Here’s a little essay on Warhol’s drawings I wrote this morning. I would post the images if I knew how.
ANDY PLANTS BIRDSEED, PLAYS BASEBALL
A light-hearted observer might note that Andy Warhol’s devotion to drawing put paid to his athletic career. Well, you could say that. When the Warhola boys were young, they worked in their mother’s garden before and after school, and then they went to play softball in the park. They always stationed Andy in right field from whence he would wander off to the concrete steps in the shade to draw stars and butterflies. This resulted in a lot of right field home-runs, but the garden grew, and, as often as they could, the Warhola boys would haul their vegetables out to the suburbs to sell them to the well-to-do. The ever-thrifty Andy always went along on these trips to sell his drawings to his brother’s customers. He was not totally unsuccessful.
Thus Warhol, the draftsman, was born, and the strangest thing about Andy’s penchant for drawing is that it was always the one aspect of his practice about which he was the most insecure. Like DeKooning before him, Andy had no predisposition to float a figure in a spatial field. He was always locking the figure into the rectangle and attaching it to the surface of his drawings like a true modernist, except for Sam the cat (1950) who is granted his own domain. Otherwise, all the tricks and devices that enliven Andy’s drawing and painting over the years are present in these drawings. We find his proclivity to integrate the caption into the drawing as in Sam (1950) Capricorn Sloe Whiskey (1959), and Bang (1950) with its limp little bullet swooning out of the gun. The “captioning” would reach it’s first apotheosis in the Soup Cans. These painting would also align Andy’s practice with Edward Ruscha’s work in the same vineyard.
From the beginning, Andy routinely imposed an inferred grid or field on his drawings, as he does with “Train” (1952). The little train runs across the top of the page, locked into the box, with the box cars implying a grid. The full grid, slightly nuanced, appears in 1955 with the pivotal “Butterflies” (1955-6), a subject that dates back to Andy’s baseball days. In “Female Head with Purple Hair,” the grid becomes an explosion of flowers, butterflies and bees that surround the female head like an aura. (Andy always apotheosized women because he would rather have been one.) The most apparently “normal” of these drawings, “Female Fashion Figures” (1960), would be normal were it not for the fact that right toe of the foreground figure and the left toe of the background figure point directly into the lower right-hand corner of the sheet, so the girls seem suspended like balloons from this implied tether, light and buoyant.
These drawings also employ one of Andy’s favorite devices, that of unhitching drawing from color and letting them co-exist. This practice, I think, arises again, from his nervousness about floating a figure (untethered) in a field. In “The Night the Roxy Opened” (1961), Andy uses floating stains of primary colors to support the flattened image of the crowd. In “Untitled” (1960) Andy frames the head of a fashion figure, with gestural colored marks that locate her in the upper-right hand corner of the drawing, like a postage stamp on a letter. This casual conjunction of drawing and gestural color would become Andy’s favorite device in his portraits beginning with the Marilyn Monroe paintings, in which the photo image is elevated to the level of iconicity by the spontaneity of the gestures surrounding it.
Andy’s most famous mask for his insecurity would be the invention that made him famous as an illustrator with his I. Miller shoe drawings: The “blotted line.” This line expresses one of Andy’s favorite axioms: “If you know what’s right, you can do what’s wrong.” This axiom assumes that if you do what is wrong, the idea of what is right will be self-evident in its transgression. Andy would never put it so elaborately but that’s what’s implied—“dressing down” implies knowledge of “dressing up.” This, a friend of mine observed, brands Andy as a self-admitted criminal. He breaks the law in full awareness of the law he is breaking.
The law in this case is the first law of graphic penmanship: The line of ink will be clear and flow naturally. Andy breaks this law by blotting the line of ink while it’s still wet. This trope appears over and over in these drawings. It introduces a raggedy, painterly edge to the ink line. Most importantly, for newspaper drawings, it has already been “printed” once, and this introduces the idea that the drawing was wet when it went into the press. This line reveals Andy at his most charming. He breaks the “law of lines” while acknowledging the eccentricities of the print medium with a daunting awareness that made him the most famous commercial illustrator of his time. This naughty-boy twist always reminds me of Andy’s little gifts to his editors. He had no money, so he would send them packages of birdseed with instructions to plant them and watch the birds grow, and so they did in Andy’s blotted drawings.
So everything is here—-a synoptic survey of Warhol’s devices is gathered in this slim portfolio of modest drawings: the flatness, the obsession with the rectangle, the captioning, the disjunction of line and color, the grid, the field, and the blotted line. And also, finally, we are introduced to his unerring sense of the right wrong colors. So was it always there? I suspect so. Why else would young Andrew Warhola have abandoned the dream of playing right field for the Pirates?
Pieter Brueghel landscape with the fall of icarus
William Carlos Williams, 1883 - 1963
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
Domenico di Michelino, Dante and the Three Kingdoms
Fr. Barron says it takes a lot of work to reclaim the tradition, which includes the “richly complex texts of the Bible, the systematic theology of St Irenaeus, the Platonizing Theology of Origin and Augustine, those beautiful sinuous arguments of Thomas Aquinas, the mysticism of Teresa of Avila and Bernard and St John of the Cross, the sermons of John Henry Newman, the life-changing poetry of Dante, the music of Palestrina and Mozart, the theology of Honduras von Balthasar, the theology of John Paul II…”