Andy Warhol replicates pop icons
DO you you know what it is to be a big star? Truly a big star?'' asked Hedy Lamarr in her autobiography (1966). ``To be a star,'' she said, ``is to own the world and all the people in it. A star can have anything; if there's something she can't buy, there's always a man to give it to her. (Does this shock you? Well, I have no use for hypocrisy.) Everybody adores a star. Strangers fight to approach her. After a taste of stardom, everything else is poverty.''
One of the dazzling screen idols of the '40s, Lamarr is described by a Hollywood movie buff I know as much more memorable than the films she was in - and that, too, might be a sign of stardom. The parallel that she herself draws between stardom and a vast sense of possession - a star ``owns the world'' - touches only one side of the coin.
The other side is that the world owns her.
The star's image, so broadly disseminated, becomes common and universal property. Not only does every woman (theoretically, at least) want to have a nose like Hedy's or lips like Marilyn's, but the shoes, dresses, and even the makeup of a star can become both an extraordinary feminine ideal and an item of potential mass-consumerism.
If we flatter ourselves that this kind of star power is a thing of the naive past, we only need to recall how frequently, only a few years back, we began to see women walking along the sidewalk who looked exactly like Meryl Streep. (Or was it that Meryl Streep looked exactly like a lot of women walking along the sidewalk?)
Edgar Morin summed it up in his book ``The Stars'' (1960): ``The star is simultaneously standard merchandise, luxury item, and a source of capital gains....''
He expanded further: ``The star has all the virtues of a standard product, adapted to the world market, like chewing gum, refrigerators, soap, razor blades, etc. Mass distribution is assured by the greatest diffusers in the modern world: the press, radio, and, of course, the movies.''
(That Morin didn't at that time feel it necessary to include television is an intriguing indication of how rapidly TV has outstripped everything else as a mass diffuser only since about 1960.)
It was in the '60s that ``Pop Art'' emerged as a force to be taken seriously by the art world. One of its most notable exponents was Andy Warhol.
Warhol was smitten with the notion of stardom. Carter Ratcliff has said: ``...Warhol likes best those whose images shine the brightest - better yet, those who are images. Warhol likes stars.''
Another way of putting it is that Warhol was interested in something superficial and super-artificial. He once said: ``I don't know where the artificial stops and the real starts.''
His art is somewhat like cosmetics: The base is a real face, but at some point the makeup virtually becomes a mask - drawing attention to the makeup rather than the features it was meant to enhance.
In the same way, a star is a human being in the mask of stardom - not the real person, but an image, an object of glamour and fantasy.
By drawing a photograph of Hedy Lamarr's face, with her signed endorsement to Maybelline eye makeup, Warhol was reviving in the terms of his art the ads found in movie magazines of the '40s. The Maybelline company (still going strong today after more than 70 years) found it effective to identify its product with the stars.
The implications were obvious: first that the star would not be a star without Maybelline makeup - virtually, in fact, that the makeup makes the star. Second, that by buying and applying Maybelline cosmetics, you too can look as beautiful as the star.
Warhol drew another head and shoulders, this time of Joan Crawford, with an inscription stating that she ``would never be without'' Maybelline eye makeup. Never? Not even when she was asleep?
In his impassive manner, Warhol has alighted with all his deliberate banality on an aspect of stardom that has entirely to do with ``image.'' Stardom is a painted face.
He has taken this a stage further by implying that the art of portraiture - hitherto a serious reach for an individual's character - is also little more than a painted face: mere makeup on canvas.
There is a more or less exact identification, in his silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe or Liz Taylor or Liza Minnelli, of the shallow, bright-color areas of his printing ink with the areas of makeup on their faces: Their features don't matter, only their eye-shadow and mascara and lipstick.
He even plays games by changing the color of Marilyn's makeup and hair apparently at will, testing perhaps how wild he can be without losing the instantly recognizable Marilyn image. Of her lips he remarked: ``Marilyn's lips weren't kissable. But they were very photographable'' - they were an image that could be subjected to endless mass reproduction.
Warhol took them a stage further and presented them in a repetitive grid - just rows and rows of lips, lips that aren't really even lips anymore but just lipstick, just printer's ink in the shape of lips, lips that any woman can buy, in rows and rows, off a supermarket shelf.
In Warhol's world, with its repetitiveness beyond the point of clich'e, the meaninglessness of turning a human being into a marketable product is relentlessly presented. There is little overt irony or satire in his work.
He knew it was enough merely to place the star image in a new context, to present it as a thing of little more substance than a trading stamp or a cornflake package ad (or a Campbell's Soup can label) and then to convince the world of museums and galleries that this was art. The museums and galleries proved to be willing to be convinced.
``If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,'' Warhol wrote, ``just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it.''
The art writer Suzi Gablik put it crisply enough. Warhol's ``genius,'' she growled, ``lies in having constructed an awesome career based on the emotional depth of a slightly retarded potato.''
One can imagine the wan Warhol chuckling at this remark. ``I've always had this philosophy of: It doesn't really matter,'' was his self-assessment.
But such conscious, unremitting shallowness carries with it an inevitable obverse. Since a work of art gains meaning from the input of the observer, the less content it has, the more emptiness it may offer for the observer's imagination.
Warhol managed to shed content from his art to an exaggerated degree. He never managed, however, to obliterate the glamour of his stars - the very thing that lives largely in the imagination of the observer.
And, just as his grids of soup cans probably did the trade in Campbell's soups a great deal of commercial good, so, in the end, the popular appeal of Marilyn or even Hedy Lamarr not only survives his deadpan onslaught, but may even have been enhanced by it.
What Warhol did for art by reducing it to cosmetics may well be another question.