The memento mori has a long history in art. For hundreds of years, artists have taken it upon themselves to remind people that no matter who you are in this life, whether you have youth, beauty or power, you will still die. It comes to us all.
Although respected as the progenitor of ‘pop art’ Andy Warhol is rarely considered a profound or even serious artist. He produced his work in The Factory, in a slightly callous mode of mass production.
He concerned himself largely with the iconography of celebrity, such as the famous silkscreen prints of snake hipped singer Elvis Presley and star of the silver screen Marilyn Monroe. These images have an apparent vacuity that if you were to confront Warhol about he would have typically answered with a spaced out ‘Gee, I guess’.
But Warhol cultivated this vacancy, and it was his answer to contemporary culture. His persona ran so deep that it was hard to see under the surface. But a deeper, darker, and more reflective Warhol is visible in his bleakest work of all, Electric Chair (1964). Four years after this, Andy Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas. This work pre-empted his brush with mortality, which perhaps inspired the repeated revisits to the motif.
The electric chair was used by Warhol partly to question the death penalty, which to many seemed a barbaric and unkindly final form of punishment with no room for repentance or positive change. It simply took a living person and annihilated them in the most coldly efficient way possible. The spectacle of the electric chair is a modern gladiator show where people line up to watch a death that in this instance is inescapable.
This element of performance would have fascinated Warhol, as would the morbidity. It is the thesis of this brief article that the image served a further function, acting in the aforementioned role as a memento mori, a timely reminder of death in a hedonistic age. Even the celebrities who live on through his iconic imagery are condemned to a similar fate, and many of them too soon.
Warhol’s businesslike approach to art shows a nihilistic lack of idealism with regard to art. It appears simply a vehicle to make money and gain notoriety. Whether this is the whole story it is hard to know, Warhol was a complex character. But for a Roman Catholic, he seemed to value surface over substance, the superficial over the profound, and the physical over the ineffable. He once stated famously that he wanted to be plastic. Warhol’s oxidised copper ‘piss-paintings’ added further disrespect to a traditionally valued endeavour.
Furthermore, his filmic work was often deliberately mundane and in its very banality seemed to celebrate absurdity and existential emptiness. His involvement in the Velvet Underground’s sex and sin laden first album is additional evidence for a dark side. The cover may be a humorously sexualised peelback banana with a pink inside, but the contents of the record are bleaker and more disturbing accounts of drug use, S&M and violence. It was a challenging record at the time, but Warhol was always at the razor’s edge.
Warhol was a rare creature in the art world, a character much more profound that he made out, and much more intelligent than he would have you believe. This reversal of the generic model of artistry in which the artist tends to exaggerate their own profundity for credibility lends him the honour of having more credibility, intrigue and pathos than any other artist. He was not just a visual pop star, and history will prove it so.
Guest blogger: Art enthusiast Geoff writes for electricityprices.org.uk where you can compare the cheapest energy rates