What sort of event was Warhol?

If you happen to subscribe to the New Yorker, you’re probably aware that the most recent issue features a must-read piece by Louis Menand—one of the magazine’s most consistently excellent writers—about a figure who has been the subject of much discussion and debate as of late: Andy Warhol.

Menand responds to several of the biographies and critical treatments of Warhol released over the past couple of months, but he also evaluates Arthur Danto’s 1981 proclamation of “the end of art” and Clement Greenberg’s almost religious reverence for non-representational painting. Menand has little to say about Warhol’s films, but the following passage, about his notorious (aren’t they all) film “Sleep,” seems pretty dead-on to me:

Formally, “Sleep” and “Empire” are programmatically the opposite of the poetic, dreamy, phantasmagorical underground movies being made in New York at the time—movies like [Jack] Smith’s polymorphous-perverse “Flaming Creatures.” In “Sleep,” nearly six and a half hours of a man [poet John Giorno] sleeping, we see dreaming exactly the way the camera sees it. The harder underground filmmakers worked to undermine cinematic convention, the more cinematic their movies became. Warhol made movies that eliminated (along with the acting and the drama) the cinematic. He found that people who could sit through them experienced them as cinema.

Menand goes on to engage the conceptual foundations of Abstract Expressionism, Dada, Bauhaus and, of course, Pop. An extremely worthwhile and readable read, I’d say.

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