On November 13, a minor painting by Andy Warhol sold for $21 million at a Christie’s auction of post-World War II and contemporary art, in New York City. My use of the word “minor” here reminds me of a remark Robert Craft made about Mozart’s early music, that because Mozart was so young when he died, all of his music could be called “early.” In Warhol’s case, young or old, I believe all his art could be called “minor."
There is a certain quick-handed technical ability in Andy Warhol’s work, but as we know from almost all art that has been forgotten, simply being able to put an image on a surface isn’t enough. It’s no surprise to learn that Warhol’s early efforts as an artist were made for advertising agencies. Every time I see his interviews, I’m reminded first of an inexpressive child and second of a hip young art director. I know plenty of both, and Warhol fits the bill for both. Like many urbane, self-accepting, youthful art directors at important agencies, he had a nascent nose for the marketplace, was dismissively flippant — even unable — in conversation and was, intentionally or not, one of the great marketing minds of the twentieth century. Personal marketing, that is.
Andy Warhol, “Simply Liz”, 1963
This particular painting is based on a headshot of Elizabeth Taylor that Warhol got somewhere, which was posterized (i.e. its photographic middle-gray values are removed so that all you get in the end is total contrast, all black or all white), that image then being applied photographically to the silkscreen process and printed on linen. Then, apparently, Warhol applied acrylic paint to the printed photo-image. . . a large red splotch to Liz’s lower lip and some pink for her face. Some green splotches to her eyelids as well as identical green highlighting to portions of her hair and the same green as an overall background.
Johannes Vermeer, “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher”, ca. 1662
Let’s talk about that background a little. My favorite blank wall in all of art is the famous one that Vermeer used in so many of his paintings, in a corner in one of the rooms of his house. In his painting of a young woman with a water jar, the woman looks out a window and soft light comes in, light that illuminates and is absorbed by the wall behind her. Putting aside for the moment the finesse of Vermeer’s painting of the woman herself and, especially, the clarity of his understanding of her inquiring personality. . . considering the strength of the painting in her headdress and, especially, in the carpet table-covering on which Vermeer expended so much obviously loving intensity. . . even forgetting for a while the precise, passionate rendering of the water jar and the plate on which it rests, painting that for me simply invests the two items with a sense of unrestrained joy. . . putting all these things aside for the moment, let’s look at the wall.
Vermeer painted this wall as carefully as he painted everything else. There are chinks in it and little abrasions, rough spots, protuberances and scrapes, every one of which was placed there very carefully by this most careful of artists. No one else will have ever rendered a wall with such tenderness and accuracy. It helps place the young woman in a comfortable context very understandable to us. It draws you in. It tells you a good deal about the conditions under which she lives. It provides a kind of warmth to the painting. It de-mystifies the woman herself and makes it much more possible for us to imagine knowing her and speaking with her. So it adds to your heart’s understanding of this painting. It is a real, direct and potent indicator of the painter’s wish to communicate with his viewer.
Warhol’s green background in “Simply Liz” is mono-chromatic, probably completed in a matter of a few minutes. It appears not to have been thought about in any way. There is no emotion in it and no layered variation. It bears no relationship to Ms. Taylor. It has all the interest for us of the red in a Campbell’s soup can. Warhol’s rendering of that red in his versions of the soup cans is very accurate. So I suppose you could say that he was observant in the way that Vermeer was with regard to his wall. But Warhol’s soup cans don’t move the heart, while that wall does. His red is simply AS interesting as what you can find on the original can wrapping, and that’s not much of an endorsement of Warhol’s understanding of the emotional variations achievable in inanimate objects in paintings. He doesn’t use the background in “Simply Liz” for anything.