Why Andy Warhol? What kind of superhero is that?
I was always more of a Marvel Comics than a DC kid. The typical Marvel hero was just more interesting. Poor Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider and takes on the characteristics of a spider. He can’t actually spin webs, so he puts his mind to it and invents a web-spinner he can attach to his wrist. The Thing, alternating between laughter and rage at his misfortune: his scaly skin making it impossible to be close to the woman he loves. The Silver Surfer, whose omniscient perspective – literally looking down on the folly of humans – fills him with pity and ultimately makes him good. Cigar-smoking Howard the Duck, “trapped in a world he never made.” Dr. Strange. I could go on. The point is, these characters, two dimensional as they are, are born out of struggle, and – at least during Marvel’s heyday, the 1960s and early 1970s – they didn’t take the easy way out. They continued to struggle. Bruce Banner, nuclear scientist – staggeringly intelligent, considerate, even meek – never made peace with the roiling anger that inevitably, without fail, turned him into The Incredible Hulk.
Much more interesting than a Man who’s, you know, Super, because he fell out of the sky from another planet. Or a rich guy who likes to dress up like a bat.
Reasonable people may differ. If DC made you happy as a kid, I’m happy for you. I do know that in my later life I’ve always been drawn to people who are complicated, maybe a little mixed-up, not exactly who they seem to be at first. I like people who surprise me. I like people who struggle. I want my friends to be happy, but I can relate to the need to keep working, trying, figuring it out. I admire people who can do this with style, with grace. I especially admire people who can do this in public, maybe because I’m private.
Andy Warhol was one of those people. And that’s why he’s a superhero.
He made the world see the world his way.
I’m not talking about rising to the top of New York’s social life, or the silly Factory bullshit, or the gnomic statements. I mean his art was new and fresh and consistently strong enough, for long enough, that it made us see differently. Andy Warhol revolutionized painting, photography, film, design, even parties. Together with the Velvet Underground and some of his cronies, he created, in a hole-in-the-wall on St. Mark’s Place, the lightshow that bands were STILL using when I started gong to concerts in the early 1980s, and a kind of everything-all-at-once music / theater hybrid that was still considered avant-garde when I moved to New York in the 1990s.
Did he eventually rest on his laurels? Did he let other people tell his story and go along with it, and cater to the rich and stop paying attention at some point? Yes. So what? Picasso had a long, silly, repetitive decline punctuated with occasional, probably accidental greatness, too. That doesn’t matter.
Maybe it’s that I grew up caring more about music than art per se. A great band is a band that has a strong five-year run, with maybe three albums you want to listen to for the rest of your life, and two more that are worth holding on to. The Beatles had a seven- or eight-year run, maybe, as a recording band, depending on how you’re counting. Then a lot of solo nonsense with occasional flashes of greatness… usually when Ringo was in the room. But that’s a different ax to grind.
I’ve purposely avoided the Marilyns and soup cans and such here, even though I think they’re great (a new kind of portrait and still life, respectively). I went with the banana, first because the Velvet Underground’s first record was – probably – the first time I actually sat down and looked intentionally at a work of visual art; second because it freshly struggles with one of the fundamental themes of Western art: the urge to reveal, and simultaneously to hide, sexual passion. The banana, originally printed as a sticker with “Peel Slowly and See” above its apex, is sexy. Sexier than Mick Jagger’s crotch on “Sticky Fingers” (though that, with its built-in zipper, was funnier). I was lucky to find a pic online of the banana – the pink banana – partly unsheathed.
I wanted to include one of the electric chairs. These are some of the most powerful works of art I know of. They’re like all of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” at once. They don’t reproduce well, though. Instead, I included one of Warhol’s skulls, a take on the momento mori theme that would be obvious if it weren’t so beautifully composed. Stop and look at how the colors interact, and how unexpected, and probably garish, each of them would be if they were used, individually, on a silkscreen of a skull. Together – somehow, I don’t know why – they support each other. It’s hideous and terrifying and hilarious and electrifying.
Andy himself appears on the top and bottom.
And inside, because – after all – it’s a lunchbox, a reminder of where your roast-beef sandwich came from.
There’s a lot more to say. In his best work Warhol drew from the things everyone was looking at but not seeing, tweaked them, put them up on the wall (or on the floor, or just filled up the room with them), and made everyone see: not only the representation, which is enough, but the original, differently. Leonardo did that with the nude. Ingres did it with the portrait. And Warhol did it with the stuff and people all around us, the unavoidable, endlessly repeating people and things that constantly wash up on the pop-culture shore. He does it funny but generally resists the temptation to slapstick.
Why is there so little on the lunchbox? I’ve always loved the rectangular silver balloons Warhol designed and let float around at parties, and when my boxes arrived in the mail – each cardboard box stamped “Plain Metal,” the brushed-steel surface of each lunchbox palely reflective, I thought instantly of Warhol and set aside my plans for a Walt Whitman box. (Maybe that will come later.) His best art – from the 60s and early 70s, and then the reawakening in the late 1980s – is simple and spare but unfussy about details. It seemed to me like a Warhol lunchbox should follow the same aesthetic. So I didn’t try to hide the “brushstrokes” of my adhesive, and I didn’t worry if the ink ran a bit, but I tried to put the right images in the right places.