A Persistent Theatre of Self
By Tom Wachunas
EXHIBIT: Snap! In the Photobooth with Warhol and Friends, at Massillon Museum, THROUGH OCTOBER 13, 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon
(330) 830-4061 www.massillonmuseum.org
“My work has no future at all. I know that. A few years. Of course my things will mean nothing.” -Andy Warhol
“I have nothing to say and I am saying it…” -John Cage
Among the many ironies about Andy Warhol’s work is that while it was originally a deliberate undermining of traditionally lofty Western art standards and practices, it remains nonetheless present in many art museums worldwide. Of course he wasn’t the first to throw down such a daunting cultural gauntlet and garner a place not only in our most revered art institutions, but in the history books as well. For that we can look to the mischievous French artist, Marcel Duchamp, who during the early decades of the 20th century, farted in our general direction with his “readymades.”
Prior to the time Warhol made his entry on to the art world stage, the term “pop” had already emerged in the contemporary art lexicon, thanks to critic Lawrence Alloway’s championing artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, who were among the founding members of the early 1950’s British Independent Group. Just a few years after, in New York City, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were also seminal influences on what would become “officially” called Pop Art by 1962.
Speaking of seminal influences, this Massillon Museum exhibit is a finely organized record of how Warhol melded the technology of “instant” photography with advertising design and methods which became so central to his oeuvre. Keep in mind, though, that the photo booth and Polaroid portraits gathered here aren’t uniquely or formally “beautiful” photographs in the “high art” sense of the word. And for that matter, the nature of Warhol’s portraiture in general was far more formulaic and mechanical than emotionally powerful. Additionally, his legacy is as much about his attitude as it is his manufactured objets d’art.
Some Warholisms are posted throughout the exhibit, such as “I want to be a machine..,” and, “Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?” Those words are revealing enough as to his motivations and methods.
Warholisms, by the way, are his pronouncements about life and art that have surely taken on a life of their own, and arguably more significant than many of his works. But like his works, on the surface his words still possess a breezy, even theatrical simplicity. Underneath, though, there’s a calculated gravitas, glibly disguised as banality and naïveté. Warhol was, among other things, a Dadaist provocateur who could be maddeningly changeable and ambiguous. In 1979 he amended his iconic 1968 utterance about fame to, “I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, ‘In 15 minutes everybody will be famous.’” (italics added)
Whichever version of 15 minutes of fame you prefer, to the extent that Warhol’s work was a celebration of celebrity itself – our consumerist society’s insanely elevated narcissism – his words were hauntingly prophetic. Today, we have all manner of social media stages on which to play out our lives and sing the praises of us, making our selves instantly known to countless “friends” and strangers.
In this context, think of photo booth image strips as a Facebook prototype of sorts. As objects, they’re generated by a machine one might call a mini-factory, bringing to mind Warhol’s legendary Factory that churned out his silkscreen “paintings” and lithographs (among many other enterprises) between 1962 and 1984. The analogy isn’t so far- fetched if you consider those who step into a photo booth as similar to Warhol’s Factory workers (dubbed in their day “Warhol’s Superstars”), collaborating in assembly line fashion to make his serial images.
Better yet, think of the photo booth (there’s one in the Massillon Museum lobby) as a miniature theatre – an intimate, curtained stage allowing you to indulge the notion of self- image. Here you are at once director and actor. It’s a space that seems to have the intrinsic capacity for encouraging role-playing, acting out, or posing in an adopted persona, as is evident in Warhol’s self-portraits. The photo booth is a place where you can inpersonate yourself, so to speak - where you can be a legend in your own mind.
Keep in mind another Warholism: “I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.” Warhol the prophet speaking? Still, your personal photo strip could be a document of your own celebrity, however fleeting it might be.
Say… for 15 minutes?