Andy Warhol Pre-Pop
by Gary Comenas
Andy Warhol's Wild Raspberries exhibition in 1959 was the last show at the Bodley of his pre-Pop work. In 1960, his whimsical drawings of shoes, cherubs and butterflies were superseded by large canvases featuring comic strip characters, reproductions of newspaper advertisements.and representations of branded products such as Coca Cola. It was not the first time that Warhol had reproduced imagery from newspapers in his work. In approximately 1956, for example, he had drawn classified personal ads for Strictly Personal and the front page of a newspaper he called The Princeton Leader. But his comic strip imagery was completely new. Why did Andy Warhol suddenly start painting large canvases of comic strip characters and how did he get from comic strips to soup cans?
1960: SUPERMAN, POPEYE, DICK TRACY
Warhol had read and collected comic books as a child growing up in the immigrant slums of Pittsburgh. Stricken with the illness, Chorea, twice during his childhood - once in the spring of 1937 when he was eight and again the following spring - he spent approximately two months being ill at home, entertaining himself with paper cut out dolls, his Charlie McCarthy puppet and his comic books. He also had a toy projector which was capable of projecting comic strip films.
John Warhola [Andy Warhol's brother]:
"When Andy was about eight he wanted a movie projector. My dad couldn't afford to buy it so my mother would do some housework one or two days a week. I remember she got a dollar a day, and this projector was around ten dollars, so she saved the money up and got it for Andy. He'd buy a film of Mickey Mouse or something like that and show it on the wall over and over again. When a relative would give him a quarter he'd save it and then buy another film. That's where some of it started - he really wanted to do some work with the camera. When he was about nine years old we had a Kodak Brownie camera... Andy would take pictures of just about anything..."1
Elaine Finsilver, one of Warhol's roommates when he lived at 103rd Street, had a "vague recollection" of Warhol reading comics when he lived at that address.2 Gerard Malanga, Warhol's art assistant in the 1960s, later recalled that "Andy always idolized Walt Disney" and that "he wanted to be like Walt Disney."3 However, Warhol was probably hoping to emulate Disney's fame rather than his imagery. Although he would do a Mickey Mouse for his "Myths" series in 1981, the cartoon characters he painted in 1960 and 1961 did not include any Disney characters. The comic strip characters he borrowed from found imagery for his 1960 canvases included Superman, Popeye and Dick Tracy. In 1961 he also painted Batman, Nancy and The Little King.
The characters he chose may have had homosexual or phallic connotations. "Nancy" was derogatory slang for a gay person in addition to being a comic strip. Both Superman and Popeye were weaklings (i.e."nancies") who could transform themselves into butch heroes when the need arose. Warhol would later shoot footage for a film called Superboy, although the footage has since been lost. The phallic nature of Dick Tracy may be apparent from his first name which is slang for penis. In regard to the character of The Little King, the art theorist, William S. Wilson, would later comment, "Surely the image of The Little King is phallic, with a man governed by his little king, his penis, which as a 'thing' that rules and overrules good sense, is not only elastic in itself, but can change between detumescent and tumescent, which can be a comic reversal when an erection is an accident, or a happy accident, but a tragic reversal when erection either can't occur (impotence) or can't be stopped (priapism)."4 Interestingly, like Warhol, the Little King did not speak, letting other characters speak for him - similar to Warhol's own practice of encouraging members of his entourage to answer questions for him during press interviews.
When Warhol was interviewed in September 1986 by museum curator, Donna De Salvo, she noted that the artist "directly credited Larry Rivers with influencing early paintings such as the 1960 Dick Tracy."5 However, Warhol's own comments in Popism, filtered through co-author Pat Hackett, indicate that the artist may have been attracted to Rivers' "pop" lifestyle as much as by his paintings. In Popism, Warhol is quoted as saying that "Larry's painting style was unique - it wasn't Abstract Expressionist and it wasn't Pop, it fell into the period in between. But his personality was very Pop."6
Larry Rivers (ca. 1948)
in his Second Avenue studio in New York
Larry Rivers was an early art star. His 1953 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, generated considerable controversy in the New York art world. So did his lifestyle. He was a bisexual, drug taking, jazz saxophonist who counted both his art dealer, John Bernard Myers and the poet, Frank O' Hara, among his male lovers.7 In 1957 he appeared on one of America's most popular television quiz shows, The 64,000 Challenge, and won. The show guaranteed him more than fifteen minutes of fame, particularly when it was later investigated for being rigged.
Rivers, born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg on August 17, 1923 in the Bronx, took up painting in 1945 while playing sax in the Johnny Morris Big Band at the Cold Water Casino in Maine. The pianist in the band, Jack, had shown Rivers a reproduction of a painting in the Pocket Book of Modern Art featuring a bass fiddle, explaining "That's cubism man. It's by a French painter called Georges Braque." When Jack's wife, a struggling artist named Jane, joined them in Maine she spent the afternoons painting while Larry looked on. "Why don't you try it man?" Jack suggested, "I think you'll dig it." Larry tried painting and Jack was right. He did dig it. He also dug Jack's wife. Larry and Jane Freilicher would later become lovers for a brief period of time.8
Larry continued to paint after returning to New York from Maine and during 1947-8, studied under Hans Hofmann in both New York and Provincetown. Although Rivers had difficulty understanding Hofmann's theories of visual "push and pull" he was attracted to the teacher's charisma, later saying that Hoffmann"had a way of making art seem glamorous and meaningful..."9
Larry's first exhibition in New York was at the Jane Street Gallery in late 1949 after it had moved uptown to the same building that would also house the Tibor de Nagy gallery. The Jane Street Gallery was the first of several co-operative galleries that were run by its artist members. They included the Tanager Gallery (founded in 1952), the Hansa (founded in 1952), the James (1954), the Camino (1956), the March and the Brata (both founded in 1957) and the Phoenix and Area (both founded in 1958). The Reuben gallery, which opened in 1959, was privately owned but operated like a co-operative.10 Warhol tried to show at the Tanager in 1956, but his work was rejected even though his ex-roommate Philip Pearlstein belonged to the gallery. According to Pearlstein, Warhol "submitted a group of boys kissing boys which the other members of the gallery hated and refused to show."11
"I'd been involved with a gallery so he [Warhol] gave me this portfolio of drawings of boys kissing boys with their tongues in each other. And I knew this was a disaster for this group because all our man, male members were macho." 11b
JOHN BERNARD MYERS
Larry Rivers had better luck at Jane Street. Reviewing his first show for Nation magazine, art critic Clement Greenberg called him an "amazing beginner" and "a better composer of pictures than was Bonnard himself in many instances."12 John Bernard Myers, the co-director of the Tibor de Nagy gallery that would open in the same building the following year, also saw the exhibit. Two years later he became River's art dealer and, briefly, his lover. Rivers would later comment about their relationship, "With John Myers, fellatio was okay, but I always felt I was doing him a bigger favour than I was doing myself."13
Myers became Rivers dealer. His first solo show at the Tibor de Nagy was in 1951. Myers thought that one of the reasons for Rivers' success was his flexibility regarding the prices of his works.
John Bernard Myers (1981):
"Larry has remained a perennial favourite. One of the reasons was that he demonstrated an inborn canniness about pricing. 'Keep the prices down,' he would say. 'If necessary sell for pennies. It is better to move work than let it gather dust.' From the beginning the pictures did indeed move into the world. One day a very young designer... Andy Warhol came in and saw a drawing he liked. 'I can pay twenty-five dollars for it,' he said. I telephoned Larry to ask what to do. 'Sell it,' he said. When I told Warhol that Larry agreed, he was delighted. 'Here's my first five dollars. I'll pay five a month for the next four months."14
WASHINGTON CROSSING THE DELAWARE
It was while he was with the Tibor de Nagy gallery that Rivers painted his controversial Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1953 - a seven by nine foot canvas that some critics interpreted as a parody of the famous painting of the same name by Emanuel Leutze that hung in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rivers denied that it was an attempt at irony, later saying that he had only seen the Leutze painting "once or twice and had never viewed it at any length or with any passion. It was a joke I never laughed at."15
Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 for $2,500.16 On seeing the painting at the museum, the poet Frank O'Hara, whose poetry had been published by the Tibor de Nagy gallery, was inspired to write an ode about the painting titled On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art. O' Hara was working at the Museum as an assistant curator when they bought the painting. He had first met Larry in 1950 after Rivers returned from an 8 month sojourn in Paris. They met at a party that John Ashberry gave when O'Hara arrived in New York after graduating from Harvard. They became lovers. Larry would later write about their relationship, "Sex with Frank... was not very thrilling.... Because Frank and John Myers found me sexually attractive, I concluded that I was some kind of physical catch. There were a few trios and foursomes that included men, but only sex with Frank, and earlier John, ever went past one night."17
THE $64,000 CHALLENGE
In 1957, two years after they purchased "Washington" the Museum of Modern Art was contacted by the Revlon cosmetics company who were looking for artists who could be contestants for the television quiz show they sponsored - The 64,000 Challenge. The museum's suggestions included Franz Kline, Philip Guston and Larry Rivers. Rivers accepted the challenge and appeared on the television program opposite a jockey who was, apparently, a self-made expert on modern art. After correctly answering the first question ("who was the Spanish painter whose name begins with P who painted Guernica"), Rivers continued as a contestant all the way to the $64,000 question. O'Hara, who was still working at MOMA at the time, got Rivers permission to study at the MOMA library. The librarian knew Rivers' work and told him that the panel that thought up the questions for the television show used the library and he was the one who retrieved the books they requested. The panel had left some notes at the library and he showed them to Rivers. When Rivers next appeared on The 64,000 Challenge he was well prepared. When the final question was asked, which was how Pierre Bonnard signed his prints, both he and the jockey answered correctly. They split the $64,000. A controversy ensued however as a result of an investigation into another game show, Twenty One, where it was found that the winner had been fed the answers. The District Attorney broadened his investigation to The 64,000 Challenge and it was discovered that the jockey who shared the prize with Rivers knew little about art and had been fed the answers. Rivers was called to appear in court but joked his way through his testimony, so enamouring himself to the jury that afterwards they asked for his autograph and the date of his next exhibit. Rivers escaped further investigation and after his jury appearance, found out that the assistant District Attorney investigating the case was engaged to his cousin.18
As a result of his television appearance, Rivers became widely known among the general public. The publicity garnered from the quiz show would have appealed to the publicity hungry Warhol. Stylistically, Warhol's comic strip characters were similar to Rivers' works. Both artists were doing figurative works that retained the smears and drips of abstract expressionism. Both were, by 1960, using found imagery as sources for their subjects. Rivers' found imagery ranged from classical paintings such as Washington Crossing the Delaware to more mundane images like the Cedar Bar menu and French currency. Rivers was not, however, using comic strip imagery in his paintings. But other artists were...
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