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Friday, May 30, 2008

Warhol’s Cowles Blank

posted by on May 30 at 16:16 PM

Yesterday I wrote about how Seattle Art Museum’s Double Elvis was recently damaged, and that the museum isn’t sure when the damaged half—the blank half—will be repaired. I also promised a little more information on how the blank got to SAM.

It’s a good story. Starting in 1963, Warhol began making monochrome “blanks” for many of his paintings, and here’s what he had to say about it, as quoted in an essay called “Carnal Knowledge” by Rosalind Krauss:

You see, for every large painting I do, I paint a blank canvas, the same background color. The two are designed to hang together however the owner wants. … It just makes them bigger and mainly makes them cost more.

Warhol was riffing, among other things, off the mid-century heyday of large-scale, heroic, and, yes, very expensive paintings. Also, what could be more perfect for the man who told interviewers to fill in the blanks to their own questions than blank canvases tacked on seemingly needlessly? Then again, they could be, and have been, seen as highly charged voids.

Chiyo Ishikawa, chief curator at SAM, remembers a particularly affecting display of a Warhol “blank” diptych in the city where she used to work, Boston. It was Red Disaster at the Museum of Fine Arts, which is dated twice, 1963 and 1985. The two parts hung across from each other and “when you walked between them you were caught in this psychological space,” she said.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts’s Red Disaster (1963/1985)

In Seattle, the blank on Double Elvis was not Warhol’s idea.

It was the idea of Charles Cowles, who runs a gallery in New York. Back in 1976, he was not in New York, he was in Seattle, and acting as modern and contemporary curator of SAM. He was organizing an exhibition of Warhol’s portraits for the museum (its contemporary shows then were seen at Seattle Center rather than in Volunteer Park) and Cowles thought Double Elvis, which was going to be included in the show, would be better as a double. Or maybe he just wanted SAM to get a double; the museum acquired the piece later that year.

Ishikawa tells it as a perfectly Warholian story of unmotivated casualness: “The painting was made as a single, and Charlie Cowles thought it would be great to have a blank. I guess in Andy’s work there’s not really a logic about which works get blanks and which don’t. But Andy thought it would be great.”

The blank was then made by local framer John Denman, who spraypainted a canvas of matching size to the original Double Elvis panel a silver metallic radiator paint that to this day looks slightly different from the earlier Warhol.

When Warhol came for the show, he signed the back of the blank, and Double Elvis was redoubled. The early canvas is dated 1963, the blank 1976. According to SAM assistant modern and contemporary curator Marisa Sanchez, “the closest precedent to the Double Elvis “blank” is a silver Liz painted in 1964-65.”

The panels don’t have to be shown together, she added, but the blank “should never be shown alone.”

Here’s one more for the road this late Friday.

MoMA’s Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times (1963): And Nick, this is how I feel about you leaving.

RSS icon Comments


The Disasters and the Electric Chairs are brilliant pieces. They sound like they should be dumb, but if you see them in person, they're hauntingly beautiful and terrifying.

Posted by michael strangeways | May 30, 2008 4:34 PM

I would love to meet the kid that bumped into the blank part of the Elvis. SAM should have had a symposium on art vandalism and destruction and carried her/him in on a litter while everyone threw confetti. Then they could put that stupid, sad Oldenburg ice pack through a wood chipper.

Posted by bronkitis | May 30, 2008 4:56 PM

@1 -- Strangeways wins again; Warhol's "Disaster" paintings are the finest work he ever produced (with the Shadows, Maos and Cow wallpaper in the pantheon).

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | May 30, 2008 5:02 PM

I'm not sure "finest" and "Warhol" belong in the same neighborhood, unless you're talking damnable praise like "it's the best he can do."

While it's true there are some Warhol pieces I've enjoyed simply for their cleverness, there's very little to nothing of his I'd ever dare call "art."

Posted by Wolf | May 30, 2008 5:16 PM

Thank you Jen - I really enjoyed this post.

Posted by High-Rise | May 30, 2008 5:20 PM

ditto - this was very interesting, thx

Posted by jackseattle | May 30, 2008 5:35 PM

True that--it is interesting to get the background, even if a blank canvas (a la Warhol) isn't really art in a traditional sense.

That's something I could never get T to understand while he was still alive, that the people who came to his shows wanted his art, but they also wanted to meet and learn about the artist. He always insisted there was a divide, and I always told him that even if there was, his fans wanted to meet and get to know, on some slight level, HIM as a person and as a creative individual whose work they loved.

He was too close to his canvases to understand why anybody else would make a fuss, but at $1500-$2500 a pop, the collector obviously "got it."

I just wish he'd lived long enough to be comfortable in the skin of fame...but he didn't.

Posted by Wolf | May 30, 2008 5:57 PM

You sound like an arrogant starfucker, Wolf. In other words, my kinda guy! Woot!

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | May 30, 2008 6:53 PM

I guess I could be offended by that, but JTC, I'm not. I never wanted to be public, neither did T before he died. He used to sometimes get physically, throwing-up ill before an opening. And it's hard to have a good opening when you're covered in vomit.

Star-fucker? If that were so, I'd have found somebody easier to live with. He wasn't near "star" until we met and I said "my God, you HAVE to get these paintings out to where somebody other than you can see them." And I wont even mention the album covers and stuff he did, because it doesn't matter.

So yeah, star-fucker. Assbag.

Posted by Wolf | May 30, 2008 7:23 PM

Anyone who wants to "get to know the artist" is a fool, and any artist who indulges him or her is a liar.

Oddness: Red Disaster scrollioses, or whatever you call it (scroll it rapidly up and down, watch eyes melt) but Orange Car Crash doesn't.

Posted by Fnarf | May 30, 2008 7:28 PM

JTC: And I mean "assbag" jokingly, in case it doesn't come across that way.

fnarf: I somewhat agree with you, but I also can see it from a fan perspective. T and I stood in line once to meet the surviving animators who worked on freaking Snow White.

THOSE were artists. I think all of them except maybe one or two are dead now (we met them back in the 90s, when they were all in their 80s) and I don't regret having done so. Talking to them did add to the film experience, if nothing more than for having heard some of the behind-the-scenes stories about the creation of the film.

So yeah, on some level, meeting the artist can add a layer to the overall experience of whatever the "art" happens to be, at least for me.

Posted by Wolf | May 31, 2008 5:35 AM

Rereading my post at 9, the first paragraph (about him being sick before a show opening) for some reason brought back memories that just made me cry, so I think it's best if I avoid this thread from now on. Sorry.

Posted by Wolf | May 31, 2008 5:27 PM

The Piss Paintings are cool, too...

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