Warhol: the Flatness of Fame

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THANK YOU all for being here this brisk March afternoon. I’d like to thank the GRAM for the invitation to speak in conjunction with such a wonderful exhibition, and especially Jean Boot for all of her diligent coordination on my behalf. (There are 3 parts to my presentation. First, a virtual tutorial on the process of screen-printing; secondly, a discussion of the formal and conceptual potential inherent to printmaking, and the way in which Warhol expertly exploited that potential. Finally, I will conclude with an actual demonstration of screen-printing in the Museum’s basement studio.) In coming weeks, you’ll have an opportunity to hear much more about the cultural-historical context for Andy Warhol’s work from two exceptional area scholars, beginning next Friday evening with a lecture by my colleague at GV, Dr. Kirsten Strom, and on _______ Susan Eberle of Kendall College of Art & Design. As Jean indicated in her introduction, I teach drawing and printmaking at GVSU. In other words, I’m approaching Warhol’s work very much as a studio artist. As a printmaker in particular, I’m predisposed to note the large degree (great extent?) to which the innate characteristics of the medium – in this case screen-printing - enable and inform the meaning of Warhol’s work. At the outset of each printmaking course I teach at Grand Valley, I provide students a brief overview of the social history of the print; I divulge its rich heritage in the service of dispensing and preserving our (collected cultural discourse, from…) verbal and pictorial languages, knowledge and history, cultural discourse, from ancient scripture to textile design to political critique. In addition I cite the formal qualities specific to the print – multiplicity, mutability, and its recombinant capabilities. I open with this background as a means of framing the work students will produce in the course. I’d like to provide a similar overview here, as a means of framing the work of Warhol, which is so richly informed by the native characteristics of his processes. As the expression goes: the medium is the message; form and content are inseparable. First I offer a brief tutorial on the process of screen-print, in the hopes of providing a bit of context and a richer appreciation for the images/discussion to follow. (“With silk-screening, you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across so that the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue.”) The Imagery Warhol screen-printed images onto canvas in the early 1960s, and he began simultaneously to translate this technique to printing on paper. His subjects related directly to his paintings of the same period: James Cagney, the Race Riots, and Ambulance Disasters. These works on paper were printed in monochromatic tones and screened in a method that retained the graininess and immediacy of the mass media images on which they were based. Warhol considered these works to be unique drawings. Changes in the ink saturation and/or in the composition during the printing process created variations in each work. Screen-printing was ideally suited to Warhol in two distinct ways: First - technically, it allows him to harvest images from a vast bounty of sources. Secondly - he fittingly adapted a “low culture”, commercial process for the production of images chronicling life in celebrity-crazed, consumer-driven, Post-War America. One of the well-known strategies of Pop Artists - Warhol and Lichtenstein, among them - was their appropriation of the visual characteristics of mechanical reproduction (which you can see clearly here in Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots pattern. Warhol went further than borrowing the

language, employing the means of commercial printing itself. As of the 1930s, screen-printing was a widely-practiced process for the printing of posters, t-shirts, and other graphics in the US. In other words, Warhol chose this medium for its associations with the culture of...
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