I investigated the Andy Warhol Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last weekend, an exhibit focusing on the reassemblage of Warhol's famed and in many ways career-launching soup cans in the original manner of their display when they debuted in 1962 in California. That is, they were displayed in a linear way, side by side, around a white room, both resting on a thin shelf and hanging, giving a hint of their personality as products resting on store shelves.
I was glad to see them, and wasn't sure I had ever seen one of the soup cans in person. Seeing them side by side was a specific experience I'd recommend. Warhol might well advise to see them in both ways if possible—stacked up in a changeable grid, and spread out in a more linear fashion. For we comics fans, both arrangements would have resonance.
I liked the fact that you could see differences in the red of the paint used, and in the variability of the gold stamping he applied to make trademark logos for Campbell's soup. Warhol's statement regarding his later work, that reproducing images at a greater and greater remove created a kind of desirable emptiness only achieved through repetition, could also apply to the soup cans. I can believe it in that the collection of pieces made for a very calm room, one I didn't leave as soon as I might have otherwise.
But when I did, and I didn't know what if anything to expect in the following room, I found another section of the exhibit. I hadn't done my online homework to see what else was on display, so the transition hit me all at once. From the soup can room I stepped into the Marilyn Monroe room. And that was quite a transition. Bear with me while I try to explain something that happened in my mind, literally in the space of walking through the archway between the one room and the next, with both rooms still visible at the same time.
Now, I've told you what the soup can room looked like, but the Marilyn room was quite elaborate by comparison. Straight ahead hung Warhol's Gold Marilyn, often compared to a Byzantine icon, with Monroe's headshot surrounded by a rectangular sea of gold. But to the right hung a grid of repeating images of Marilyn Monroe in dayglo colors and in variable accents. The silk screening process Warhol was beginning to adopt by then created differences he was keen on and definitely reminds you that you are looking at the same image and yet not the same image. So, from the relative sterility of the white soup can room I met the shocking grid of Monroe images and I thought, as I'm sure art historians would tell me I'm supposed to think, "one commodity and then another commodity", but then I thought the opposite and found it equally true.
You see, there was such an intensely personal aspect to each one of those soup cans painted by Warhol that it had seemed to me that each one belonged to him. Whether you believe his statement that he was inspired to create them because he ate the same brand of soup for lunch every day for 20 years or not, I don't think anyone could possibly convince me that each one of those cans wasn't personal to Warhol. Each line gave the impression of precision but they aren't really precise. It's a kind of paradox that a created thing looks artificial. Maybe I'm being influenced by the fact that my grandmother was a commercial artist just a little before Warhol and I've seen her senior portfolio that landed her work. There too I was aware of her struggle for precision but that her best pieces contained something else that hadn't been proscribed, that something else was like a signature.
At any rate, because I knew the soup cans were personal, albeit a commodity, and then saw the Marilyns, also a commodity, I was reminded that they were personal too. Personal many times over. And it's also probably important to remember that he created these images after her untimely death. Perhaps by creating the repeated images of her, he was trying to get a certain degree of removal from the fact. But he was also celebrating her and exploring what she meant, to him and to others. He was being realistic about the fact that she was a commodity. He was being personal about the fact that she meant something to him. My last thought was the one that most pertained to comics: there was only a certain degree to which Warhol could shape or change her image given how recognizable Marilyn was. There was only a certain degree to which he could present his view of her while still reaching an audience that she, as a commodity, reached. And yet he worked within that limitation to a startling degree.
The things that Warhol pioneered we know have had tremendous bearing upon popular culture and therefore comics, but even the methods which he used to produce art are still part of the handmade mass-production I see at indie shows from silk-screening to stamping and sharing coloring in work with other artists. We reproduce art, to a certain degree, en masse, while preserving some of the handmade elements that prevented his own work from feeling as sterile as the marketplace he emulated and commented on.
But this also has bearing on mainstream comics and established properties. How can the image of a mega star like Marilyn Monroe be rendered personal? Warhol even used a press photo as his basis. And yet through sheer personal vision and will he rendered her image personal to him while still being owned by all her admirers. And it wasn't his goal to take that ownership away from them but to enhance it. In the same way, an artist or writer working today might create their Tony Stark or Batman. We talk a lot about the constraint of licensed properties, the heavy-handedness and fear that corporations might display when making adjustments to flagship characters who earn them a lot of their upkeep, particularly in merchandise and filmmaking.
We talk less about the devotion those characters evoke in fans and comic superstars and why they continue to draw our attention. We keep hoping for another artist or writer to get it right in our book, to make those characters feel like the ones that belong to us again, and sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. But that doesn't mean that for another group of fans, they didn't get exactly what they were hoping for in their very personal commodity. Fandom is like that. It strikes a fine balance. The image has to be recognizable, but it also has to say or suggest something new that brings out innate qualities we recognize as true to that icon. Andy Warhol didn't invent Marilyn Monroe, though in the time that's passed since then, he's certainly influenced her legacy. He'd be more likely to say that she had invented him, in that stardom and his response to it shaped him.
What's the final word on comics? Just because you see what look like precise lines reproducing images that you think you've seen every day for 20 years, that doesn't mean it wasn't a personal statement from the artist. Just because you see what looks like a radical transformation of an icon you care about into what seems like an impersonal repetition of an overly commodified subject, that doesn't mean that a comic creator isn't trying to reach you as well. The odds are they are trying to tell you what those icons mean to them, and it may be a pretty profound message they are trying to convey if you're willing to listen. The fact something can be both universal and incredibly personal to each of us may be one of the strongest statements popular culture can make.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter.
This particular Andy Warhol Exhibit at MoMA continues until October 18th 2015.