An artist with the celebrity status of the late Andy Warhol poses certain problems for the viewer. Can one look at his work without thinking of his party going, his gossipy Interview magazine, his alleged friendships with the Shah of Iran and Imelda Marcos, or his own carefully cultivated media image, complete with silver wig and blank stare?

Art critics don’t provide much help in this regard. Most offer endless ruminations on the significance of what Warhol did without describing what it is like to actually experience his work. His detractors (and Warhol still has many among reputable critics) frequently focus on his choice of subject matter–the Campbell’s soup cans and so on–to argue that he was not a serious artist. In a mixed appraisal, the novelist and essayist Edmund White says that “for better or for worse,” Warhol “blurred the distinction between art and junk.” Kynaston McShine, the senior curator of the Museum of Modern Art, who organized the huge Warhol exhibition opening this weekend at the Art Institute, writes appreciatively of Warhol’s work as “great art” but has little to say about what it is like to look at a Warhol painting. Instead, he speaks of the ways in which Warhol changed our notions about art, of his cultural significance, in a manner that is not unrelated to the analyses produced by Warhol’s detractors.

Let’s forget as much as we can about Andy Warhol Superstar; let’s just enter the exhibition and view some paintings. By “view,” I do not mean glance at while strolling by, or stare intently at while listening to a prerecorded gallery tour through earphones. I mean a careful, slow, contemplative, silent viewing. And let’s take Warhol at his most notorious, in the “You call this art?” grid of Two Hundred Campbell’s Soup Cans from 1962:

The entire canvas is filled with painted cans, pictured as if stacked beside and atop one another; there is no empty space. Stand near the painting, centering it in your field of vision, and let your eye move slowly across it, from can to can, from red-and-white pattern to red-and-white pattern. Now step a bit closer and contemplate it again; now again from a bit farther away. Look at some of Warhol’s other grid paintings–the trading stamps or Coke bottles or dollar bills or Elvises–and then return to the soup cans again. The red-and-white can images vibrate against each other with a strangely intense rhythm. The red–not quite the same as the color of an actual Campbell’s can–acquires an almost visionary sensuality. The viewer standing close is ecstatically adrift in a rhythmic world of a kind of endless fetishism–of fetishized color, fetishized label, fetishized shape.

Is it folly to consider this serious art? After all, Warhol was known to crank out paintings like this almost on an assembly line. He even named his studio “the Factory.” There are stories about assistants doing his silk-screening, and his technique, say many critics, was poor to nonexistent. He chose for his subject whatever brightly colored object attracted his attention, or whichever wealthy businessman would pay $50,000 to have Warhol “paint” his portrait. He even said of his art, “Just look at the surface, there I am,” and explained his love of machine-made images (most of his later canvases were silk-screened) by saying they removed his humanness from the work–“I want to be like a machine.” How can this be a respectable artist? How can anyone take seriously a character whose films include a six-hour epic of a man sleeping?

Of course it is common, especially in the 20th century, for new art to present itself at first as if it is not art at all, only later to have its importance recognized. The ultimate test of a work should be the response of the viewer. But even on the level of biography, many of the objections raised by Warhol’s critics can be answered with other items from his vast and often contradictory life story. The notion that he was a tool of the right wing is belied by his wonderful McGovern poster, in which the hand-printed words “Vote McGovern” are paired, montagelike, with the ultimate image of Tricky Dick, the incarnation of shiftiness becoming evil, with green-blue face and yellow eyes. For every story of a Warhol artwork made by an assistant, there is another story of Warhol carefully reviewing images produced by assistants, rejecting most, then hand-modifying the few that remain. For every claim that Warhol’s production methods were slapdash, there is a story of the artist spending three hours mixing pigments, struggling to produce just the right color for a new silk-screen painting. The silk-screen works are themselves replete with important artistic choices: often multiple images are partly superimposed on each other; in many, a multicolored paint pattern is applied.

As to Warhol’s selection of subject matter, these objections seem to me to spring from old and unexamined prejudices, based largely on Old Master paintings, about what constitutes the proper subject matter for art, combined with an unthinking contempt for American mass culture. If one studies history to avoid repeating past mistakes, one should perhaps consider the way in which the peasant scenes of a 19th-century painter like Courbet were condemned in his day as containing subject matter unfit for fine art. To those who would argue that a painting of soup cans is decadent, I would ask for their defense of a Renaissance painting that displays a life-sized Virgin and child in the setting of a European town, standing next to the figure of the wealthy nobleman who paid for the painting. Similarly, in the realm of technique and production methods, the history of art has been a history of innovations that were often excoriated as contra-artistic at the time they were introduced.

As for the “six-hour sleep movie,” which along with Empire, an eight-hour film of the Empire State Building, helped cement Warhol’s reputation for outrageousness, the story of how it came to be made, as told by its “star,” is instructive. The sleeper, John Giorno, was Warhol’s lover. Giorno went to a party with Warhol, got drunk, and went to sleep. He awoke a number of times that night and the next morning, always to find Warhol in bed beside him, staring at him. In all, Giorno estimates that Warhol watched him sleep for eight continuous hours. This incident occurred a week after Warhol purchased his first movie camera, and production of Sleep soon commenced. This is a film whose public image, among those who have never seen it (almost all of us), has been of an absurd provocation, an outre gesture–an image reinforced by the story that critic and filmmaker Jonas Mekas could not force Warhol to sit through a complete screening of it. But in fact Warhol’s choice of subject was anything but random, and the film can be seen as the product of his interest in the gaze, the stare, the way in which looking steadily at anything long enough can alter its meaning. The story about Warhol’s all-night stare (his version, presumably, of preproduction planning) suggests that the film’s extraordinary length proceeds not from a desire to be outrageous, but from the particular and personal nature of Warhol’s own eyesight, vision, and way of attending to the external world. Real attention to his paintings and his films will reveal an artist as deeply personal, and as articulate in the meanings he produces, as any in our age.

Returning, then, to the exhibition, consider Marilyn Monroe’s Lips, also from 1962. This is 12 feet wide and contains 168 images of Monroe’s lips and teeth. We see no other facial features–I doubt anyone could identify these lips as Marilyn’s–and around each set of lips is empty space. The background of the left half of the painting is light pink; of the right half, dark pink. After I looked at this picture for several minutes, its effect on me started to change. What had seemed a strangely erotic and perversely disembodied set of mouths grew a bit more menacing, and finally, terrifying. As is true of most great works of art, it is not at all what it seems to be at first, and it changes on you as you experience it in time. For me the terror comes not from the lips, but from the fact of their detachment. A center of erotic interest in a face that our culture has eroticized beyond reason is repeated endlessly and set adrift in an undefined space. That the background shades draw their color from the lipstick, like paler echoes of it, makes the image at first glance seem unified, even decorative. But as one looks again and again, the shades of pink and red start to clash rather than blend, the original harmony dissolves, and we have a painting of violence, of rupture, of disembodiment, of loneliness, of the terror inherent in (to borrow a phrase from feminism) the “objectification” of women. (To his credit, in other paintings, such as those of Troy Donahue and Elvis Presley, Warhol deals with the objectification of men as well.)

The key to understanding Warhol and the complexity of effects that his art produces is to see that there is a series of dualities at work here. Warhol manages to combine in a single painting his peculiarly fetishistic erotic interests–his fixation on objects, on their colors, on their surface appearances–with his self-awareness that the fetishist ultimately is himself disembodied. The fetishist is often motivated by a sense of inadequacy; his fixation appears to him to be necessary to fill a deep inner void. The object or body part that he fixates on becomes the entire world; he worships it to the exclusion of all else, or even fuses with it. But the object cannot return the fetishist’s attention; when the dream ends, as it must, the dreamer finds himself once again inside his own body, no less needy or alone than he was when he began. Warhol compresses this whole process onto a single canvas; his paintings invite the viewer to reexperience, in the time of viewing, the transition from sensual pleasure to fixation to alienation. Rather than being the inconsequential decorative objects his detractors describe, Warhol’s best works see through to the true consequences of our culture’s fixation on objects and appearances.

It is a perhaps not-irrelevant bit of gossip that, according to one of Warhol’s lovers, he was a foot fetishist, one who kissed and caressed feet and toes. There is a wonderful irony here: Warhol was a successful commercial artist in the 50s, best known for his drawings of women’s shoes for ads in newspapers and magazines; in a decade we remember as bland, gray, conformist, and straight, some of the most successful mainstream advertising was informed by the passions of a foot fetishist! Yet if one looks not only at Warhol’s loving shoe drawings but also at the bad commercial art of that period–and of our own–one finds objects fetishized again and again. The cola can in the TV commercial, the cigarette pack in the magazine photograph, the “serving suggestion” on the frozen food box are all presented as objects of desire. By their placement in the image, the way they are lit, and the angle at which they are shown, the eye is encouraged to pass from the attractive models and the beautiful setting to what is supposed to be the ultimate personification of desire, the product. Where these ads lack irony, ambiguity, complexity–as well they should if their creators want us to acquire an unequivocal desire for that pack of cigarettes–Warhol sees both sides at once: the beauty of an object, presented with an almost hypnotic fascination that is related to but far surpasses the eroticism of the typical ad, and the deep alienation that results from such a fascination.

Seen from the somewhat distanced perspective made possible by a large retrospective mounted after his death, Warhol is neither a poseur nor a provocateur, but an artist fully as great as any of this century, one whose achievement fits squarely into the thousand-year-old tradition of Western image-making. He chooses subjects as great artists always have, when they have been free to: his subject matter, commercial products and movie stars, is at least as much a part of our lives as the Virgin was to medieval Europeans, and his art comments on the cultural significance of those subjects while simultaneously drawing on, and expressing, his own deepest feelings. His use of mechanical reproduction and repetition, too, has its echoes in our culture. Look around, from supermarket to shopping mall to car dealership to TV program, and you see a world awash in repetition. At every turn, mass culture presents itself to the individual as an accretion of objects to be desired, to be purchased, objects that present themselves as being different from each other (the better to get you to buy more of them–“move up” from a Chevy to a Buick) but that are, on closer inspection, merely different versions cut from the same basic mold.

Throughout his career Warhol was interested in the relationship between the human and the mechanical: when every part of the picture derives from his hand, he is almost invariably copying a machine-made image; yet when his paintings begin with mechanically reproduced images, he chooses their placement, colors, and the size and shape of the canvas. This duality finds a parallel in his attitude toward his subject matter. He looks at the material of human tragedy, appears to try to drain it of some of its potency, and paradoxically winds up only increasing the horror. It is important to understand that when Warhol speaks of his interest in surfaces, or in becoming like a machine, he is expressing in an extreme form feelings that most of us have felt. In this age of machines and image saturation, we often feel that our individual and collective humanity is being assaulted. At one time or another probably all of us have felt flattened or machinelike, as though all our life has been drained away.

From the early 1960s on, a still darker theme, death itself, weaves its way through Warhol’s work. Was this a case of artistic prescience? Warhol had two early encounters with death. In 1968, a crazy woman who was the self-proclaimed founder and sole member of the “Society for Cutting Up Men” (S.C.U.M.), putting her theory into practice, shot Warhol, almost killing him. Then, in 1987, he died unaccountably after routine gall-bladder surgery at New York Hospital. One is tempted to suggest that Warhol foresaw his early death, but I know of nothing in his life story to indicate that he did. Rather his death theme seems to me a simple extension of his earlier, implicit theme–the alienation of fetishism–to its most extreme possible conclusion. Marilyn Monroe’s suicide–which occurred before Warhol made his many images of her–may have been in part a consequence of the way she herself, as a hyperbolically eroticized symbol of desire, was set apart and alone. Even Marilyn Monroe’s Lips, then, can be seen as a kind of contemplation of death, as if the disembodied lips are the result of some perverse and gruesome autopsy.

Death is present most explicitly in Warhol’s famous “Disaster” paintings of the mid-60s. Photographs of car crashes and an electric chair are silk-screened onto canvas, usually in multiple repetitions, often in various colors. Warhol’s own comments on repetition are both instructive and incomplete: “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.” Once again, a kind of dialectic is at work. Repeating the image of a car crash 2 times, or 20, cannot help but intensify the horror of it. Still, Warhol’s use of repetition and color tends to create a patterned, almost decorative design. He places his repeated electric chairs in relation to the design they make on the canvas as a whole. One can see the only partially realized impulse, in these works, to look beyond meaning to fetishized surface, which of course is a kind of meaning in itself.

The mechanical repetition of imagery in these paintings can be seen as the ultimate formal expression of the idea that machines kill. Even those machines supposedly meant for the greater good, such as ambulances and electric chairs, can destroy human flesh, just as repetition of an image can destroy its life or meaning, reducing it to mere surface or design. Once again, technique articulates the essence of the subject matter. This is never more true than in Optical Car Crash, in which Warhol partially superimposes the silk-screened image on itself repeatedly, producing on the canvas a parallel to an actual collision.

The greatest of the “Disasters” in this exhibit is perhaps Blue Electric Chair. In this diptych, a grid of 15 blue-and-black electric-chair images occupies the left panel, while the right panel is imageless, filled with the same shade of blue used in the left. Here Warhol’s fetishism collides head-on with his other half: image meets emptiness and the artist confronts that void, that absence, that underlies all existence and comes to the surface in any serious contemplation of death. All images, even the electric-chair images of death, are artifacts, illusions, products of an impermanent world, themselves ephemeral on the time scale of history. Even more fully than before, the issue of what it means to be human in our age is confronted and joined on multiple levels: an appreciation of the sensual (the thick dark blue is spectacular), a certain social awareness (though imposed in the U.S., the death penalty is rare in the industrialized world), and a contemplation of the ultimate meaning (or lack of meaning) of existence. It is again to Warhol’s immense credit that either side of his diptych can be read in either way. One can initially interpret the electric-chair image as sensual and the solid-blue panel as death; on further viewing, however, the meanings can reverse, as the repeated electric chair starts to lose its significance and the solid blue starts to assert the sensuality of its surface.

If the light, texture, and color in the images of a great religious painter (say, the 15th-century monk Fra Angelico) express beliefs common to his age–for example, a belief in the salvation of the spirit, in the ability of human flesh to lose its earthly roughness and gain a heavenly aura (when that flesh is, say, on the Virgin’s face)–so Warhol gives us the essence of our age: materialism, emptiness, impermanence, machine-made death.

Many observers claim that Warhol’s work declines in quality after his 1968 shooting. The absurdity of this should be clear to all who view his skull paintings, the late self-portraits, and especially the “Camouflage” series. In Philip’s Skull, the duality of Blue Electric Chair returns in an even more spectacular form: the skull, a classic symbol of death in painting, is presented in a grid of four, and each skull is cruelly “enlivened” with grotesquely contrasting combinations of color. The self-portraits belie the popular notion that Warhol was a narcissistic publicity hound. Instead, we see a self-image that lacks any stability or solidity. Warhol repeats his image in superimposed outlines, set against darkness, or in a series of differently colored repetitions of the same portrait, until we understand that part of this fascination with death must have derived from his own sense of his vanishing self. (The charge of narcissism is not even supported by Warhol’s public behavior. While it is true, for example, that he went to many parties, it is also true that he rarely spoke at them. Accompanied in his later years by his tape recorder, which he called “my wife,” he often cut a shy, distanced, even alienated figure.)

My favorites of all the Warhol paintings I have seen are the four “Camouflage” paintings included in this show. In this series, a pattern derived from the military camouflage design is superimposed on images of Warhol’s face, of the artist Joseph Beuys, and of the Statue of Liberty. The camouflage pattern carries at least three different associations: war and death; fashion (as kids periodically take to wearing such clothing); and, most literally, the desire to conceal, to hide. In the Camouflage Self-Portrait pictures, Warhol tries to hide himself behind a surface. Though one’s eyes try to focus selectively on the multicolored pattern and then on the human face, it becomes impossible to see one without the other. If Two Hundred Campbell’s Soup Cans has a rapid rhythm, these self-portraits appear to be vibrating just beyond the limits of human perception. In the fusion of their two elements, the artist acknowledges himself as a shaman, a spinner of illusions behind which he wishes to hide but cannot. These paintings acknowledge that all images that we make are merely temporary illusions, the shadow play of magicians.

The Film Center’s retrospective of Warhol’s films should prove almost as valuable as the exhibition of paintings, although it is unfortunately not as extensive. Eleven of Warhol’s films, which reportedly number 60 in all, will be shown complete; Sleep and Empire will be screened in excerpts of less than an hour each. Most of these have been unavailable for many years. After Warhol was shot, his assistant, Paul Morrissey, who believes that the best use of cinema is to present the personalities of the actors rather than the sensibility of the director, began directing a series of relatively conventional narratives that were released under Warhol’s name. Thus many have seen “Warhol” films that Warhol had little to do with, and that are informed minimally, if at all, by his vision. At the time Morrissey’s films started playing in commercial theaters, the earlier Warhol-directed films were withdrawn; the thinking at the Factory, apparently, was that their technical “crudeness” and improvisational nature might dilute the growing box-office power of Warhol’s name.

Most of the films in the Film Center series are genuine and great Warhol films. I might quibble with the selection somewhat–masterpieces like Lupe and **** and the important (though hard-core sexplicit) early Couch are far more interesting than The Nude Restaurant and Lonesome Cowboys. But Blow Job, My Hustler, Vinyl, and above all The Chelsea Girls are vital and original, and they can also be seen in terms somewhat similar to those I have used to describe the paintings.

One aspect of Warhol’s filmmaking career is that he seems to have consciously tried to recapitulate the history of cinema. His first films were black and white, silent, and given to long static takes with no camera movement. Gradually he introduced camera movement, color, sound, zooms, and editing, though his editing never had the analytic coherence of most films, whether commercial or experimental. In Warhol’s static camera one finds the cinematic equivalent of the simple formal design choices he makes in producing a silk-screen painting. Part of the beauty of the silk-screen grids is in the way that the arrangement of a carefully selected photographic image can make, in its gridlike repetition, a highly formal design. The repetition that Warhol achieved by silk-screening the same image over and over again on a single canvas is achieved in a film like Eat by letting the same shot continue for a long time. Warhol always has an eye for composition, and he carefully selects his film images with the same formalistic eye that informs his silk-screening. We always feel that the borders of the frame are the absolute limits of what should be of interest to our eyes; his compositions look as if they have a preselected design, which intensifies our regard for what is contained within.

Most of the pre-Chelsea Girls Warhol films that I have seen lack the richness of multiple themes that I find in his best paintings. They are very much worth seeing nonetheless, for the elegance of their imagery, their redefinition of cinematic time, and their further reflections on the theme of emptiness. As one readjusts one’s expectations to the slower observational pace of this cinema, the static camera’s function begins to change. It starts as a camera that doesn’t move because it doesn’t know how to yet (Warhol’s recapitulation of film history); but eventually we see the revelation of a sensibility that, standing before the observed world, is aware of nothing so much as its own vacuity. The voyeur–and Warhol’s films are nothing if not voyeuristic–must, like the fetishist, absent himself before that which he regards and desires in order to establish his peculiar relationship with it. His desire is to look rather than to participate, but in that self-assumed position he assures his own alienation.

The Chelsea Girls is in a different category from all the other films in the Film Center’s series. It is the most ambitious and, in a certain surprisingly human way, the most moving. Almost four hours in length, it displays two images side by side on the screen, utilizing two projectors at once. Each image has a sound track, but only one plays at a time, and which one it is is left to chance or the projectionist’s whim; I had to see the film three or four times before I had heard all the sound tracks. The film purports to consist of different scenes of life in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, long a home to artists and eccentrics. The double image pattern makes the viewer acutely aware of film viewing as a voyeuristic activity–one can select one scene or the other or try to view both at once–and the camera itself functions voyeuristically. The combination of bizarre costumes and settings, strange and colorful characters, reels in both color and black and white, and Warhol’s highly idiosyncratic use of the zoom make it sensually spectacular.

Warhol frequently zooms in on a small part of the image, unexpectedly and apparently randomly. At times we go suddenly from a shot with two or three characters talking to an extreme close-up of a fragment of one of their dresses. Another aspect of Warhol’s fetishistic vision appears to be at work here. One series of canvases on view at the Art Institute shows images of Mick Jagger’s head and shoulders silk-screened over irregular patterns of cut, colored paper. Torn fragments of colored paper provide bright spots to specific parts of the face, often with no regard to the face’s structure. The effect is extraordinarily sensual, as if each part of Jagger’s face is charged with a different level (and color) of energy. The zooms in The Chelsea Girls have a similar effect: they encourage the viewer to savor the importance, the beauty, of each surface, each part of the image. The colors and textures of apparently empty spaces contain as much sensual and erotic energy, for Warhol, as the characters’ faces. We are not far here from the world of Blue Electric Chair. As a veritable Hell of humanity parades before us, we are always reminded, by Warhol’s camera, that no single human passion means more than any other, or more than the most obscure corner of a tension-filled room. The detachment of Warhol’s gaze knows its own emptiness.

The Chelsea Girls does have, in my view, one privileged scene. Twenty years before the explicitness of the Camouflage Self Portraits the artist finds a character to speak for him, the only time that this appears to me to happen in a Warhol film. Eric Emerson gradually takes his clothes off for the camera while illuminated by shifting colored lights, which provide a kind of temporal equivalent of those Warhol portrait series in which the same silk-screened image is colored differently in each new version. Emerson speaks, in an exceedingly fey voice, about things like appreciating the smell of his own sweat. When he gets down to his underpants, he decides not to strip completely after all, because “I don’t want anyone to see all of me.”

There is a level of physical meaning here that should be apparent immediately, at least to males. The fear is that in revealing “all of me” the male will also reveal his own inadequacy. I am reminded of the old men’s-room graffito, scrawled above the urinal: “Why look here? The joke’s between your legs.” In a similar vein, the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album, based on a Warhol idea, shows a close-up of a male midsection with a real zipper for the pants fly; when the zipper is undone, behind lies only white cardboard.

The human psyche makes intricate cross-connections between the physical, the emotional, and the intellectual, and so fears of inadequacy in one area can project into others as well, and then feed back on themselves. Warhol understands, far better than those who let themselves be controlled by the mass culture, the consequences of living on the surface, of fixating on physical objects. No object, least of all one’s self, can ever be enough. One becomes alienated from everything, including one’s self, until one begins to doubt one’s own personhood. Eric Emerson has to stop at his underpants because his fixation on the physical–as a character in the film, and as a stand-in for Warhol–finally denies him some of the fullness of his humanity, his capacity to interact with others, so much so that he begins to fear, without really knowing why, that there is no “all of me,” that there is nothing behind the zipper. At this moment, at the line that Emerson cannot cross, as at so many other key moments in Warhol’s vast oeuvre, the public Warhol (party-going voyeur, friend of celebrities), the private Warhol (the fetishist), the citizen of late-20th-century America (maker of images of car wrecks and electric chairs), and the artist all converge. In doing what great artists have always done–rendering beautiful through his artistry subjects both vital to his age and of deep significance to himself, and following the implications of those subjects through to their profoundest conclusions–Warhol has shown us the beauty and the horror of our culture, and the deeper emptiness that on some level dwells within us all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.