Gilda Williams: Warhol and Monster-Making

In her essay for Gods and Monsters, “I, Monster: Gothic Metaphor in the Making and Unmaking of Andy Warhol”, Gilda Williams addresses how two of Warhol’s iconic image representations are similar to Gothic traditions:

Halberstam writes, ‘Skin becomes a kind of metonym for the human; and its colour, its pallor, its shape mean everything within a semiotic of monstrosity.’ One might here recall Richard Avedon’s 1969 portrait of Warhol taken a year after the shooting, in which the artist lifts his black leather jacket to reveal his marble-white, scarred torn beneath. On Halberstam’s terms, Warhol raises his outer animal ‘skin’ — which points towards the tough, urbane artist, coolly dressed in black — to reveal another, inner damaged being: the contrasting, unnaturally pale and fragile body beneath, sliced and stitched (like Frankenstein’s Creature), and exposing his true, vulnerable and no longer fully human, unearthly body.

I thought I was too small for Drexel Burnham (1986) is a little-known magazine advertisement for an investment bank featuring the world-famous artist in a double self-portrait. We see in the foreground the everyday ‘human’ Warhol — small, youthful, and unthreatening, poised shyly on the edge of a chair and able to speak the lingua franca of capitalism. On the back wall looms the immense, demonic 1986 self-portrait: behind its unassuming maker, the giant head stares out, stunned and toothless in a spiky wig. This self-construction — replicating a candid Warhol studio shot taken previously (Hickey et. al.:2006, 588) — operates as the modern-day rendering of a Gothic staple: the painted portrait supernaturally coming alive, emerging from the canvas. This stock horror trope has been repeated since Horace Walpole’s seminal Castle of Otranto (1764); this image rehearses in particular the narrative crux of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The scarred painted figure behind Warhol offers an on-canvas performance of the ‘monstrous’ Pop artist, betraying the allegedly damaged soul of the living Warhol who, like Dorian Gray, remains youthfully untarnished in ‘real life’ before us. In this advertisement, aimed at an audience potentially well outside the art world, we can see exploited a self-construction of the artist as his own double, the innocent version of a dark ‘real’ self — a central monster-making literary technique here put to work in Warhol’s mainstream self-imaging.

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