MY DAILY PIC: This, of course, is a pair of Andy Warhol’s “Piss” paintings, from 1978 – now euphemistically referred to as “Oxidations”, because their copper surfaces got oxidized by the urine that studio visitors peed onto them. They and others like them are on view at Skarstedt’s grand new space in Chelsea in New York. This weekend in Pittsburgh, the Andy Warhol Museum celebrates its 20th anniversary by unveiling a top-to-bottom rehang, full of a vast range of Warholian art. (Read my full account in this weekend’s New York Times.) But, for now at least, there’s nothing from this series in it. This is a shame, if only because, rather than being a simple one-liner conceit, the “Piss” series actually has notable depths. For instance:
– As with so many Warhols, these pictures put their own authorship in doubt. Since these paintings are clearly about the self-expression of the pee-ers involved in them (“expression” used here in the fluid-dynamic sense), are those pee-ers in fact the proper authors of the works, the way Jackson Pollock is the author of his own streams of … paint? Or are the urinators merely Warhol’s assistants, his medium or his tools (as it were)? Renoir said he painted with his prick, and Pollock and co. were clearly following his example. Warhol, as a gay man trumping their macho posture, shows himself painting with other men’s dicks.
– Or, rather than functioning as art supplies, maybe Warhol’s pee-ers are his portrait sitters. (Or portrait “squatters”, if, as is sometimes claimed – and as often denied – there were women among them). The “Oxidations” certainly capture these figures’ innermost selves. So should these paintings be classed among Warhol’s abstractions, as they often are, or among his portraits? Warhol, as usual, refuses such categories.
– If we do think of the “Piss” paintings as abstractions, should we imagine that they are reactions to the Abstract Expressionism that dominated Warhol’s youth? That they are tachisme, distilled? That’s the standard line about them, but I’m tempted to think that Warhol had left that battle behind; the fight worth fighting, in the 1970s, was with the rear-guard of Greenbergian abstraction, which was then going much stronger than most people now remember. Jules Olitski and Larry Poons were the obvious examples of paint-splashers at that moment, and Warhol may have been taking the piss out of them. Among conceptual painters of the late ’70s, the main anti-Greenbergian move was to concentrate on arbitrary process and chance-based gambits. What could be more process-y and aleatory than Warhol’s “Piss” paintings?
– Or maybe these paintings actually look even further forward than that, to a coming (sorry) era when male excretions were considered dangerous stuff. In precisely the years that AIDS was first spreading, Warhol’s “Oxidations” were showing that what comes out of a man’s penis is strong enough to etch metal.
– Maybe the most fertile (sorry) way of reading these paintings – especially when shown in larger groupings – is to imagine the making they imply: A bunch of guys hanging around together, pissoire-style, and letting it all hang out. Warhol’s studio becomes a locker room, and so does the posh gallery the pictures end up being shown in; the “Oxidations” come to be about gay sociability and its move, over the course of Warhol’s life, from the closet (the studio) out into the mainstream (the gallery). Of course, we don’t imagine Warhol having spent much time in high-school gym class; we do imagine him wishing he could have been there, as a fly on the wall. According to this reading, Warhol’s “Piss” paintings need to be classed with his naked “Torsos”.
(Images courtesy Skarstedt, New York, © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)
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