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Drawing Blanks: Notes on Andy Warhol's Late Works

Author(s): Benjamin H. D. Buchloh


Source: October, Vol. 127 (Winter, 2009), pp. 3-24
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40368551
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Drawing Blanks: Notes on
Andy Warhol's Late Works

BENJAMIN H. D. BUCHLOH

1. Anomic Drawing

The metamorphoses of drawing in Warhol's oeuvre recapitulate all the radical


transformations that traditional drawing was subjected to in the twentieth century:
from the line that figures the hand of the author and the figure of the subject to the
line that is anonymous, lifeless, and mechanical - seemingly the mere printout of a
mechanical matrix, or of an optical projection (the old overhead), or the imbecile
tautology of tracing an always already-given line prescribed in the design of objects.
Already in some of his earliest drawings from the late 1950s, when Warhol
copied covers from the so-called "purple press," specifically its advertisements for
sexual services, he deployed two performative strategies that would differentiate his
drawings from drawing as it had been known until then. Operating in the register of
the linguistic lapsus (by slipping in spelling mistakes or mispronunciations) and in
the register of the perceptual hiatus (by fragmenting contours, omitting details, and
leaving empty spaces), these language lacks or spatial voids are precursors to the
"blanks," as Warhol would later call his monochrome canvases when they accompa-
nied his photographic paintings in order to double them up as diptychs.
Both strategies, lapsing and voiding, ostentatiously identify with failures or resis-
tances to comply with the rigors of the symbolic order (of speaking, writing, and
drawing). Here, deskilling appears either as a handicap or as a subversion, as an
authorial admission of ineptness or as a declaration of solidarity with a subject
deprived of competences (e.g., spelling, enunciation, accurate depiction, and visual
and spatial coordination). The two primary sources of citation are simultaneously
the targets of address: one being the language deficits of class (from fear or inhibi-
tion); the other, the loss of linguistic competence under duress (from desire or
angst). Both are combined to tout a primitivism of psychic formations (as opposed to
modernism's earlier primitivisms of geopolitical differences). The intertwinement of

* A version of this essay first appeared in Andy Warhol: Shadows and Other Signs of Life (Cologne:
Walther Konig, 2007), published on the occasion of an exhibition of the same name at the Chantal
Crousel Gallery, Paris.

OCTOBER 127, Winter 2009, pp. 3-24. © 2009 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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4 OCTOBER

sexual desir
accurate acc
desire in the
tic impulse,
This emph
what unexp
to the artifi
mobilization
of the late
as outside o
graphemes
recuperatio
ingly narro
they collaps
Making the
or magazine
cient respon
formal devi
chrome bl
expurgation
chrome as a
emancipation
subject's (an
overpowerin
links betwe
their silence

2. Ben Shahn

Since the drawings of Ben Shahn served as the primer for Warhol's drawing
lessons, it is worthwhile to look back for a moment at Shahn 's historical significance.
Caricature and cartoon were clearly among the original references for Shahn 's con-
ception of linear design. Both had continued to presume a producing subject that
would conceive and execute the drawing as much as they had incorporated a view-
ing subject to be addressed in an iconic and somatic encounter. Shahn 's line had a
communicative function: depicting, embodying, narrating. His lines situated the
perceiving subject in a social space, not the space of totalized objects.

3. Copies {Commercial)

Ironically, it is Warhol the commercial artist who remained attached to the


obsolete models of communicative drawing that Shahn had deployed. At the
very moment that Warhol decided to become a "fine" artist, he discarded these
traditional models and replaced them with a rather different one that we will call

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Andy Warhol. Strictly Personal. 1956.
All Warhol images © 2009 The Andy Warhol
Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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6 OCTOBER

Pablo Picasso.
© 2009 Estate o

the matrix o
dependence
side of the r
means of tr
matrices of
formats. Th
commercial
from tracing

4. C

Drawing acc
eth century
would never
posedly orga
important r
outside of o
period, lead
and they de
Mediterranean tradition.

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Drawing Blanks 7

Warhol. K
1977.

5. Man Ray versus Matisse

However, unlike the retour a Vordre of the Picasso and Matisse of the 1930s,
with their ostentatious attempts to reconstitute drawing within the traditions of
neoclassical embodiment, an artist like Man Ray (or Francis Picabia) deliberately
travestied the project of establishing a neoclassical foundation of drawing. Man
Ray's sublime perversions - his attempts at synthesizing, or, rather, hybridizing, the
technical and the neoclassical traditions and at suspending drawing in this duality -
acknowledged early on that neither radical mechanicity nor a return to organicity
could sustain drawing much longer. Man Ray's drawings signaled to Warhol that the
hand was exhausted and that the machine would be a domineering and deadening
matrix. Thus the Warhol of the early 1960s indisputably became a Cassandra, proph-
esying the end of drawing. And Warhol knew early on that to disembody the line
had more radical implications than just the deadening anesthesia of the hand: it de-
privileged the maker and de-mythified art-making once and for all.

6. Picasso's Knitting Model

Warhol's peculiar drawings of hands knitting from 1977 seem to refer us


directly back to his precursors from that moment of crisis in the 1930s. In an etch-
ing for Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece, published by Vollard in 1931, Picasso
depicts a male artist, who is drawing a large abstract geometric structure in space,

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8 OCTOBER

Warhol.
Knitting. 197

being confr
abstraction
only in vir
demarcation can be articulated.

But Warhol's drawings of knitting hands were probably also inspired by


perpetual knitting activity of his lifelong friend Brigid Polk, who served i
role of extravagant Cerberus and eccentric receptionist at the Factory, inspe
and (disapproving of) visitors and spectators while barely looking up from
feminine handicrafts.

What is most important, however, is the manifest counter-gendering that


Warhol performs here on the oldest technique of representation: drawing is
aligned with knitting as its analog and equal (as opposed to Picasso's strict gender-
divide between the artist who draws magisterially and the model who knits
subserviently).
The complex spatiotemporal act of knitting suddenly appears as not all that
different from other mark-making processes in time. This act of counter-gendering,
or what we could also call the demasculinization of drawing, has also been per-
formed since the early 1960s in the drawings of Hanne Darboven. It is not an
accident that her repetitive rhythmic definition of drawing as writing and as a mere

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Drawing Blanks 9

Warhol.
Knitting

marker of spatiotempo
that of the mark-making

7. Sewing an

Warhol's perpetual re
gave birth to yet anoth
dered conventions of
confronted with the
images sewn together,
fectly natural to have
would have been unable
encounter with Warho
all sewing's nature as a
feminine and domesti
image and the image te
universal power only t
an allegorization of the
ute to domestic labor

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10 OCTOBER

Warhol Goin
Business. 1984-86.

absolutely pure indexical authenticity by a relapse into an even more primitiv


corporeal indexicality: the stitch.

8. Space Fruit

Space Fruit is the title of a series of drawings Warhol produced in the lat
1980s. They appear fragmented at first, incomplete, as though they were rem
nants of a project that had not come to fruition. Strange fruit, indeed, since th
are as far from a still life as industrially-produced fruit is from fruit. They seem to
merely record the fragmentary outlines of the formerly common presence of t
natural among the objects of everyday life. Since they are evidently the result
an overhead projection, executed only with the slightest commitment to accura
in terms of description, they appear as so many spatial markers, fragments of o
lines, defying volume and fullness. Their curvatures bleed into space to defy the
presence as volumetric illusions, as much as their plenitude of natural objects
inaccessible to the touch. It is impossible to distinguish their blending with spa

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Drawing Blanks 1 1

Warhol. Space
(Cantaloupe

from the bleeding of for


tours of the illusion of fru

9. Voids and Shadows

Warhol's ability to empty out visual plenitude, or to void the fullness of form,
has its spatial and optical counterpart in his fascination with shadows. The shadow
is self-generated by light and matter, a parthenogenesis of form, the utter opposite
of the manmade, even of the readymade. Who authorizes the shadow? Like obso-
lescence, the shadow is also an index of temporality and passing time. Since the
shadow has no material substance of its own, it will disappear when its light source
fades or when its projecting object is shifted. Thus shadows are not just metaphysi-
cal readymades par excellence, they are also the sublime antidote to an aesthetic
of the readymade itself, just as Duchamp himself would have wanted it. As he sug-
gested, the readymade should disappear once it had been established as a new
aesthetic category and as a convention of artistic production. Thus, Warhol's
shadows also execute that aspect of the Duchampian legacy.

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12 OCTOBER

10. Shadows and Skulls

As in Duchamp's Tu m' (1918), Warhol's shadows not only expand the indexi-
cal sampling of the readymade (or rather, point to the shadow's shared condition
with the readymade's origin in deixis), but they also increase the temporal tension
between readymade objects and their shadows. While the objects emphatically
assert their presence, their shadows announce, in the classical manner of the still
life's memento mori, their imminent disappearance (an aspect that is of course
made most explicit in the lapidary, yet all the more powerful, photograph of the
skull and its shadows).

11. Hammer and Sickle

This is played through with almost musical pleasure in Warhol's numerous


photographic variations on the theme of hammer and sickle. These two arcane
tools had once been the emblems of the Utopian fusion of industrial and agricul-
tural labor and had been adopted by the Soviet Union in 1923 to signal the goals
of Socialism. Subsequently, various combinations had adorned the flags of other
nations ruled by their respective Communist parties.
Yet in his representation of one of the most powerful political emblems of the
twentieth century, Warhol performs a breathtaking inversion, turning the image
from one of ideological sign exchange value to one of pure use value: the powerful
political signs of hammer and sickle appear here as functional tools from an era of
pre-industrial artisanal or rural labor. They have become almost quaint Americana,
identifiable by their inscription, "Champion No. 15," as having been produced by
the oldest American hardware manufacturer, "True Temper" (established in 1808).

12. Mass Magnetism

The selection of this emblem is less astonishing if one remembers that one
of Warhol's lifelong preoccupations was the question, never posed explicitly but
always latent in every image he conceived, of what it actually took for an object or
an image to acquire mass magnetism. That question of the mass-media aura had
been posed by Warhol both in terms of his iconography (e.g., Elvis, Marilyn,
Jackie) as well as in many provocative statements in which he explicitly fused the
living conditions of totalitarian state culture with the icons of Western capitalist
consumer culture (e.g., Coca Cola, McDonald's). Most famously, perhaps, Warhol
bemoaned in an interview that (at the time) "Moscow and Peking did not yet have
something beautiful, like McDonald's ..." and assured us in various statements
(possibly in all earnestness, possibly not) that the consumption of Coca Cola and
of McDonald's signaled the peaceful achievement of socialism in the Western
world through non-revolutionary means, since it allowed everybody to consume
the same objects.

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Drawing Blanks 1 3

Warhol. Hammer and Sickle, c. 1976-77.

Warhol's work sang the swansong of a fundamental dialectic of the avant-


garde in the twentieth century: between an artistic culture with its discursive
conventions, genres, and institutional spaces, and the incessantly expanding and
encroaching forms of proto-totalitarian consumption. Any such differentiation
between the production and perception of an artistic object and an object of
industrial consumption could not be maintained any longer (a condition obvi-
ously celebrated by Warhol's children, Koons and Murakami).

13. Hammer and Pizza

Warhol's series of photographs are clearly related to the moment of the


Hammer and Sickle paintings and prints from 1976-77. Yet it is not clear whether
these photographic still lifes are part of the preliminary setups from which the
paintings and the screen prints were drawn, or whether they redeploy the constel-
lation of hammer and sickle out of sheer delight at staging a confrontation with a
totally different kind of object, one whose company those emblems could have
never been envisioned as sharing.
At least four photographs literally articulate Warhol's perpetual preoccupation

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14 OCTOBER

Warhol. Hammer and Sickle, c. 1976-77.

with the powerful signals of political difference under seemingly comparable con-
ditions of collective experience.
In one image, he slips a slice of pizza onto the stage where hammer and
sickle stand in a seemingly casual embrace (accompanied by their play of multiple
shadows), with the blade of the sickle somewhat lasciviously slung around the
hammer's standing handle. A minuscule triangular shadow, almost like a frag-
ment, broken off from the wedge of pizza, is inserted in the spatial intersection
between table and wall where the theater of shadows occurs, adding its minute
formal repetition to the pizza's own shadowy triangulation.
In a second image, the emblems are confronted with the cardboard cubicle
of a McDonald's Big Mac carton. Opened and emptied, the box aggressively gapes
at the emblems, which seem almost passive, if not defeated, in this particular con-
stellation. The sickle is resting on the back of its blade, casting a shadow that turns
it into a bow or a primitive instrument. The blade's singular perforated dot gives it
an ocular hole, projecting a second eye onto the shadow, thus making the bow or
instrument suddenly appear like a primitive mask. The hammer, by contrast, lies
flat and occupies center stage, its gleaming head directed at the spectator, yet pro- .
jecting an arrow-like shadow aggressively towards the gaping box.

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Drawing Blanks 1 5

Vera Mukhina. Worker and


Kolkhoz Woman. 1937.

14. Hammer and Dildo

These objects and their shadows perform and alternate their gendered iden-
tities like actors in a Kabuki theater. If there is any doubt that various plays are
performed simultaneously on Warhol's object stage, then the next two images in
the series give proof of yet another - that between the uncanny obsolescence of
ideological investment and the penetrating presence of objects of libidinal desire.
In the first of the two images, a luminous yet easily overlooked translucent
object has taken the frontal position, close to center stage. It is a glistening plastic
husk, unidentifiable, yet unmistakably alluding to - if not part of - the dildo family. It
casts a long shadow towards the sickle's sinuous open blade, which is posed this time
in a hovering position with its sharp tip pointing down like a beak, while its hammer
companion is removed to the right hand side of the stage, as if exiting the show. By
positioning the two elements in a continuous permutation - almost as if in a gram-
matical declension - the gendered identity of these heroic icons, heretofore hidden,
surfaces at last.1

1. The intensity with which these emblems were gendered in their original deployment is particularly
evident in many images from the period of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union, most monumentally
(and most grotesquely) in Vera Mukhina's gigantic sculpture for Boris Iofan's Soviet Pavilion for the Paris

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16 OCTOBER

15. S

Almost as if
lady's pump c
Worlds collid
proletarian p
Set against th
of hammer a
celebrated th
moment in 1
quickest larg
had ever seen.

In the juxtaposition of the emblems with the lady's pump (no less astonish-
ing than Lautreamont's pro to-Surrealist vision of a future theater of objects in
chance encounters), the shoe not only represents an era of manufacturing and
consumption different from that celebrated in the pre-industrial emblems of phys-
ical labor, it also opposes the arcane emblems of a universal condition of
production with a concretely gendered object of the daily economy of desire.
Yet in Warhol's hands, even the sickle now acquires a heretofore unimagin-
able seduction. Echoing the curves of the shoe in the serpentine orientation of its
sinuous blade, the sickle is now bending down towards the shoe as if in a moment
of cultic veneration.

With almost childlike candor, Warhol seems to ask the question of why the
shoe - in spite of its universal usage, function, and appeal - failed to acquire the
status of an emblem comparable to those of totalitarian Socialism. And if Warhol
drains meaning out of the great emblems of the twentieth century by juxtaposing
them with the common objects of consumption, he succeeds at making the bot-
tomless vacuity of the objects of capitalist consumption even more vacuous. It
becomes manifest, in fact, for better or for worse, that the fetish, in spite of its
universal powers, will never have any horizon of meaning and signification compa-
rable to those signs of voluntary or enforced collective ideological identification
and their historical aspirations.2

16. Anomic Objects

That particular condition of barren objects, meaningless and death-devoted,

World Fair of 1937. In Mukhina's sculpture, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, it is of course the monstrously het-
erosexist image of voluptuous female fecundity that carries the sickle, as opposed to her male counterpart,
the industrial worker who holds the hammer up high.
2. While highly speculative, I would venture to add one additional facet: that the homeland of
Warhol's beloved mother, still called Czechoslovakia during the 1970s when Warhol pondered the
meaning and significance of these emblems, was still under the rule of a Soviet satellite regime after
the failed Prague Spring of 1968.

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Drawing Blanks 1 7

Warhol. Hammer and Sickle, c. 1976-77.

acquires an almost monumental quality in a series of images that Warhol clearly


composed and photographed at the same time as the Hammer and Sickle series.
Rather than contemplating the power of emblems, however, now Warhol con-
structs mere combinations of motley objects, discombobulated in their aleatory
constellation, without and outside of any apparent context.
Some of them could be classified at best as belonging to the everyday life at
Warhol's Factory: the Polaroid camera (a particularly outdated model at that), a
pair of dumbbells (Andy's workout tools?), a tape recorder (is it the tape recorder
with which Andy recorded his endless telephone conversations for his books?),
two different pencil sharpeners, a coat-hanger, and, in one of the images, a
slightly beaten up copy of Warhol's own major intellectual testament, The
Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), published in 1975.
Then there is a second group of objects, slightly harder to imagine encoun-
tering during a normal day at the Factory: a toy handgun (an apotropaic object to
ward off future attacks by the likes of Valerie Solanas?), a nondescript vessel or
vase half-filled with water, a kitchen whisk (of the type that had already been pho-
tographically emblazoned by Man Ray in 1920 as "He," or alternately as "She,"
which would certainlv have been known and verv attractive to Warhol for its

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18 OCTOBER

Warhol Still Life. c. 1976.

androgynous virtues alone), and, in one image, a rather prominently displayed


Black Flag exterminator's pump.
The image displaying the Black Flag sprayer oddly enough also features a
pear, which seems to be organic rather than plastic (and there is also an odd apple
in one other image of this series combining the coat-hanger with the dumbbells).
The fruit intervenes in these random object encounters as if to remind the
spectator (if not the author himself) that we are in fact contemplating the fate of
the still-life genre under the conditions of the most advanced commodity produc-
tion, where no object means anything more or less than any other one. The
constellations of Warhol's natures mortes appear here as in a thrift-shop window,
where all objects are defined by their minimal values of exchange and equiva-
lence. As it seems, the traditional memento mori function of the still-life genre is
therefore for Warhol best achieved by foregrounding the very fact of this universal
anomie and vacuity of objects.

17. Readymade Drawing

A drawing made by Warhol after the Black Flag still life, dated 1975, brings

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Drawing Blanks 1 9

Warhol. Still Life. c. 1975.

us back to our initial question: with what type of drawing are we confronted in
Warhol's magisterial oeuvre as a draftsman? We might now venture a bit further
and recognize that it was ultimately neither Shahn nor Picasso, neither Matisse
nor Man Ray, who could have fully anticipated the dramatic changes that would
occur in the field of drawing in American art of the postwar period. Warhol's
seemingly haphazard, yet meticulous, copy of the Black Flag still life (and its shad-
ows) asks for a different genealogy of drawing altogether, one that acknowledges,
first of all, that drawing as an art, like painting, was fundamentally transfigured, if
not dislodged, by the conception of the readymade.
Whatever forms of subjective and social agency drawing might have promised
in the first half of the twentieth century (agency of the virtuoso subject, of the con-
scious social observer and commentator, of the construction of visionary spatial
delimitations, et cetera) were steadily evacuated with the arrival of the new ethos of
drawing formulated by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly in the
mid- to late 1950s. And it is clearly to them - to their articulation of the increasingly
minimal options remaining open to the hand and to the notion of a subjective
agency - that Warhol's drawings would turn in the early 1960s.

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20 OCTOBER

One of the
Johns, Rausc
the very sit
promised sub
language), a
the graphem
drawings of
Inferno (195
confining it
and the grap
iconic matr
appeared to
mimicry of
Warhol's co
his inimitab
sublime non
the subject
Black Flag st
drawing's s
declare its so
resentation
perforated in
light reflex
tures, or in
of extinction.

18. The Stencil Paintings

Stenciling ornaments on paper surfaces as Warhol does in his Stencil


Paintings (which have certainly been overlooked in the formation of the
Warhol canon) conveys a quaintness of function, process, and space that at first
glance seems fundamentally incompatible with the rest of his oeuvre. After all,
Warhol's paintings had been scandalous because of their iconography of media
culture as much as for their apparent subversion of traditional painting by the
technology of the silkscreen.
In a typical gesture that combines the obsolete with the (seemingly) radi-
cally innovative, Warhol's Stencil Paintings are airbrushed through simple
abstract geometric paper stencils that could have been made by schoolchildren
in their art classes. If stencils call forth the primary pleasures of infantile mark-
making and decoration, be it that of the schoolchild or of folkloric Americana,
they inevitably also recall the Eastern European origins of Warhol's family, inso-
far as they invoke the poverty of means with which families like his had to

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Drawing Blanks 21

Warhol. Abstra

adorn their impoverish


public recoding of th
brushed stencils from
pigment distribution
deskilling and disfiguri
The stencils operate
composition, or rathe
increasing pertinence w
of Jasper Johns and
folded paper-figure as
surface corresponds sp
ation of the stenciling
produce these anti-pain
tial not out of an allian
relativize the heroic cl
already antiquated acts,

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Warhol Piss Painting. 1978.

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Drawing Blanks 23

19. Urochromes3

Urinating onto a canvas (or paper) is not only an act of public defilement,
the violation of a once sacred and virginal space (in that sense, operating like
graffiti), it is also an ostentatiously polemical gesture of defiance of the demand
for painting as artistic production. By contrast, painting as spilling is waste, and inas-
much as the process of staining is removed from manual control by gravity and
chance, it defies the economies of order and measure warranted by a well-crafted
artistic object. Of course, one wonders at what historical moment such subversive
acts of painterly counter-production could have emerged. Was it with Marcel
Duchamp's 3 Standard Stoppages in 1913, or with Jackson Pollock's splashing and
dripping of paint in 1947, that this defiance of painting as production first mani-
fested itself? Were these the major references for Andy Warhol's first Piss
Paintings, initiated later, in 1962?
In order to expand the historical scope of Warhol's ostensibly eccentric
project, it seems necessary to point to a few more phenomena, emerging simul-
taneously or slightly later. These situate Warhol's work in fact at the center of,
rather than "eccentric" to, avant-garde positions of the late 1950s and early
'60s. The susceptibility of Pollock's allover drip technique to a variety of mythi-
fying forms of reception - the spectacularization of painting itself - would
bring about several responses: one of them was Robert Rauschenberg and John
Cage's collaboration on Automobile Tire Print in 1953. Renewing the emphasis on
the desublimatory effect of pictorial horizontality, Tire Print also repositioned
Pollock's automatist legacy within a deadpan and mechanical foundation, dis-
tancing it from Pollock's bodily and expressive gyrations. Inking the tire and
tracing its tracks, however, were gestures that were still a far cry from Warhol's
bodily discharges that would demarcate the crisis of the indexical mark in the
early 1960s.
Perhaps it would be more precise to recognize that the change from
Pollock's post-automatist mechanical distribution of paint to Warhol's purely per-
formative distribution of bodily matter demarcated the historical transition from
an economy of production to one of consumption and waste.
The allover paintings by Pollock still aspired to the revelation of a unique
and sublimated self in acts of seemingly liberating excess. Warhol's piss perfor-
mances, by contrast, articulate a merely somatic, anonymous existence (as was
the case with the shadow) since the "author" of these "gestures" and "inscrip-
tions" remains anonymous.
Pollock's painterly spills had continued to trace the once seemingly inex-
tricable interdependence between the hand and the mark, between subjective

3. The following paragraphs are partially rewritten excerpts from my essay "A Primer for
Urochrome Painting," published in Mark Francis and Jean Hubert Martin, eds., Andy Warhol: The Late
Work (Diisseldorf: Museum Kunstpalast; Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2004), pp. 80-97.

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24 OCTOBER

energy and o
egno and pur
baptized, to m
the bodies of
a chemical pr
itself (the ox
urethral acidi

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