The Whitney Museum's recent "The Warhol Look: Glamour, Style, Fashion" presented Andy Warhol as a master stylist of his own bohemian socialite scene. The archetype portrayed was that of an artist who was first a dandy and impresario, and only second a painter of any significance. Now, this modest, concise show at Anton Kern gallery of 15 small abstract canvases from 1982, never exhibited before, does just the opposite: it defines Warhol as a pure painter by exploring one of the most outré projects of his prodigious production.
Art historically, with Warhol, subject matter is usually mentioned first, as with his iconic photosilkscreen portraits and thematically framed series such as the "disasters." As an abstract artist, Warhol has been less known. Yet, since his death in 1987, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts has meted out works from the artist's private inventory, revealing a number of ambitious "abstract" series dating from 1978-1986, including: "Oxidation" (or Piss), "Camouflage," "Shadows," "Eggs," "Yarn" and "Rorschach." These were collected together in 1993 for the show "Andy Warhol Abstrakt" at the Kunsthalle, Basel. With the exception of the "Oxidation" series, made by urination on copper-treated canvases that oxidized accordingly, all these "abstract" series were based on photo-based images of various kinds.
It was in this Swiss show's catalogue that dealer Kern, a German national, came across a reproduction of one small anomalous canvas, a wholly abstract work, which immediately sparked his curiosity. He made a formal inquiry to the Warhol Foundation and was informed that the remainder of the series, some 15 works, was intact and available for exhibition.
All the works on view are 20 x 16 in. and have been painted with silkscreen ink and synthetic polymer paint that has been poured, smeared or brushed onto the canvas through an intermediary blank silkscreen. The resulting surfaces are painterly yet grainy, carrying the look of the printing process that is implicated, if not truly involved, in their making. In many, the inking of one silkscreen carries over to the next, so that common formal motifs are repeated from work to work.
Unlike the austere, graphic work for which Warhol is best known, here the color is lush and additive. In some works, a solid ground color such as violet was laid down first, upon which primary-colored ghost-like secondary trace images accumulate, one dot-screen laid semi-transparently upon the next.
In others, a white ground is used, making for a more stark iconographic presentation. In these, the intense armature-like knots of paint directly reference such Abstract Expressionists as Pollock and Kline. But Warhol's decorative impulses convey a decidedly antiheroic feel. As with so much of his work, the calligraphic line remains the signature element, and gives the work its bite.
To date, Kern's gallery has showcased underknown work by young contemporary artists, German and otherwise, typically working in challenging and scrappy ways with mixed-media such as drawing, sculpture, assemblage and video. It has proven an irascible and challenging program, always interesting, if somewhat inscrutable to the lay viewer.
The accompanying catalogue contains an extensive essay by Cologne-based art historian James Hofmaier.
Note: a related show nearby, "Unique Screenprints 1967-1987: Part Two," at Ronald Feldman (through Mar. 14), provides a survey of unique Warhol prints and other editions out-takes from roughly the same period. Both shows prove Warhol to have been ever-experimental in his working methods and, as always, a magnificent colorist.
Andy Warhol, "Fifteen Abstract Paintings," Feb. 6-Mar. 21, 1998, at Anton Kern, 558 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
JOHN ZINSSER is a New York painter and writer.
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