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A section of Andy Warhol’s Self Portrait No. 9

Throughout his career, Warhol explored three registers of the image that still have this phantasmic power over us and, sacrilegiously perhaps, sought to link their commonality. They are religious images, pornographic images and advertising images. In each, the image attempts to make us believe, to see or desire something that is not there, and ultimately to make us act in some way.

Looking at Warhol’s oeuvre, it is remarkable how often the power of the image to produce the effect of reality, or the possibility of the image to be real, is played on. Throughout all of his silkscreens, photographs, films and even the paintings he made by urinating on sensitised canvas, he aimed at an image that miraculously brought itself about without human, or at least artistic, intervention. Theologians call this special type of image acheiropoietos – literally, not made by hand – and the great example of it was the religious relic Veronica’s veil, on which the image of Christ’s face was miraculously imprinted after it was used to wipe away his sweat while he was carrying the cross towards Calvary.

In his films, too, Warhol sought to capture actions that could not be faked, that actually took place: eating, crying, sleeping, shooting up drugs, all the way to the notorious film Blow Job, in which we stare up-close at the face of a man while he is being fellated, and whose tics and grimaces are meant to be as authentic as the orgasm that pornography shows as proof of its reality.
For a long time Warhol was seen as the ultimate postmodern artist, systematically undermining the conditions for art: talent, inspiration, taste, originality, the artist’s signature, the difference between artistic and other kinds of objects.

In fact, we can see him leading us not towards the end of art but back towards its beginning: that moment when art was not yet aestheticised, historicised, put into a museum. It was when art as we know it did not yet exist and the artist was pledged to religious rather than aesthetic values.

Rex Butler
The Australian