ISSN: 1705-6411
                                   
Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)

Book Review

The Obese Art Book – Too Much is Too Much (Even if it is Warhol)

Double review of Larry Ball et. al., (2007). 30,000 Years of Art. London and New York: Phaidon Press; Julia Hasting, et. al., (2006) Andy Warhol. Giant. London and New York: Phaidon Press.

Reviewed by Victoria Z. Alexander
(Strasbourg, France)

 

There is too much of too much, more is not better (Baudrillard, 2005:85).

Andy Warhol Shopping

Art books remove art from its context and place it in our context which is usually far from where it is made or displayed. What is rare about 30,000 Years of Art is that it looks at exemplars from art’s history (and well before) from across time in the broadest geographical range. Rather than separating out all the art that is not art (because it is not a painting or a sculpture owned by a prestigious Western art museum), it places objects from the same time frame beside each other – regardless of origin. For me it was interesting to contemplate (for example), a rock painting from Australia (c 17,000 BC) alongside the much more often reproduced Hall of the Bulls from the caves at Lascaux (pages 10 and 11) or to compare kiln fired works form Mexico and Japan from the 730’s. Further thoughtful comparisons are inspired by the placement of a medieval Chinese vase from 1351 alongside of tempera scene (depicting the Roman de la Rose) on a vellum manuscript in 1353 (pages 640-641).

In the contemporary we find that art is not merely Joseph Beuys (I like America and America Likes Me, p. 991) but also Korean artist Kim Whanki’s Summer Moonlight (p. 979), The Lazy Hunters of the Oshogbo School of Nigeria (p. 987), and an Australian Aboriginal Memorial (by various artists, p. 998). Such juxtapositionings are the principle strength of the book.

Indeed, it is quite possible that this book may be living out one of its anti-destinies in its present form. It seems to me that it could have a higher purpose as a much smaller book focusing on the power of juxtaposition. This book could easily have succeeded at one-quarter of its immensity (1065 pages and a weight of 6 kilograms [13 lbs]). It is a book which itself becomes overwhelmed by its own obesity and is next to impossible for anyone (who is not a high performance athlete) to manipulate with anything resembling ease. Of course it is an outstanding door stop for the worst of windy days and I have used it to euthanize a dying lap-top very effectively.

The book does include many surprises and I think these should have been at the centre of its juxtapositional focus without the addition of the hundreds of images everyone knows all too well from all the other big art books which are readily available. The Sun Car from Denmark tells us a great deal about the long underestimated abilities and belief systems of Northern “artists” as the Bei Goblet tells us about finesse and patience of Chinese artists at the same time. Both objects recalled for me the poetry of John Keats.  Both are also striking cohabitants of a time period as are the Libation Vessel from Sudan and the Thinker of Cernavoda who meet in this book for the first time. Such works remind us that the artistic impulse runs deep into history and that illusion is fundamental to what makes a work of art – art (Baudrillard, 2005:64).

While it is necessary to have some reproductions of more commonly known works (and I’ll grant you that “commonly known” is location specific), the book bloats to its unwieldy size with reproductions of hundreds of well known works such as the Venus di Milo, Vermeer’s Milk Maid, Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, the Mask of Tutankhamen, and the now sadly most overexposed (and possibly most misunderstood) Venus of Willendorf  etc., etc., etc. Aside from them we are shown many works not often reproduced in the West and evidence that we are coming to view art in an ever more expansive manner. This is where the book should have focused more. If it really had to be such a huge book then why not more of these less often reproduced images (including contemporary Aboriginal artists)?

In its pursuit of largess the book loses focus (especially in the final third) and never really gains any analytical momentum. It is a disturbing trend among these immense art books of recent years just how analytically “thin” they are becoming.  This book ends up being a kind of jigsaw puzzle that we cannot put together although we know some of the pieces which go next to each other. But maybe this is entirely the point – perhaps this is Phaidon’s “museum of the imagination” (having trained on steroids). My copy arrived as a Christmas present and at least my early formal training in art history serves as an excuse for its overwhelming presence beside my bookcases (one dare not attempt to shelve this monster). It once tried to kill my cat and since then we have laid it flat on the floor where she occasionally sleeps on it when the late afternoon sun falls just so. My cat seems to know what some publishers do not – that too much is as good a place as any to snooze. With this thought in mind I turn to another obese offering from Phaidon: Andy Warhol Giant.

Like Baudrillard I have a fascination for Andy Warhol – the “anti-hero of modern art” (2005:102) so I have no one to blame but me for the fact that Giant sits under 30,000 Years beside by bookcases (further elevating my sleeping cat as I write this). The book’s 624 pages weigh in at 6 kg (another 13 lbs.) due to its 42 x 33 cm format. Like 30,000 Years [30 x 30 cm] this book is short on words and analytical subject matter but very long indeed on pictures. As for the title isn’t it rather in bad taste given that Andy was anorexic?

Many of the pictures are interesting (some never previously published), and a goodly number (more than half), were not necessary at all (do we really need to see a photograph of Andy’s Certificate of Baptism?) One thing the childhood photographs do convey well is the way in which Warhol maintained not only something of a child-like innocence in the image he crafted of himself – he also his boyish look well into adulthood.

The more interesting chapters are Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Success Is A Job In New York” and Ivan Karp’s “Andy Starts to Paint”, two (mostly) photographic essays which take us through his early years as a commercial artist and his decision to bring Pop banality to the art world. These chapters contain only a page or two of text (as do most in the book) and the remainder is devoted to photographs and the visual archival record of Andy’s life. For this reason the book makes a nice visual compliment to reading Andy’s diaries which I did shortly after obtaining my copy last year (see Hackett, 1989). The visual record is studded with Warholism’s: “I’d prefer to remain a mystery”; “When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums” and (the nascent pop artist): “But why should I be original? Why can’t I be non-original?” We see that the die was cast early for Andy.

Warhol’s commercial covers for Bazaar, Glamour,  his shoe advertisements of the 1950’s (for which he earned $13 per shoe), and his ad-copy for Martini and Rossi, are some of the gems in Goldsmith’s chapter. The reproductions of his S&H Green Stamps, Red Airmail Stamps, and FRAGILE Handle With Care (all of 1962 and not as often reproduced as his soup cans or Marilyn’s), are wonderful in the context of his transition from commercial to pop art – which really was not a huge leap for Warhol. One day Andy just simply “got” Pop – and “Once you got ‘Pop’, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again”. Indeed.

David Dalton’s chapter “America the Beautiful” is a photo essay concerning the period in Andy’s life where most of my generation got to know him (1962-1965): the Coke bottles, Heinz ketchup, Campbell’s Soup cans, and Brillo boxes. Here Andy reminds us that he isn’t out to educate people with his work – “there is no form of education in them at all” (p. 131). This chapter contains my favourite photograph in the book – Andy in a grocery tenderly holding his next artistic inspiration. We also see in this essay that it was with to the soup cans that Warhol first brought the day-glo, bon-bon colours of his commercial work to bear in his early silk-screens.

Chapter five “Matinee idols” by David Dalton deals with Warhol’s photography (a camera was a constant companion wherever Andy went), and his concern for film stars, the famous more generally, and their application onto silk screen (Elvis, Liz, and Marilyn). Dalton reminds us of several of Warhol’s obsessions – including Troy Donahue. There are also a number of photographs from the factory during the mid-1960s which are valuable in that they record Warhol’s process. On of the reasons the book is so big has to do with the fact that Andy could do fifty Elvises in a single day – but again, more rigorous editing could have seen a less obese section on the “King”. Dalton also shows us, as do many of the Warholism’s sprayed throughout the book, the same Andy Warhol we meet in his diaries – a scrupulous business man-artist who paid close attention to the bottom line. Andy left an estate of over a quarter of a billion dollars (see also Coulter, 2006).

Peggy Phelan’s chapter “Death and Disaster” supplies many interesting images from the factory and Andy’s process involving this series of arresting images of suicides, plane crashes, automobile wrecks, poisoned tuna, and his most powerful images – the electric chair disasters in lavender, orange, etc., (there were ten). “Into the photo booth” – another chapter by Kenneth Goldsmith – looks at the role of seriality in his image making employing the photo booth technique. As we look through this enormous collection of images one thing emerges out of the chaos – Warhol’s process was as much about Pop as was the resulting imagery.

Goldsmith also assembled the chapter on “Filmmaking” which begins with one of the most delightful images of Warhol ever taken (a Polaroid of petulant Andy standing behind his old wooden film camera). In this chapter we meet many images of Edie Sedgwick, Chuck Wein, and one of Andy’s favourite “stars” – the Empire State Building. On his films Andy remarks: “all of my films are artificial but then everything is sort of artificial… I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts” (Andy was sometimes Baudrillard before Baudrillard). Still images from a number of his “screen tests” are also shown in this chapter (including Duchamp). But then, why show these as they are the meaningless antithesis of the four minute screen tests which focused on a motionless sitter?

A chapter on the factory (Kenneth Goldsmith) may contain 20 images at most that we haven’t seen many times before but the next chapter (also by Goldsmith) “Media Entrepreneur” takes us on a behind the scenes photographic journey of Andy’s Interview days (Jodie Foster, Jerry Hall, Debbie Harry, Streisand, Dali, Hitchcock, Capote, Mick Jagger) – there is a remarkable image of Andy kneeling beside Hitchcock (Andy is deep in thought while speaking to an amused Hitch [sitting] who looks on with a face that seems to say “aren’t you a curious little fellow”?) But after a while, and after being shot – “getting rich isn’t as easy as it used to be” – a sign appeared on the door of the now locked factory “no drop-ins, please telephone to make an appointment”. Goldsmith also added a salutary chapter on Andy’s work of the 1970’s – especially the Polaroid’s and portraits (Hopper, Nixon, Carter, the Shaw of Iran, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hockney, Ted Kennedy, Ali, Liza, Charles and Diana). As Andy said “I’ve met 80% of the people you’d think I’d have met – the other 20% I am dying to meet”. He was, as we learn here (and in his diaries), obsessed with gossip – and even more interested in what it said about the gossiper.

Perhaps Warhol is a deserving subject for an excessive book as he was a person who was deeply attracted to excess. But this book, like 30,000 Years, avoids substance with size – rather like the long graduate thesis that piles up facts but only appears to make a case for something 600 pages later. It is also an unwieldy tome that could have been half of its size – in all three dimensions –and it would have worked just fine. Indeed, at one-half its size who would have asked for more – even at the same price? That may be food for thought for art book editors. Or, do the makers of these big books simply expect them to sell because they are so big? Of course Phaidon has also created a problem for itself – what to do with future printings which usually appear in much smaller (and less expensive) form? Will it be called merely the Very Big Andy Warhol in its second printing or the Andy Warhol Miniature in its third? (I would prefer “The Pocket Giant Warhol” myself).

The irony of appearances is that we face too much reality (Baudrillard, 1990:61) and with each passing year the increasing thickness and weight of art books points to another form of obesity. Perhaps art books like these face the same fate as art itself – death – not because of scarcity but because there is too much of it (Baudrillard, 1998:102). The double irony for these books is that they suffer from a lack of significance in proportion to their physical immensity – both are very short on analysis as if their makers fear offending the lowest expectations of the public (see Baudrillard 1990b:32 ff.). Here are two good cases for Baudrillard’s assertion that the real is disappearing because their is too much of it (Baudrillard, 2000:65). Perhaps the analysis was simply squeezed out by the sheer weight of the images – an old fashioned book for life in real-time. Publishers might do well however to consider Hollywood’s recent declining box offices in its current period of image recycling.

We occupy a strange position today when there is too much of everything including images too often reproduced and others which proliferate despite the fact that they never should have been made in the first place. We get pictographic indigestion from books of this size. Books like this, which are difficult to use due to their very size, are perhaps the onset of some kind of inertia in this industry (Baudrillard, 2004:191). The fat art book, which has only increased in size and number over the past decade, is surely reaching a point of saturation. How much shelf space is there after all on the planet? But then, imagine Andy walking into a bookstore, seeing fifteen copies of Andy Warhol Giant stacked on top of one another. He would have taken out his camera and tomorrow afternoon the first silkscreen would have been ready – ten of them by end of the week!

The first one of these huge art books I ever met was, most ironically, the Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp [32 x 28 x 7cm, 5kg] (Schwarz, 1970). Like everything else concerning the art world in the contemporary maybe the genesis of the obese art book begins with Duchamp. How fitting then that the Warhol industry caught the virus.

 

References

Jean Baudrillard [c1979] (1990). Seduction. Montreal: New World Perspectives.

Jean Baudrillard [c1983] (1990b). Fatal Strategies: Revenge of the Crystal. New York: Semiotext(e) / Pluto Press.

Jean Baudrillard [c1997] (1998). Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. New York: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard (2000). The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jean Baudrillard (2004). The Lucidity Pact Or The Intelligence of Evil.  New York: Berg.

Jean Baudrillard (2005). The Conspiracy of Art. New York: Semiotext(e) / MIT.

Gerry Coulter (2007). “Andy Warhol: Living And Dieing With The Radical Liquidation of Art – The Diaries, 20 Years After”. Euro Art Web Magazine, Number 1 (February-March): http://www.euroartmagazine.com/new/?page=1&content=62

Pat Hackett (Editor) (1989). The Andy Warhol Diaries. New York: Warner.

Arturo Schwarz (1970). The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. New York: Abrams.



 


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