Andy Warhol — still, 27 years after his death, the reigning genius of the zeitgeist — perfected the art of insult as homage — or homage as insult, whichever you please. This work, which hangs in the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, is a dramatic example.
It’s called “Oxidation Painting,” and it’s from a series Warhol made in the late 1970s colloquially referred to as the “Piss Paintings.” Basically, Warhol invited friends and acquaintances to urinate on canvases he had prepared with metallic and acrylic paints. The uric acid in the splashing urine reacted with the copper in the painted grounds, forming deposits of mineral salts that evolved at different rates, sometimes turning green or blue, sometimes black.
You may take the results as an insult to art, a travesty of the ideal of artistic originality, perhaps even a personal insult to your intelligence. Or you could call it an homage to the wonders of chemistry, to the freedom of art, to the comical, erotic, and performative possibilities of urination.
I myself see it as a continuation of Warhol’s fascination with the legend and legacy of Jackson Pollock. That fascination manifested itself in earlier Warhol works, including his images of screen printed newspaper photographs of car wrecks from his “Death and Disaster” series. Pollock, as everyone knows, died in a car crash.
Warhol (1928-87) and his Pop art colleagues were bent on overturning both the rhetoric and the visual style of Pollock and his abstract expressionist colleagues. They preferred preexisting imagery to abstract splatters, irony to sincere self-expression.
But of course, a strong reaction against something usually includes a tacit compliment, perhaps even a teeny expression of envy. When Robert Rauschenberg, a bridging figure between Abstract Expressionism and Pop, asked Willem de Kooning (Pollock’s great Abstract Expressionist friend and rival) if he could have one of de Kooning’s drawings in order to erase it, de Kooning agreed only because he grasped this dynamic.
Warhol, struggling with a sense of belatedness, became fascinated by the crash that killed Pollock: What if that wreck — the original celebrity car crash — marked the end of something, the end of certain possibilities in art? Possibilities that you wouldn’t necessarily want to revive, but which must have felt amazing at the time?
The whole notion of becoming insanely famous for pouring paint onto canvas must have taken Warhol’s breath away. “Wow,” he surely thought, his small eyes doing that deadpan little spasm, like the flicker of a film projection changing reels.
Pollock was well known, of course, for his problems with alcohol, and a related penchant for outdoor (or at least inappropriate) pissing. As a child, he indulged in pissing competitions with his brother Sande — perhaps in imitation of their father, whose habit of pissing from a high rock and making patterns on the stone below, was for Pollock “an archetype of masculine poetry,” according to his biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.
Pollock famously urinated in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace at a party celebrating the installation of the abstract mural he painted for her in 1943. And he was known to urinate flamboyantly in the snow as he drunkenly stumbled around downtown Manhattan, “spraying the stream from side to side,” according to one friend, “and bellowing, ‘I can piss on the whole world!’ ”
These accounts, which have understandably been linked in all sorts of ways, both pejorative and celebratory, with Pollock’s so-called drip paintings, clearly fascinated Warhol.
Pollock’s breakthrough style, no matter what you think of it, had an immeasurable impact on the art of the subsequent half century. Warhol both envied and admired Pollock’s impact — and he was fascinated, I think, by the way in which that impact could seem out of proportion to the nature of the achievement, and certainly to the pathos of the man himself. (That lack of proportion, a function of fame and art’s relation to a new model of commerce, was in many ways Warhol’s great subject).
Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings,” then, are a fascinating and, if you ask me, an unexpectedly beautiful expression of what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence: a brilliantly laconic instance of what the English call “taking the piss,” and at the same time a glowing, even gushing tribute.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.