Filling the usually sunny and open main gallery of the Arts Club of Chicago is a continuous frieze of paintings. Hung edge-to-edge, and rising from the floor to above the heads of most viewers, this endless line of paintings results in the space becoming quite claustrophobic and imposing. Walls have been built to seamlessly cover the windows and close one of the entrances. This combined with the subdued artificial lighting, results in a tomblike atmosphere.
In each painting, a repeated halftone abstract image is screen-printed in black, shifting between positive and negative, over differently colored grounds that range from the neon of highlighter markers to gaudy pastels, silver, white and brown. In a single exception the image is screened in silver, rather than black, over teal.
There doesn’t seem to be a particular system to the arrangement of the panels. At certain points there will be several red, for example, followed by a white, another red, a peach and then a yellow. The application of paint also varies; all the paintings with a deep purple ground are smeared in broad strokes, the translucent paint showing the dramatic traces of the instrument used to apply it. Others have a more opaque ground, the painterly application leaving ridges and grooves that disrupt the second step of screen-printing the image.
These canvases are units that make up one painting. Individually they are quite attractive. Captivating even. It is quite suitable, however, that the most powerful effect they produce is best perceived when viewed from a distance. Seeing the various repetitions and deviations occurring simultaneously—several canvases sporting the “positive” image, the shadows read as black foreground on a color background, then switching over to one or two panels with the “negative” image, where the shadows are color on a black background.
The grounds themselves—stopping and starting, repeating and interrupting each other in their own random system—draw you in. You walk closer to investigate, only to have the experience disappear into some brushstrokes and the halftone dot pattern. It’s very much like walking through a dense fog at night; you can only perceive it from a distance, but as you near it, it dissipates. You turn around only to see the patch of fog is behind you. It’s apropos then that the image is a photograph of shadows. And perhaps it is all too appropriate that the maker of this installation made of repeated units, depicting an image of nothing, is none other than Andy Warhol.
The psychological effect cannot be overstated, however. Not just that you are immersed in an all-encompassing gesamtkunstwerk, but the subject matter and its execution exerts a force upon the viewer. The dark shadows, with their sharp points and fuzzy edges suggest threat, and seeing a row of them on a bright red ground makes me think of nothing but the mindset of a killer in a film noir. True to Warhol they evoke a mixture of sexiness and death, but in a way wholly different than work he is most known for. And really unlike any other of his works I’ve ever seen.
It’s worth pointing out that in addition to soup cans and celebrities Warhol tackled images of deaths, disasters, and race riots. And so even as this work fits into a broader practice, it is worth distinguishing it. The image/s in Shadows (1978-79) are of no distinguishable thing. They are for all intents and purposes abstract, which is what he set out to do when making the piece (as described by studio assistant Ronnie Cutrone, quoted in the press release). Seeing this exercise in repetition and variation I can’t help but think of it as somehow an analog to minimalist and conceptualist system art. It relates perhaps most closely to the systems of Sol LeWitt, whose wall drawings and open cubes build variation into regularity. There are definite corollaries; maybe this is Warhol offering his alternative to minimalism, where you can still have playfulness, imagery and color while dealing with abstract systems.
There is a tendency to take Warhol as the genius of disingenuousness, the calculating pioneer of low culture, commercialism and materialism as art. But Shadows reveals much more. In fact, when viewing the piece, one’s mind could not be further from those kinds of things. It is precisely because they are images of nothing, rather than images of something—people, goods or foodstuffs—that Shadows allows us to contemplate a quote from Warhol like, “Isn't life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?” with a sense of weight rather than regard it as clever repartee.
(Image: Andy Warhol, Shadows, 1978-79. Dia Art Foundation. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Photo: Bill Jacobson)
The experience evoked by Shadows is the kind where it is solely about the artwork and the viewer. The persona of “Andy” is nowhere to be found. You as viewer are in an incredibly “now” moment. Excised from the everyday, removed from the normal passage of time, it’s the classic experience of the white cube on a good day. It’s the type of encounter usually attributed to being in a room full of Mark Rothko paintings, or as Michael Fried described it, a state of “grace.”
Shadows problematizes the predominant characterization of Warhol as the ironic iconic autistic postmodern petty bourgeois. I find it particularly delicious then, that in an art world so focused on the market, youth and immediacy, it is the progenitor of those attitudes who evokes an experience so counter to them, and so rare, while seeming not only incredibly contemporary and fresh but more relevant and more “edgy” than most artists working today.
-Erik Wenzel, ArtSlant Staff Writer