Pop Goes The Kitchen

Andy Warhol Kitchen

You never know when inspiration will give you a big, sloppy kiss on the lips. I was at the museum store at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Andy Warhol retrospective when I noticed that all the Warhol posters were 40% off. While a normal person would think, “Wow, I should get one and frame it,” I (who am not normal) thought, “Wow, I’m going to buy every poster they have in stock and decoupage them onto my kitchen cabinets.” You have to admit, the kitchen is an eye-popper.

BTW: I just came in here to get a cup of coffee.

Source: Jonathan Fong Style

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Meeting Gangsters at the Fair

One of the most popular exhibits at the 1964 World’s Fair held in Flushing Meadows Queens was the New York State Pavilion. Commissioned by the state of New York, the pavilion was designed by the architect Philip Johnson and was the Fair’s largest and most controversial; indeed, it was in fact more famous for being controversial than for anything else. The pavilion was divided into three, independently functional sections: a “Cicarama,” a set of three observation towers measuring 250, 185 and 90 feet tall and a 350 foot by 250 foot elliptical plaza surrounded by sixteen columns measuring 100 feet tall supporting a multi-colored canopy that covered the plaza. (The pavilion, while not fully operational, is the only remaining structure of the ’64 Fair in Flushing Meadows; it stood directly across from the old  Shea Stadium.)

Johnson commissioned ten relatively unknown artists to install sets of paintings and murals along the “Cicarama” or outer walls of the pavilion. The artists were Peter Agostini, John Chamberlain, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichenstein, Alexander Lieberman, Robert Malloy, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and, last but certainly not least, Andy Warhol.

Fair President Robert Moses, for three decades the city’s Grand Vizier of urban planning, saw the Fair as a commercial rather than aesthetic environment; a venue for popular entertainment in step with a burgeoning age of mass consumption through automation, automation through computerization and intellectual diminishment through television. The Fair marked the first major presentation of Pop Art, itself the fledgling antithesis and ultimate avatar of commercialism, and where the dividing line between art for the masses (advocated by Moses) and the avant-garde (advocated by Johnston) converged.

Hilarious Robert Moses mosaic on the sidewalk at Flushing Meadows

The contradictions peculiar to Pop Art, as well to that of the Fair itself, may have inspired the indomitably perverse Andy Warhol to create a work that was certainly original and characteristically bizarre. Possessing the most lucrative contract he ever had, and tacitly obligated to fulfill Moses’ wishes for art that advanced the American way of life on the pavilion’s Cicarama, Warhol “chose to show the explosive reality of everyday life in American society” with his contribution: “Thirteen Most Wanted Men.”  Pop Art

Having obtained several FBI mug shots, Warhol chose 22 of these and arranged them in a series of screen prints consisting of 25 panels (three were left blank) studded with photos of 13 “most wanted” criminals on a 36 square meter block. The shots which formed the mural were all of Mafiosi thugs and, while of some morbid interest (for The Smoking Gun fans…like me), hardly an expression of the American way of life.

Needless to say, Thirteen Most Wanted Men failed to please Moses’ artistic sensibilities; as it would’ve surely failed to please the artistic sensibilities of most visitors to the Fair. Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York at the time, told Warhol to remove his creation from the pavilion, expressing fears that it would offend Italian-Americans. However, Warhol blamed Moses for its removal and offered to replace his Wanted Men with a less-than-flattering print of Moses himself (as posted here, he had indeed already finished one).

In any event, the artist summarily painted over the mural with a layer of silver paint; there it remained, a silver square on the Cicarama, for about four weeks until the mural was moved to a warehouse and later destroyed. In Warhol’s typical brand of mundane cynicism he said, “In one way I was glad that the mural was gone; now I wouldn’t have to feel responsible if one of the criminals got turned in to the FBI because someone had recognized him from the picture.”

Ultimately, Thirteen Most Wanted Men became even more famous for hardly ever being seen and, over the decades, assumed an esoteric life of its own as (literally) a conversation piece. While the few in a position to see the work when it was exhibited opposed, ignored or ultimately rejected it, it assumed an esoteric life of its own. While the nine other artists’ contributions to the pavilion are all but forgotten, Warhol’s destroyed piece of criminal pop continues to fascinate many…not for its artistry but for its mystery. Then again, only an artist such as Warhol could mysteriously turn failure into success and infamy into fame.

(originally posted: 03/24/09)

Sources: Pop Art, Bowery Boys (to whom I extend my gratitude for the photos), Scholarly Commons

A Mind-Numbing Empire

On July 25-26, from 8:06 p.m. to 2:42 a.m., an Auricon 16mm  camera  was rolling  steadily and (but for three reel changes) uninterruptedly. Shooting at 24 frames-per-second b/w, the in-progress film’s controversial director along with his crew were situated in the offices of the Rockefeller Foundation on the 41st Floor of the Time-Life Building. Nine blocks to the south, the star of his film towered through his lens: the Empire State Building… never camera shy, even under the most absurd conditions, not even while being made to perform by Pop Art‘s most absurd artist:  Andy Warhol.

When it was screened, EMPIRE ran for a mind-blowing 8 hours and 5 minutes.  “The film begins with a totally white screen and as the sun sets, the image of the Empire State Building emerges. The floodlights on its exterior come on, the building’s lights flicker on and off for the next 6 1/2 hours, then the floodlights go off again in the next to the last reel so that the remainder of the film takes place in nearly total darkness.” (Wikipedia)

Other than that, the film is virtually devoid of any characters or narrative or sound; the lights from the ESB and that of neighboring buildings are the only action in the film.  Conversation (to break the monotony) amongst Warhol’s crew while filming was originally planned as a soundtrack but was wisely excluded; it would’ve made an incomprehensible situation all the more incomprehensible.

Even the most devoted avant-garde loyalists found EMPIRE utterly impossible to watch in its entirety without eventually fidgeting in their seats and urgently disappearing through the nearest exit. This lengthy experiment into subjectivity could never be enjoyed or appreciated by anyone in their right mind, nor endured by anyone hoping to remain in their right mind. Despite this, in  2004, Empire was added to the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress in recognition of the cultural, historical and aesthetic importance of this most extraordinary cinematic achievement.

(To think that Orson Welles might have achieved the same artistic  glory by filming a  child’s sled parked outside the New York Stock Exchange for 10 hours and call it CITIZEN KANE is something to consider.)

From the start, Warhol overwhelmed his critics and an oftentimes bewildered public with a dazzling array of works that seemed to emerge at a rate of output  similar to that of  an assembly line.  “I want to be a machine,” Warhol once said, and he sometimes appeared to be one as the broad yet thin line between Fine and Commercial Art became solidly indistinguishable through his creative vision. From the mundane and banal (Campbells Soup, Brillo Boxes, etc.) to the famous and iconic (Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, etc.) Warhol’s silkscreen renderings “forced the world to consider a new perspective that it, subconsciously, had already embraced.” He simply gave a monumental importance to obsessions that society was already obsessed with; hence, holding up the mirror, not to Nature, but to ourselves and acquired a fortune and legend for himself off of what we had already seen.

When Warhol moved from silkscreens to the silver screen, the strange and unconventional was already expected of him. The Pop Art movement that he had so uniquely inspired was quickly becoming the norm in America‘s commercial and artistic settings; even more so, the name Andy Warhol became familiar in millions of households across the country, even if they hadn’t the foggiest notion as to what he was all about.  EMPIRE, like nearly all of his films and including its predecessor SLEEP (an excruciating 6 hour ordeal: observing poet  John Giorno sleep!), faded into the intellectual obscurity of such venues as college film classes, bohemian neighborhoods, culturally elite cafes…and NYU.

In the end, however, Andy Warhol himself became the most long-lasting and iconic of his creations: props like Campbell Soup cans and the Empire State Building (like other props in his “Factory“) were only there to assist.

Person John Giorno
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