For a long while, I’ve thought it unnecessary to view art according to an artist’s intent. If it were, I reasoned, intentions would have to accompany every show. I may have been wrong about that. Something LA Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote recently – wrongly, I believe – prompts me.
Knight, reviewing a show of Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ at LA MOCA, asked why Warhol picked soup cans for his subject and then answered his own question. Warhol, he said, got his inspiration for the soup cans from abstract expressionist Willem De Kooning.
Did you get that? The maven of the mechanical method got his idea from the aggressive brushwork of an Action Painter.
To support his view, Knight cited De Kooning saying, “Everything is already in art. Like a big bowl of soup. Everything is in there already, and you stick your hand in and you find something for you.”
A bit of a stretch, no?
And why reach like that when Warhol unwittingly answered Knight’s question long ago? In exhibit notes for his first retrospective in Stockholm in 1968, Warhol said: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings…and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
See? No mention of De Kooning or any other luminary, for that matter.
The biography Warhol by Victor Bockris, published in London in 1989, seems to back Warhol’s point with this exchange he had with his friend Muriel Latow:
Warhol: “I’ve got to do something that will have a lot of impact that will be different from Lichtenstein and Rosenquist (Pop artists who hit it big before he did). I don’t know what to do! Muriel, you’ve got fabulous ideas. Can’t you give me an idea?”
Muriel: “What do you like most in the whole world?”
Warhol: “I don’t know. What do I like most in the whole world?”
Muriel: “You should paint something that everybody sees every day, that everybody recognizes, like a can of soup.”
So he did, again and again in mechanical reproduction with photographic enlargements that he silkscreened onto canvas. This handy Andy artist of slickness, of shallowness, made wallpaper pattern reproductions of soup cans, and glorified their banal sameness.
Hardly the stuff of DeKooning.
Warhol isn’t the only artist whose bent has been ignored. Critics have also disregarded O’Keeffe’s goals. Despite her protestations, critics have insisted on seeing female genitalia in her close-ups of flowers. Never mind O’Keeffe saying, “I hate flowers. I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.”
As for her painting flowers close-up, she explained, “Everything was going so fast. Nobody has time to reflect… There was a flower. It was perfectly beautiful, but it was so small, you really could not appreciate it. So I thought to make it like a huge building going up. If I could paint that flower on a huge scale, then you could not ignore its beauty. People would be startled. They’d have to look at it.”
If critics make up stuff that strips artwork raw or praises it past reason, they do a disservice.
None of this need bind viewers to artists’ objectives. We need to be free to see what we see. But we also need to avoid slighting or treating artists’ objectives with contempt – me, included.
Note: My book, “Sculpture Off The Pedestal” – a behind-the-scenes look at 25 sculptors – is available at Amazon.com, where you can also post a review.