Sunday, 4 May 2008

A horrible essay about the sublime in art. Not recommended reading!

Green Coca-Cola Bottles (1962)
Photo on silk screen

The creator of Pop Art, Andy Warhol is a legend. Continuously praised half a Century after his artistic break through. His background in advertisement turned into a path to the spheres of High Art. By bringing symbols, the stylistic tools and psychology from advertisement he revolutionised the meaning and content of art. The story of man is reflected through the history of art and both closely connected to religion. ‘Sublime,’ is a keyword for both art movements and religions, but not usually used by critics about Andy Warhol works. The popular definitions of sublime aesthetically, has its roots from the 1650’s with the Neo-Classicists and Pierre Boileau. The philosopher Kant described sublime in the 18th Century as ‘which is great beyond all comparison.’1 while the Romantics included the importance of the subjective experience of powerful emotions. Samuel Taylor Coleridge based his definition on a mix between Kant, and the theologian, poet and philosopher Gottfried von Herder; “The sublime is a transcendent experience where the individual feels an absorption into infinity.”2 This describes sublime as a feeling of unity with what can be understood as the divine. I will use the spiritual understanding of the word as a point of departure as I look into Andy Warhol and his art.


Most societies have a close connection between religion and state, art and places of worship. Religious leaders often take monopoly of thoughts and feelings for what is appropriate for its members. They have been known historically to promote their views and convey an impact of greatness through sublime art and architecture. Religion has for many been the main source from where to experience the sublime, and when one does have an experience of the sublime, it get related to ones belief system. In Asian Zen Buddhism the universe is considered holistic. We all are one in spirit, and God permeates everything. A Zen mind is described as a “no-mind” state or a wordless state of bliss. Zen is famous for their calligraphy works, and many monks practice calligraphy as a way of meditating in action, which is what Zen literarily means. That is to bring consciousness into the doings of everyday life. When the Zen masters paint they may use specific symbols like bamboo, pine, mountains and water to express their specific messages. A single circle can be considered as sublime as the most spectacular scenery. However, it is the level of consciousness reflected within the picture that gives the work its quality. The artist has to connect to the Zen within when creating. In that way the calligraphy transmute Zen to the spectator who will experience a heighten awareness, and again spread Zen. As this is rather abstract and subjective it is hard to measure, just like dealing with any spiritual matter. One can look at the popularity of the work itself, but may just be a self assuring process as the people belonging to Zen already believes in what they get represented. Still, this applies to all societies, and might be part of Andy Warhol’s initial success with the Coke Bottle and the Campbell Soup Can. In the modern world of technology God is conquered by products assuring our survival. The symbols of survival are no longer spiritual, and will differ according to what culture they operate in. By making everyday object valuable through art, Warhol confirms the liability or truth of the American society he lives in. Maybe people were desperate for a new golden calf, and thereby its popularity?


ITO JAKUCHU (1716-1800)Giant Daruma hanging scroll, ink on paper65.5 x 31.5 cmGitter-Yelen Collection


The Russian Catholic church is famous for their icon paintings. The painting had to be performed by the highest ranked monks and the works were never signed, as the monk would be acting as the hand of God. Monks were believed to have the closest atonement to God and therefore be the most potent channel to reflect the divine grace. The icons would be hung in the churches, where the intention of the painting was to let the members of the church take part in the sublime. Andy Warhol made a lot of icons, and although he has the occasional religious one, they somehow seem sarcastic or ironic. In his usual manner, Warhol uses everyday heroes like J. F. Kennedy and Elvis to create modern icons. Mostly he used readymade materials like news paper photos, and reproduced them with his own settings and colours. In the “Athlete Series” (1977-79) he made 10 portraits of athletes chosen by Andy’s friend Richard Weisman. Weisman was intending to pull people interested in sports into the world of art. Andy did not seem to have had any specific interest in sport, and the icon pictures seem very blunt. His icons of Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, is full of radiance, and is probably his most famous icons. The radiance may also have come from the experimental colouring, which gives a psychedelic effect, or in the mix of both. People seem to believe that by hanging Marilyn on their wall, they too take part in her glory and attractiveness, and maybe there is something to it? Is the key to the sublime in Warhol’s work the characters and coloured he used? The photograph being the hand of God, and Andy Warhol adding his amazing sense of colour and composition?

Marilyn Monroe, (autumn 1962)
Silk screen prints


Saint Apollonia (1984) Screen print 35” x 23”


Andy Warhol left the technical work to his assistants, and like all other great master painters in history, this is the norm. His own hand mark is therefore rarely seen on the works assigned to him, and his level of consciousness will not reflect nor itself be responsible for the transmutation of sublime. During Warhol’s early artistic period he made works like the “Brillo Box,” (1964) that had nothing at all designed by him, except the process of copying the logo onto wood using silk screen ink. In representing ready made products, Warhol worked like the Russian monks as a channel for someone else’s genius. Andy Warhol claimed he only intended to make art from everyday objects and situations and ridiculed the sublime. He refused to join in when critics tried to praise him for his greatness, and persisted he was purely superficial. The New York School of Art is contemporary with Andy Warhol, but unlike him they sought to express the sublime. Just like the New Age religious movement offer spiritual practises across beliefs and cultures, the New York school reject the traditional subject matters and start to explore the nothingness, also know as void. One of the ways into the sublime void was the monochrome. Most artists had a go at a monochrome painting in the 60s, but few used it as a complementary to another work like Andy Warhol did in ‘the Mustard Riot Still,’ (1963). Warhol’s monochromes really do seem dead. They present no other meaning or depth to me other than a coloured surface. Even when he sold his monochromes in duets with other works, the buyer sometimes left the monochrome behind, uninterested in it. The sublime seemed not lie in the colour itself for Andy Warhol. The contemporary painter Mark Rothko is famous for paintings of spaces of colour, although using 3-4 colours, still he persist he is not interested in experimenting with colour and space for the sake of it. Rather he sought to express archetypical human emotions. His works are described as sublime by critics, and adored as reliquiae by the public. He persist the secret to the sublime lies in the intention while creating.

Mustard Race Riot (1963)
Acrylic, silk screen ink, graphite on canvas, two panels
113” x 82”


A work I believe would reflect a deeper aspect of Andy Warhol’s personality is ‘Querelle.’ It is a poster for a French movie set in a naval gay society, made by a German avant-garde film maker. Andy Warhol was gay, and he must have had some personal interests in doing the poster, also considering the rise of gay society and their political rights. The poster represents the portrait of two men relating sensually. Andy Warhol made three different coloured versions of it. One of them is in black and blue with drawn primary colours, and screen printed. It is very poetic and sensitive expression in the photo, and the print is an example of excellent composition. It does take me beyond the impression of beauty and admiration, and into the sublime. It is possible that his compassionate attitude towards the subject matter helps create a feeling of the sublime.

Querelle (1982)
30” x 40”


Both religious paintings and Andy Warhol’s art depict stories about everyday life. The religious ones could show situations of moral and emotional content used to guide people, and direct them to a wanted behaviour. In a way one can say they sell spiritual truths. Andy came from a background of making advertisements, trying to guide people into a wanted behaviour by buying the products, making them believe they wanted or needed what he had to sell. He was as any artist would be, fond of High Art. Although true to his interest in simple things by stating his everyday approach to subject matters, maybe he was unconsciously trying to express the sublime? The subject matter seems to be free of responsibility to tell whether the picture is sublime or not, and so Andy Warhol’s own shield towards the label seems useless. Knives, from 1981 has a wonderful composition, and a dramatic colours, pink and black. It is impossible to guess Andy Warhol’s feelings for knives, except that they may be phallic symbols. Regardless of the fact its knives, the picture has an touch of that undefinable quality which to me leans towards the sublime. It gives me that captivating meditative effect that contains no words.

Knives (1981-2)
Acrylic, silk screen, ink on canvas
20” x 16”

What can we then pin down as directly contributing to create a sublime expression in Warhol‘s art? The hands on mark making seems worthless. One must assume the Russian monks had a sincere interest in the divine, just like the Zen Masters would for their philosophy. Supported by Mark Rothko’s statement, an emotionally honest interest in the subject of the works may be a key to the sublime. What intentions did Andy Warhol have when he created his art? He had an exquisite sense of colour and composition. Clearly he was focused on making money, describing himself as an artist both of art and business. The biblical pictures he made contains a sense of irony. The Annunciation depict two hands meaning to touch, but their too far apart. Like it is meant to tell God is not relevant anymore. The Coke Bottle on the other hand seems direct and incredible honest. Except from that it is not much traces of feeling in his works. Andy showed off very laid back or detached attitude, but he must have been affected by the fight for gay rights. His compassion towards the subject matter might be showing as he created of his emotionally most powerful pictures, Querelle. Comparing Andy Warhol’s art to the monks of Zen and Russia, I assume sublime art is possible to create if one is deeply and sincerely interested in the subject matter, although it need not be directly depicted.

Stone, Jandy, “European Romanticism,” (accessed 26th April, 2008)
Lieberman, Fredric, “Zen Buddhism and relationship to elements of eastern and western art” (accessed 26th April, 2008)
Stupples, Peter, “The Reader as Single Sheets,” turned into a mess by Baby at home. Collection of single sheets, about 4 cm high.

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