Karp's assertion that Pop Art, like early rock and roll, was an attempt to cleanse "away all the traditional, prevailing sensibilities in the arts." What Warhol was doing was blurring the distinction between so-called high art and the commonplace, by glorifying the commonplace. On one level it is an attempt to privilege what is around us all the time — and precisely because it is ubiquitous goes often unnoticed and certainly unappreciated. On another level it is a critique of artificiality of a tradition, especially in painting and later in film, that seeks through tricks of verisimilitude to dupe viewers with a false sense of realism.

In a sense it is the context in which a work is presented that makes it art. A Brillo box in a storeroom of a super market Is an object; a Brillo box in an art gallery is an object d'art. One could argue that what Warhol is saying is that art is what is created by an artist. In effect he says: "I am an artist. I create a film of a man sleeping. A film of a man sleeping is art." It is not necessary for the artist even to create something new. He can take something someone else has created — a photograph from a magazine for example — and transform it through some process of his own, and in doing so create a new work of art that is his own. One might think of it in the same way one thinks of the artistry of a modern DJ sampling and mashing. There is an analogous process at work here.

Still, the greater part of this book deals with the strange collection of people that buzzed around Warhol in the sixties. There were the speed freaks and the beautiful people. There were the celebrities and the hustlers. There were the artist wannabes and the slumming thrill seekers. His studio, The Factory papered in silver foil, became a magnet for the hip and the odd. It was a place where there were no rules; all that was needed for entry was Andy's imprimatur. If Andy found you entertaining and useful you were in, and once you were no longer entertaining, you were out. Andy was king, and the factory was his kingdom.

The book is filled with gossipy anecdotes about Andy and his group. One of Andy's actor friends masquerades as the artist at a number of college speaking engagements. Andy begins shooting with his Bolex camera only to discover that it has to be rewound every few minutes. Gerard Malanga makes some silk screens of Che to sell in Italy as original Warhols. One of the drug addled lesbians runs around the Factory stabbing people with a hypodermic needle. A befuddled dancer leaps to his death from a rooftop. Life with Andy seems never to have been dull.

The book ends with Valerie Salanas and the shooting in 1968. Andy recovers, but everything changes. The old crowd is gone. His artistic output declines. He begins to make a lot of money doing commissioned portraits for those who could afford to pay. These are years best left to an epilogue. The excitement — the thing that made Warhol the idol that he was — was gone. Pop is a book that recreates that excitement of that remarkable decade in the life of that remarkable man.

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