Saturday, March 7, 2009
(Warhol, "Self-Portrait in Drag", 1981-82; not in CMP exhibition)
Today, March 7, 2009, at UC, Riverside's California Museum of Photography (CMP) there was a conversation, which was in relation to the CMP's Warhol exhibition titled "15 Minutes", between Colin Westerbeck, the director of UC, Riverside's CMP, and Gordon Baldwin, who was a former curator at the Getty Museum and who co-curated "Nadar/Warhol" in 1999. They discussed, using visual images from the CMP's Warhol exhibition and an exhibition on Mapplethorpe's portraits at the Palm Springs Art Museum, that "[b]ecause of the audacity of their images, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe both caused an uproar in the art world. Yet they were men of very different temperament who didn’t like each other." But oddly, neither discussant specifically reckoned with "audacity of their images" or how both (or either) "caused an uproar in the art world." But there is a reason for this strange omission in which I will return.
Furthermore, according to the PR, "Baldwin and Westerbeck will explore the reasons why and take the measure of each artist’s accomplishments." This, of course, went on ad nauseum, with the attendant white-washing of the queerness that informed both Warhol's and Mapplethorpe's artworks over their respective careers. Indeed, the discussion turned on formalistic issues -- as well as a bit of psychoanalysing of both artists, which both discussants insisted on calling "Andy" and "Robert", but which told us more about the politico-sexual limits and normative position/s within (contemporary) art history and its corollaries (e.g., the museum) and the discussants themselves. Given the tremendous amount of literature on the queer milieus from which Warhol and Mapplethorpe emerged, as well as there position within the "gay rights movement/s" in the US and, yes, art history -- there have been interventions: ask a feminist -- it is rather amazing to see the active "de-queering" of both (or either) Warhol and Mapplethorpe, and to not have the word, or acronym, AIDS mentioned with regard to Mapplethorpe and Warhol's (sadly) phobic response to the pandemic. It was surprising that both scholars agreed that both artists were "apolitical" (and, of course, Warhol as "asexual"): what about the raids on Warhol's films? his showing of nude "boys" in the '50s, his silk-screen of Nixon with "Vote McGovern" under the portrait (1972)? what about the troubles Mapplethorpe faced during and after his life? hello -- Mapplethorpe and the NEA! But this/these tactical maneuver/s by both Westerbeck and Gordon is not shocking. Normative, hegemonic (contemporary) art history has mastered the ways in which to "clean up" and "de-queer" artists in order to place them next to their white, Euro-American, heterosexual, masculine, male counterparts (from, say, Jackson Pollock to Matthew Barney).
Now, for me, what is also interesting is that seven years prior, in the same building, in the same room, was a two-day conference -- which was in conjunction with an exhibition on "queer Warhol" (titled Queer[-ing] Warhol: Andy Warhol's [Self-]Portraits)
< http://www.cmp.ucr.edu/exhibitions/warhol/ > -- that was dedicated to exploring the ways in which Warhol enacted/embodied queer, emerged from a queer milieu, produced queer works (which are excluded from traditional/normative art-historical texts, and from the aforementioned discussion between Westerbeck and Baldwin), and how a discussion of a queer Warhol opens up the range of possible discussion to be had -- something that the anthology _Pop Out: Queer Warhol_ does exceptionally well. And, it is this (what happened in the CMP seven years later, between Westerbeck and Baldwin) that is why the work of subjects who _do_ queer theory and studies in art history and/or visual culture is an on-going project, and one that can easily be elided and erased, which is why it is crucial to stay critical(ly queer) and focused on the ways in which art history and its corollaries actively (and violently) eradicate (though never fully so) queer (art, artists, lives, and histories).
It is my opinion that the discussion between the two aforementioned scholars at the CMP would have been much richer had they surfaced -- as opposed to suppress -- the queer milieus of the two artists who lives often intersected and interlaced in productive and dynamic -- if not sometimes competitive -- ways in the late 70s and 80s. It would have been interesting to explore how openly gay subjects -- such as both Warhol and Mapplethorpe -- work within the visual -- whether or not they suppress, at strategic, times their queer sexuality -- which is a point that is thoroughly and compellingly explored by Gavin Butt, Richard Meyer, and Simon Watney. Indeed, it would have been interesting to see how both artists not only played with the binaries of high and low but also art and porn and normative (hetero-)sexuality and (at the time) outlaw (homo-)sexuality. Without a doubt, the formalistic turns (and stalls) that were made by the aforementioned discussants elided and erased the "most interesting aspects of Warhol's [and Mapplethorpe's] work" to cite from _Pop Out: Queer Warhol_. The discussants showed, for me, the impoverishment of art history when it allows it paranoia of queer sexualities and visualities to get in the way -- instead of showing how a "queer politics of aesthetics" plays out in and around the work of Warhol and Mapplethorpe. Indeed, art history can be a very normalizing affair, and the museum can be the the site (par excellence) of proper gender roles and sexuality. It is not that I am (specifically) arguing for a more inclusive/"pluralist" art history, although I am not arguing against this idea (either), but I am arguing that art history and its corollaries needs to be stretched open -- if not torn -- much like what the bullwhip did/does in Mapplethorpe's "Self-Portrait with Bullwhip" (1978).
To be sure, I wasn't unsure, it was rather disappointing to sit in the auditorium of the CMP, and hear that they now own several of Warhol's (homo-)erotic Polaroids (most likely the ones he used in his "Sex Parts" and/or "Torso" Series of 1976-77.
But, these Polaroids were not shown, and I quote Westerbeck, "We didn't put up the erotic images of Warhol's because we didn't want to put off, or turn away, families." Without a doubt, the "family" -- and not just any "family" but the privileged heterosexual one: daddy, mommy, child. But what is the "real" argument here? I would argue it is for, what Lee Edelman in his important text _No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive_ calls "the Child": the figure "whose innocence solicits our defense" -- but this is a political figure, one that is used to defend heternormativitity and what Edelman calls "reproductive futurism" -- which is a repetition of the same without difference: the heterosexual daddy, mommy, child. But, why protect "the Child"? Why is the child always assumed to be both asexual and heterosexual at the same time, and why are "they" in need of constant protection from "predatory" ("homosexual") images and the like? In the words of Edelman "Fuck the Child."
It is interesting that both Warhol and Mapplethorpe deploy the (sexualized) child -- given all children are, like it or not, sexual, and, according to Katheryn Bond Stockton, all children my very well be queer: "scratch a child and you will find a queer -- of not 'gay', then odd." It is interesting that Warhol's first art show was titled "Boy Drawings" -- which he showed at the Bodely Gallery in New York in 1956, and the first image of Warhol by Mapplethorpe is of the "boy Warhol" with the silhouette of an erect cock over Warhol's black and white reproduced portrait (c. 1975).
In the essay, Westerbeck writes, which I will quote at length, "Growing up in Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol (who was born Andrew Warhola)went along for the ride when his older brothers borrowed a truck to drive to the suburbs, where they would sell vegetables from the family's backyard garden. Warhol would take with him drawings that he had made and which he could sometimes peddle for loose change. On occasion, he would also get a well-to-do suburbanite to pay him for an impromptu portrait sketch. 'At ten,' as the critic Dave Hickey [one of art histories more misogynistic and homophobic figures] has put it, 'he was hustling rich folks for portrait commissions. He never stopped.' By the 1970s, Warhol, who famously said that 'In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,' was himself a famous artist. He had already had a successful career as a commercial illustrator by the time, beginning a decade earlier, when he not only switched to the fine arts, but became an entrepreneur with a mini-empire that included filmmaking, a magazine called Interview and a popular hang-out called The Factory that was in fact his studio. Yet throughout this period, commissions for portrait paintings by the wealthy and famous people he met were always his main source of income.
At the Factory as well as at the endless dinner parties he went to (sometimes at the rate of several a night), he cultivated the clientele on which his livelihood depended. His specialty was the serial portrait; $25,000 was charged for the first one and $5,000 for each additional 40-by-40-inch square canvas. This was the way in which he had editioned the paintings of pop-culture icons like Marilyn, Liz Taylor and Elvis that first attracted attention to his work. Warhol's ambition with his art was, he said, 'To get it exactly wrong.' Along with his portraits of superstars, he painted the most banal subjects he could think of, such as S and H Green Stamps; and no matter what the subject was, his technique was intentionally crude. Garish colors were alternated with muddy ones, the brushwork was indistinct, and the image was transferred to the canvas through an off-register silkscreen.
The origins of these portrait paintings template from which the silkscreens were madeówere the Polaroids. Warhol never left home without his tape recorder and a camera, usually the Polaroid, which he called his 'wife' [and, isn't _this_ a queer relation par excellence?]. But the place where he made the most of his addiction to this form of photography was in his own studio. Whether the subjects were news-worthy celebrities, whom Warhol wasn't above manipulating by implying that he'd put them on the cover of Interview, or just rich nobodies whose fees he wanted, the portrait process always began (and occasionally ended) with the taking of the Polaroids.
First the subjects would be treated to a sumptuous lunch. (Warhol himself only showed up at the end, unless the portrait was more than just a routine commission.) Then the women would be dressed for the portrait session rather, undressed, partially, to achieve the bare-shouldered state that was Warhol's signature lookóand a dead white make-up would be applied, if the woman was a Caucasian, so that the flash would erase any unflattering wrinkles, sags, blemishes or shadows. After the Polaroid portrait sessions, which rarely lasted more than half an hour, the subject would be allowed to review a table full of the photographs to see which ones they liked best."
So, indeed, this is how the conversation played out: the de-queering of Warhol, but what is "our" only hope and promise is that queer is not a thing but a flow, and flows will take place that surface the queer Warhol (and Mapplethorpe). This queering may not -- or will not -- take place in a "proper" venue sanctioned by the CMP, but it will take place in and around the CMP -- whether they like it or not. The de-queering of Warhol is only ever temporary -- as is "his" queering, but this is why "we" -- those of us who do queer work -- must remain, in the words of Judith Butler, critically queer.