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Andy Warhol's pretty pals
It is entirely possible to be a huge fan of Andy Warhol as an artist, without finding his actual art all that interesting to look at. Really, if you've seen a reproduction of one of his soup cans, there's not much point in trekking over to some museum to see the thing for real. Assuming the reproduction got the colors right, you've seen the thing.
Warhol employed assistants to ghost some of his work for him, and he got a kick out of the controversy over how much of his art was really his own. He happily took credit for the work of others, and he would send Warhol impostors out to public appearances, often declaring that the weird stuff the impostors said was far more interesting than anything he could've come up with himself. He thought a recording was as good as the real thing—perhaps better, because you could fast forward to the good parts. His famous oxidation paintings, in which he got lovely effects by pissing on canvases that had been primed with copper paint, says a lot about how seriously he took the art process. (Actually, he had his assistants do a lot of the pissing. Warhol was a bit pee-shy.) To Warhol, the actual art object was just . . . an object. And the more objects he made, the more he would sell. The man called his studio the Factory, for goodness sake.
So, if his actual paintings aren't that thrilling to see, what makes Warhol a great artist? The point of so much of Warhol's work was the original idea of it, the innovation of it. It was a wild notion, once upon a time, to paint a big can of Campbell's Tomato Soup. It was revolutionary to hang Liz Taylor in a museum, all done up in comic-book colors. He screwed with the press about how much of his work he did himself—that was some brilliant media mindfuckery. His writings hold up amazingly well; for my money, you won't find a more compelling chronicle of the '60s than his book Popism. Warhol loved pop trash genuinely and ironically, and he pioneered a way of looking at art—and the world in general—that has become ubiquitous. Today's pop culture often feels like a bad Warhol parody.
Warhol adored stupid, smirky, hard-partying socialites and starlets, people who were famous just for being famous. What would he have made of the 24-7 coverage of Paris and Britney? He championed the raw power of the Velvet Underground, and now every other garage band in America is trying (and failing) to sound like the second coming of the Velvets. When Warhol's diaries were published in 1989, they were widely dismissed as fluff; now they read like hilarious, bitchy, strangely wise blog entries, full of fascinating trivia about where he went that day, what he ate and the nasty thing that one of his pals said behind another pal's back. He created proto-webcam videos, pointing his cameras at anything that caught his eye and filming it for hours, trusting you to watch the resulting footage for as long as you were interested, and then wander away when you got bored. He would go out to nightclubs and take dozens of photos of his pretty pals—exactly the sort of thing a billion MySpace kids are now clogging the Internet with.
If Warhol could somehow be resurrected today, if he came staggering from the tomb like some kind of pale, wig-wearing Lazurus, what would he make of the America of 2008? My guess is that he would have a great time for about a week, but then he'd find it all way too much of a good thing. It'd be like that Twilight Zone episode in which the crook dies and thinks he's gone to heaven, until he starts to go stir crazy from finding his every wish granted, and finally a snickering Sebastian Cabot tells him he's really in the other place. Warhol would probably think this was the other place, and I can picture him returning bleary-eyed to the tomb, with hopes of emerging decades hence to a culture that's just a bit less obsessed with drunken, photogenic blondes.
Oh, about Warhol's Polaroids of his pretty pals? There's a bunch on display at the Grand Central Art Center. They're pretty.
"Original Photography by Andy Warhol" at the Grand Central Art Center Gallery, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Call for hours. Through May 18.
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