Essay | Andy Warhol's productivity

Throughout his life and career critics and commentators often referred to Andy Warhol (1928-1987) as ‘detached’, ‘alien’ and ‘aloof’. [1] He is not, in such assessments, an artist in possession of feelings which need to be expressed, but rather an inhuman, relentless producer of art. The humanistic subjectivity of the creative and tortured artist, commonly associated with painters aligned with Abstract Expressionism—the art movement which directly preceded Pop—was replaced in the 1960s by Warhol’s vision of a cold, mechanical art which relied less on the gestural mark-making of the artist’s hand and more on the logical precision of machines and technologies of reproduction. For many, this suggestion of the inhuman capacity of Warhol’s art to create likeness, and repetitively mimic or copy source material can be neatly summarised by the artist’s own contention that he wanted to be like a machine.

Andy Warhol Self-Portrait 1978 © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London. 2018.

In a now infamous 1963 interview with the art critic Gene Swenson, Warhol claimed that ‘everybody should be like a machine’ and ‘everybody should like everybody’, because that, after all is ‘what Pop Art is all about’.[2] Such proclamations chime with other statements made by Warhol in interviews around this time, wherein he insists that he is ‘for mechanical art’.[3] Warhol’s desire to align his working processes with the machinic is reflected in his investment in technologies of image production which minimise the necessity of human intervention, such as the automatic process of screen-printing, which could be used to create multiple paintings and prints, one after another; and the still and cinematic film camera which had only to be loaded with film and switched on by Warhol to begin the recording process. This preference for automation and machine-production reaches its peak in the Warhol literature with an “interview” of Warhol conducted by his studio assistant Gerard Malanga. The interview in question was composed entirely (i.e. both the questions and their answers) by Malanga and submitted to Warhol for his approval before publication. In the piece “Warhol” gives his full-throated support to the idea of automation in the economy and the art world. His potent reflections are underlined further by the meta-authorial game of having Malanga research and write the interview himself:

Q. Would you like to replace human effort?
A. Yes.
Q. Why?
A. Because human effort is too hard.
[…]
Q. How will you meet the challenge of automation?
A. By becoming part of it.
[...]
Q. Dissect the meaning of automation.
A. Automation is a way of making things easy. Automation just gives you something to do […][4]

In this short essay I am going to explore some of the ramifications of considering Warhol as a machine. Firstly, I will consider the notion of productivity across Warhol’s artistic output, both in terms of the quantity of works produced, as well as some of the ways in which his art deals with concepts of duration and diversity in art practice. Secondly, I will argue that we can read the product of Warhol’s productivity as an attempt to dissolve boundaries between different artistic media.

Numbers game

Not unlike that of a factory working at capacity, the sheer scale of Warhol’s artistic output fuels the accuracy of the machine metaphor—the artist as an efficient and methodical producer. Working with a raft of assistants throughout his career, Warhol created a staggering number of artistic products. During 1964, for instance, he produced over 305 paintings of Jackie Kennedy alone. Other marquee subjects for Warhol, which he would return to paint over and over during that pivotal decade, yielded similarly large figures, most notably his Flower and Electric Chair series. Part of the reason Warhol was able to make work in such quantity was because of the speed with which his silkscreen paintings were able to be executed, as he commented in his memoir of the 1960s:

After turning his attention more fully to filmmaking after 1964, Warhol founded a company with David Whitney called Factory Additions which would create print portfolios using the same silkscreen method he had employed so successfully on his canvas-based works. Reflecting on these works, Warhol is direct in his comparison to industrial/machinic production, noting that the resulting paintings and prints possessed an ‘assembly-line effect’[6]. The print portfolios allowed Warhol to disseminate even greater quantities of work: 600 variations of three different Jackie Kennedy prints, one of which, Jaqueline Kennedy II (from the portfolio ‘Eleven Pop Artists, vol. II), 1965 [GMA 1336], is included in the present Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (NGS) exhibition ‘Warhol and Paolozzi I want to be a Machine’; 500 prints modelled after Birmingham Race Riot (1964); 632 variations of Sunset (1972); 250 editions of a 10-print Marilyn Monroe portfolio from 1967, or 2,500 multi-coloured Marilyns.

Andy Warhol Jacqueline Kennedy II (from the portfolio 'Eleven Pop Artists', vol. II) 1965 © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London. 2018.
Andy Warhol, Marilyn, © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

Concurrent to the creation of the Marilyn portfolio, which has a central placement in the current hang at the NGS, Warhol was embroiled deeply in another voluminous activity: filmmaking. From 1963 until 1968 Warhol produced over 600 films, including some 472 Screen Tests (1964-1966) and around 60 feature-length works.[7] Perhaps even more noteworthy than the number of films produced by the Warhol Factory is their recourse to marathon running times. His first film Sleep (1963), a collage of repeated shots of the poet John Girono (b. 1936) sleeping, lasts for five hours and twenty minutes. One of Warhol’s final directorial efforts **** (Four Stars) clocks in at a much more substantial twenty-five hours.

Quantity and duration coalesce in another of Warhol’s multimedia activities, his constant recording of everyday meetings and conversations via a handheld tape recorder. Referred to by the artist himself as his ‘wife’, the Norelco Carry-Corder Warhol carried with him from 1964 onwards was the first mass-marketed example of such a device.[8] The Warhol Archive now houses hundreds of tapes made by Warhol throughout his life, containing over 6,000 hours of audio. Warhol would often use the recordings on these tapes as the basis for many of his published book works, many of which can be seen in vitrines in the NGS show, from memoirs such as POPism: The Warhol Sixties (1980) and The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), to his experimental riff on the modernist novel: a, A Novel (1968), which chronicles a day in the life of the Factory Superstar Pope Ondine (1937-1989).

Warhol’s productivity did not dissipate during the 1970s. Between 1976 and his death in 1987 Warhol began to carry with him the visual equivalent of his tape recorder “wife”, a Minox 35 EL camera. Often exposing up to a roll of film a day or more, the resulting contact sheets—a relative anachronism in the age of digital photography, a contact sheet is an inexpensive way of viewing the content of a roll of film before certain images can be selected for later enlargement and printing—number over 3,600, or 130,000 individual photographs. A visual equivalent to Warhol’s meticulous Diaries (1989), the contact sheets contain a dizzying array of disparate events, people and activities Warhol encountered in the last decade of his life, often mixing the cultural events of New York high society with portraiture, snapshots of friends and associates, as well as cityscapes depicting Manhattan street signs and advertisement hoardings.

Collapsing Distinctions

Another way of viewing Warhol’s machine-aesthetic is to make use of it as a metaphor in accounting for his restless and prolific output as a multimedia artist. Our next avenue of interpretation pushes this idea further, arguing that Warhol’s fascination with volume, quantity and duration contributes to one of the central achievements of his oeuvre: the collapsing of distinctions between different artistic media.

Take for instance the silk-screened canvases and prints mentioned above. To create these works Warhol would start with a photographic image – either found and appropriated from a print publication or taken by himself – and blow up this image before transferring it via the screen-print or silkscreen process to a surface.

Such an a mixture of media and materials has led the writer Jonathan Flatley to comment on the silk-screened paintings: ‘[i]n terms of the standards of the given media, the result is neither a good photograph or a good painting’. Flatley does not yoke this perceived failure of competency and execution to a narrative of Warhol as somehow playing at being an amateur, or revelling in his – as is often the cliché – role of performing naivety. Instead, he points us towards reading these works, which seem to be not quite painting and not quite photography, as opportunities to exercise ‘our capacity for perceiving similarities across difference’, through Warhol’s ‘transposition of idioms, sensations and information from one medium to another’.[9]

In other words, we are confronted in Warhol’s silkscreen paintings and his prints with a vision of art in which the once stable categories of photography, painting and printing are no longer separated but have coalesced and become enmeshed together in a web of artistic mediation.

Warhol often commented on this dimension of intermediality—artworks which combine and juxtapose the aesthetic effects of different media—in his work. Another illuminating test case would be his Screen Tests. Warhol famously referred to these works not as movies but ‘Stillies’.[10] Each one of these three-minute films (running over four minutes when projected at Warhol’s preferred speed rate of eighteen frames per second) depicted a single sitter whose visage was recorded by the impervious, unblinking gaze of Warhol’s 16mm film camera. Subjects were often instructed by Warhol to move as little as possible, resulting in a stasis which often gifts the films an aesthetic equivalence of still photography or portrait painting.

In an interview with Letitia Kent published in Vouge magazine in March 1970, Warhol coaxed out the intermedial tension so important to his moving image works: ‘[…] I don’t paint anymore. I gave it up two years ago. I think painting is old fashioned. In my early films I wanted to “paint” in a new medium’.[11] He goes on shortly after to state that his perhaps most notorious film, Empire (1963), could be compared to a ‘moving picture still-life’.[12] But the Screen Tests remain most emblematic of the intermedial condition of Warhol’s cinematic output, opening the medium to be considered as an incubation chamber for all manner of artistic strategies, as Callie Angel astutely attests:

The example of Warhol’s prodigious use of tape recordings, and their transcription from a raw unmediated state into works of fiction, semi-fiction and memoir, point us again to another area of Warhol’s modus operandi, and an aspect of his artistic practice which marks him out a pioneer of the kind of self-surveillance which has become so commonplace in the social media-saturated landscape of the early twenty-first century.

Andy Warhol, Body Builder Flexing, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Presented by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts 2016. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2017.
Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Presented by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts 2016. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2017.

In closing, I would like to draw attention to some of the final works conceptualised and completed by Warhol before his death in 1987. The so-called ‘Stitched Photographs’, several of which are included in the NGS exhibition, were created between 1982 and 1987 by stitching together multiple copies of individual photographs taken with his Minox 35 EL Camera.

Although considered minor works by many Warhol scholars, the ‘Stitched Photographs’ evidence a continued obsession of Warhol’s to break down barriers between artistic media.

The photographs were stitched together with the aid of his studio assistant Christopher Makos (b. 1948) and Makos’ friend Michele Loud, using a Bernina sewing machine which Warhol had purchased in 1982.

Arranged in a grid structure of four, six or nine, the stitched photographs recall the repetitive, serially structured screenprints of the 1960s. Much like the ‘quick and chancy’ nature Warhol so admired in the screen-printing process, the stitched photographs also bear the markings of imperfection, as often the individual photographs bear evidence of having been pushed through the sewing machines: their smooth surfaces are variously ruptured by bumps and creases. These marks, lumps and bumps co-mingle with deliberately left-behind lengths of the thread which were used to suture the photographs together. These seemingly uncareful and unfinished aspects of the pictures lend the pieces a sculptural quality, and continue a tradition of creating three-dimensional objects which never ceased to interest Warhol over his career.

Over 500 stitched photographs were created by Warhol in the final years of his life. Another round of productivity, and another multi-faceted and multi-media machination in which the product was not a pre-fabricated, mass-produced identical work of art, but a subjectively imbued experiment born out of the mixing of media and the engendering of a cross-model exploration of what art can be.

This film takes a look at Andy Warhol, the most famous proponent of Pop Art, his obsession with fame, and his desire ‘to be a machine’.

 

[1] See for instance: John Wilcock, ‘The Detached Cool of Andy Warhol’, Village Voice, May 6, 1965, p.11; Stephen Smith, ‘“He loved Weightlifting and Buying Jewels”’: Andy Warhol’s Friends Reveal All’, The Guardian, August 14, 2015 (available online: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/aug/14/andy-warhol-friends-reveal-all) and George Gruskin, ‘Who is this man Andy Warhol?’, SCOPE, March 16, 1973, reprinted in Kenneth Goldsmith (ed.), I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, Carroll and Graf, New York, p. 200-220, quote on 217.

[2] Gene Swenson, ‘What is Pop? Answers from 8 Painters, Part 1’, ARTnews, November 1963, reprinted in Goldsmith, I’ll be Your Mirror, p. 15-20, quote on 16. The recent uncovering of the original tapes of Swenson’s interview with Warhol reveal that several parts of their conversation were heavily edited before going to press, particularly references to queer sexuality. In the tapes, Warhol’s insistence that being a machine and liking everything are inherently linked during a conversation about homosexuality:

Swenson: I don’t understand the business about – if all Pop artists are not homosexual, then what does this have to do with being a machine?
Warhol: Well, I think everybody should like everybody.
Swenson: You mean you should like both men and women?
Warhol: Yeah.
Swenson: Yeah? Sexually and in every other way?
Warhol: Yeah.
Swenson: And that’s what Pop art’s about?
Warhol: Yeah, it’s liking things.
Swenson: And liking things is being like a machine?
Warhol: Yeah. Well, because you do the same thing every time. You do the same thing over and over again. And you do the same. . .
Swenson: You mean sex?
Warhol: Yeah, and everything you do […]
Quoted in Jenifer Sichel‘“What is Pop Art?” A Revised Transcript of Gene Swenson’s 1963 interview with Andy Warhol’, Oxford Art Journal, 41:1 (March), 2018, p. 85-100.

[3] David Bourdon, ‘Warhol Interviews Bourdon’, 1962-1963, in Goldsmith, I’ll be Your Mirror p.6-14, quote on 9.

[4] Gerard Malanga, ‘Andy Warhol on Automation: An Interview with Gerard Malanga’, Chelsea 18, reprinted in Goldsmith, I’ll be Your Mirror, p. 59-63, quote on 60-62.

[5] Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Hutchinson, London, 1980, p. 22.

[6] Ibid.

[7] I use slightly speculative language here to indicate that Warhol’s filmography remains a very slippery subject for scholars. At present there is a seminal and exhaustive catalogue raisonné detailing the production and content of the Screen Tests (Callie Angel, Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonne Volume 1, Abrams, New York, 2006). A second volume, covering the rest of his filmic output is forthcoming. A more recent and essential resource based on in-depth research in the Warhol archives is the introduction to Glyn Davis and Gary Needham’s Warhol in Ten Takes, British Film Institute, London, 2013).

[8] Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), Harcourt, Orlando, Austin, New York et al, 1975, p. 190.

[9] Jonathan Flatley, Like Andy Warhol, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2017, p. 113.

[10] Angel, Andy Warhol Screen Tests, p. 7.

[11] Letitia Kent, ‘Andy Warhol, Movieman: “It’s Hard to Be Your Own Script”’, Vogue, March 1, 1970, reprinted in Goldsmith, I’ll be Your Mirror, p. 185-190, quote on 186.

[12] Ibid. The scholar Justin Remes has gone even further with reference to Empire’s epic running time and profound stasis, theorising this work as a ‘furniture film’—a film which lives in a room for an extended period of time and is designed to be consumed partially and distractedly in conjunction with other activities. See Justin Remes, Motion(less) Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis, Columbia University Press, New York and Chichester, 2015, p. 31-59.

[13] Angel, Andy Warhol Screen Tests, p. 14

By Tom Day, Postgraduate Researcher The University of Edinburgh