William Feaver

Trademarking the ordinary

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Andy Warhol ‘Giant’ Size

conceived by Phaidon editors

Phaidon, pp. 624, £

Lecterns have been installed in some bookshops enabling customers to flip through the 625 tabloid-format pages of what must be the largest volume ever devoted to a single modern artist. Andy Warhol ‘Giant’ Size is Warhol the Lot, a bulk buy, a gross amplitude of Warhol the Simple, Warhol the Smart and Warhol the Resourceful Blank capitalising on paradox and incorrigibility.

Weightlifters could try, I suppose, for a Buy One Get One Free deal: two vols screwed to a plank, ideal for workout purposes. Alternatively, imagine Buster Keaton doggedly lugging his copy down Charing Cross Road and dumping it — perfect timing — in front of a runaway bendy bus. Ordinary purchasers, however, will need wheels.

Enough of sizeist whimsy. As the artist himself said of the Great Wall of China, ‘When we got to the Great Wall it actually was really great. I’d been putting it down but then it was staggering.’ From birth certificate to gravestone, this blockbuster of a pictorial biography is sheer visual pageantry.

That said, the immediate reaction is to wonder at so staggering an amount of print being devoted to the inflationary turnover of Warhol’s two or perhaps three big ideas. To start with, as a graphic artist, he drew shoes and became surprisingly well known for his Steinberg cartoon-type drawing of latest high heels. Emboldened by the idea of trademarking the ordinary and going all out to twit the big cheeses of Abstract Expressionism, he laid down his pen and took to using news- paper pages and packaging, pin-ups and food labels as the stuff of art. Then, thinking laterally from shop window display to gallery, he multiplied his motifs and publicised and developed them into his very own brand. That was the second idea. The third idea was all over the place: being around, being wherever it was at and knowing how to exploit and proliferate.

Silkscreen printing gave him licence to print money. All you needed was a stencilled image (Liz Taylor in Cleopatra make-up; some poor dumb lynched Strange Fruit), squeegees for the ink or paint and assistants to help out when the process got too boring even for him. Interpretation he could leave to others, such as Kenneth Goldsmith, one of several suppliers of filler text for this book. Goldsmith writes, ‘By screening dollar signs on canvas he predicted the infatuation that the culture would have with money in the coming decade.’

Warhol himself was careful never to be knowingly pretentious. ‘I’m not more intelligent than I appear,’ he observed. And although he was as big a fan of celebrities (himself included) as anyone, he recognised that the virtue of his brand was its breadth. His work promoted the amiable conceit that there’s no such person as a nonentity. The Shah of Iran, Joan Collins, Mao, Gerald Ford, Keaton (Diane, not Buster), Princess Di and the dozen or so shadowy has-beens in Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ were equals under the tracing paper and the squeegee blade.

At page 409 (full page from the New York Daily News 4 June 1968: ‘Actress Shoots Andy Warhol’) the law of diminishing returns kicks in. ‘Andy Sweetie,’ his dealer wrote, ‘America needs you.’ Get-well cards spatter the recovery pages, but Warhol was never the same again. Or rather, he was too much the same. With 200 pages of the book still to go, he went on and on repeating and diluting and stuffing cardboard boxes with whatever would have otherwise gone into the waste- paper basket. Page 412 features his hospital bill following the shooting. It came to $3,476.62 of which the ambulance was $20, oxygen $84, anaesthesia $100.

Warhol went on to die in 1978 aged 58, after an operation to remove his gall bladder. ‘I don’t want to leave any leftovers. And I don’t want to be a leftover,’ he had said. The contents of his house on East 66th Street alone fetched $25 million, cookie jars included. As for the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc, it’s one of the biggest cookie jars in the business.