'Oyster Stew' by Andy Warhol
'Oyster Stew' by Andy Warhol
Image: 'Oyster Stew' by Andy Warhol

There is something contradictory about the jolt you get when you're standing in front of an Andy Warhol original.

First of all, the whole point of Warhol's technique of mass-producing screen prints in a "factory" in the 1960s was to dispel the myth of the original.

All the things that traditionally made art "art" were missing in his work: the uniqueness, evidence of the artist's hand, even the originality of the image.

Especially in the early stages of his career (before people started suing him for using their images without permission), Warhol would appropriate images wherever he found them: newspapers, publicity shoots, commercial designs such as soup cans and Brillo pads.By reproducing and altering them using the advertising medium of silkscreening (a task usually carried out by assistants), flattening them and heightening the manufactured nature of the image, Warhol turned an articulation of his disenchantment with commercial culture into the realm of high art.

He could, for example, make a picture of a can of soup and a portrait of Marilyn Monroe (recently deceased at the time he made the image) say more or less the same thing.

'Marilyn' by Andy Warhol
'Marilyn' by Andy Warhol
Image: Supplied

But Warhol's understanding of the commercialism of the image went further than commentary. He took commercial art and used its techniques to make art commercial, too. A bit like hip-hop does now in music, he made the spectacle of art making money into something of an artwork itself. Rather than the multiple reproductions of each image devaluing each work, somehow more became more. The art economy was turned on its head.

Thirty years after Warhol's death, his are among the most collectible and valuable artworks in the world. Until May, when a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $110.5-million, Andy Warhol's Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) was the most expensive US artwork ever auctioned ($105-million).

Warhol was so enigmatic and obtuse that it's hard to tell whether his engagement with the commercial side of art was sophisticated, cynical or naive. He loved money and glamour as much as he understood its banality.

Nevertheless, the way in which his artworks directly entered the business arena resulted in a paradoxical situation in which the very works that are supposed to have changed the economics of art have achieved spectacularly high values precisely because they are supposed to have changed it (but clearly haven't).

Somehow, Warhol engineered a situation in which the traditional economics of art simply absorbed the disruption, incorporated it, and carried on regardless. The celebrity culture he commented on did the same.

Warhol loved money and glamour as much as he understood its banality

When you stand in front of Warhol's Campbell's soup cans and his flowers and his portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Muhammed Ali, there is an aura. It's almost like seeing a celebrity. Or rather, what you see is a celebrity's celebrity - a distillation of fame into commerce. His pictures gave his subjects celebrity and took it away from them.

Warhol changed everything, and somehow changed nothing. The screen prints are artifacts of an experiment that turned the art market itself into a conceptual artwork. Maybe that's what creates their aura. You look at Warhol's work and wonder if art will ever be this pointless or this important again?

'Warhol Unscreened: Artworks from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Collection' will be on show at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg until October 8


This article was originally published in The Times.

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