Can Latvia have its own Andy Warhol?
Ordinarily, a critic would be prudent to resist the urge to identify at length one artist's work with that of another. Even when done in a flattering, sensitive manner, there is the inherent risk of impugning originality, individuality and other vaunted hallmarks of creative endeavor. Granted, a wider margin of safety exists in comparing two artists whose careers are separated by centuries or, at the very least, decades. To claim that a contemporary painter evokes the sensibility of, say, el Greco is almost always more laudatory than declaring that he or she evokes Gary Hume, even if the critic reveres Gary Hume and the el Greco comparison depends on anachronistic interpretation. Of course, deliberately choosing a remote and venerated precursor entails other distinct risks: For instance, a critic will sound preposterous if he or she implies, by over-identification with Michelangelo, that the lesser-known modern artist under discussion is capable of painting the Sistine ceiling frescoes.
The Eurozine Gallery features visual artists from all over Europe with series of photographs, paintings or other types of art works.
Stories without borders
Three chapters for a future of the unplanned
Stolen history (and other projects)
Art comes from labour
[Autumn 2005-Spring 2006]
I find the Warhol/Vorkals juxtaposition all the more interesting in light of how often overt comparisons could be drawn, yet rarely are, between other contemporary Latvian artists and their peers abroad. For example, nobody writes that Arnis Balcus is "the Nan Golden of Latvia", that the 2001 LMA catalogue Cukurvate was the Latvian counterpart to the Phaidon Press publication Cream, or that the Art Bureau Open Project was the ideological colonization of Latvia stipulated by the central paradox of Adbusters: that is, an anti-globalization campaign more or less designed to be exported and franchised globally. One wonders if the avoidance of such succinct, though reductive, linkages is some sort of lesson that Latvia's critics learned from artists in their midst who pursued explicit connections with Western contemporaries, whether it was Janis Mitrevics dissecting the methods of Damien Hirst in Bacon for the State or Dace Liela channeling the watery truths of Vija Celmins in her Daugava diptych or Andris Grinbergs provoking audiences with much the same matter-of-fact homoerotism that (speak of the devil) Andy Warhol deployed. Given that these highly effective appropriations occurred during the post-Soviet renascence of Latvian contemporary art, perhaps critics detected Oedipal or Electra complexes at play and just decided such issues are best left unmentioned.
Admittedly, I have been predisposed toward the Warhol/Vorkals comparison ever since I spontaneously realized the phonetic and metrical resemblance between their names during a taxi ride to Vorkals's studio in Agenskalns in the early 1990s. Ridiculously, I imagined myself to be the first person to have drawn such a connection. My misplaced proprietary pride made the homonymic pairing "Andy Warhol/Henry Vorkal" (in Latvian, "Endijs Vorhols/Henrihs Vorkals") seem all the more enlightened, although I was, at the time, ignorant of Vorkals's longstanding regard for American Pop art. The examples of Vorkals' work reproduced in the readily available catalogues, books and albums from the 1980s did not suggest any substantive affinity with Warhol in terms of style or content, and I was certainly unaware of the Mezaparks communal living and working arrangement that Vorkals's former flat- and studio-mate Janis Borgs compares to Warhol's Factory milieu. In any event, minutes later, my basic notion of doubled artistic personae seemed utterly appropriate when Vorkals opened his door and I was stunned to discover his uncanny physical likeness, not to Andy Warhol, of course, but to another art world titan. To judge by appearance, Henrihs Vorkals could be the lost twin of American billionaire Leslie Wexner, who is considered among the world's top ten collectors, the twenty-five-million-dollar benefactor to the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University where I've curated and taught periodically over the years, and, indeed, formerly my day-to-day boss when, as an undergraduate art history student, I was a personal servant in his home, its salons filled with Picassos, Dubuffets, Giacomettis, de Koonings et alia – but, to my memory, not a single Warhol.
Now, resemblances like this are amusing at face value (quite literally), and usually remain significant only for the duration of some celebrity-obsessed parlor game or media joke. What makes such mirroring worthy of extended discussion here, however, is the fact that Vorkals himself sought the association with Warhol, embraced it within his work, and subsumed a measure of his creative identity to explore Warhol's artistic practice (along with the practices of other geniuses). Still more compelling, in choosing Warhol for his counterpart, Vorkals selected an elusive identity, an artist who was, in fact, a perennial media joke and whose work facilitated and ultimately constituted a celebrity-fueled parlor game. To nominate a "Latvian Andy Warhol" is to presume that there was a fully American one, whereas Warhol's Ruthenian origins, via Mitteleuropa immigrant Pittsburgh, may have engendered (and certainly inflected) his critical relation to midcentury American consumerism. Yet, for Warhol, inheritance or allegiance had limited bearing on identity. He relinquished the spelling of his family name – Warhola – on the basis of one typographical error. And perhaps more than anyone before him, he problematized the commonplaces of individuality, originality and authorship, all valorized aspects of art-making since the Renaissance. His passive, evasive, vapid personality evacuated the hallowed status of Artist (at least as an operation of the superego), just as the industrialized silk-screening process that he favored – and assistants executed – emptied Painting of the heroic gesturalism epitomized by Abstract Expressionism. So, really, what better choice of a role model for Vorkals if he was to remain his own artist?
I suspect that Henrihs Vorkals would be uninterested in emulating another artist's work on the basis of biographical similarities, but he does share with Warhol several vocational attributes that may help to explain his recurring stylistic and iconographic fascination with the Pop master. Both men began their careers in the so-called applied arts: Warhol in advertising illustration, Vorkals in textile art and design. Even after redirecting their primary attentions and energies to the realm of painting, they maintained a certain commercial sensibility. The mature work of both artists possesses graphic directness, responds acutely to the material culture at large and evinces the seriality of efficient, perfected production. As mentioned, there were the somewhat analogous settings of The Factory and the Mezaparks commune, although befitting its location on Bernudarza iela (in English, Kindergarten Street), the Riga commune was probably more akin to a kindergarten than to The Factory in Manhattan, with its rapacious drug use, open and polymorphous sexuality, international social-climbing (and social-plummeting), and even attempted murder. Nevertheless, both artists worked – in his editorial capacities, Vorkals still does – in highly collaborative environments, and therefore it is no surprise that both men are renowned for mentoring a younger generation of talent (Basquiat, Makos, Morrissey in New York; Breze, Petersons, Putrams in Riga), but mentoring done in the least pedantic, hierarchical manner possible. This willingness to share the spotlight, so to speak, is another strong connection between our Latvian and American Warhols. Andy was never reluctant to talk about himself, but his countless interviews are paradigms of elliptical thinking, self-deprecation and deflection of attention toward his more glittery cohorts. Henrihs's interviews, less numerous but still accumulating over the years, are always a study in humility; his responses to the interviewer inevitably liven up when he can stop talking about his work or ideas, per se, and redirect attention toward the inspiration he finds in other artists, such as van Gogh or Cézanne.
These professional parallels may be edifying, but they are also merely circumstantial evidence of a shared artistic disposition. One can just as easily point out divergences between Warhol and Vorkals, divergences not only in temperament but also in terms of the contexts in which their occasionally similar-looking artworks were made. Regarding temperament, for example, it is difficult to imagine Vorkals inviting men he'd only recently met to join him and his studio assistants in urinating on specially-prepared canvases, as Warhol notoriously did for his Oxidation paintings. Indeed, it is difficult to image Vorkals delegating any aspect of art-making to a studio assistant. In the same way, we can feel fairly certain that, despite his appreciation of Mick Jagger and other libertine spirits of the 1960s, Vorkals will not be making a film entitled Blowjob. These are perhaps obvious, ultimately meaningless distinctions to be made between the work and/or working methods of a disingenuous, radically gay artist-provocateur and those of an earnest heterosexual artist who is concerned, above all, with making thought-provoking art, often from conservative sources. In the same way, the contextual distinctions to be made between Pop art's genesis within Western capitalist society and its reverberations within communist society's centrally-planned economy may seem obvious and not worth elucidating. Yet, as Latvian society settles ever more comfortably into high market capitalism today, I find it constructive to underscore some of these contextual differences, particularly as they pertain to the initial appearance of Pop motifs in Latvian art.
As my friend and colleague Janis Borgs points out in his companion essay in this volume, the impulse toward "Westernism" was strong among his closest contemporaries who matriculated from the Art Academy in the late 1960s and early 70s. This may strike Westerners' ears as a predictable attraction to exotica – inversely, Westerners interested in the visual cultures of Eastern Europe have been accused of "Orientalism" by Russian art historian Margarita Tupitsyn (who borrows Edward Said's term describing Eurocentric assumptions about the Arabo-Islamic world) – but Latvian artists' attraction to Pop imagery as something exotic is not without historical irony. Although the Pop movement is commonly regarded as a harsh critique of consumerism and mass culture, it is worth remembering that Warhol's choice of Campbell's Soup as a subject was hardly negative or critical. He had been fed the stuff since childhood, loved it and continued to eat it as an adult on an almost daily basis. Likewise, his decision to paint Coca-Cola bottles has been attributed to the supposed egalitarian nature of the product (our apologies to Adbusters). In Warhol's words, "What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."
The point to be made here is, the image sources of American Pop were quite the opposite of exotica for the American audience, and, indeed, this constituted the original provocation of Pop art within the refined cultural precincts of the gallery and museum. To think of it another way, one can regard a painting such as Warhol's 200 Campbell Soup Cans as the ultimate debasement of the American landscape tradition, for, as historian Barbara Groseclose has observed, this image is precisely the scenery that greeted most Americans on aisle 5 or 6 of their local supermarket, filling their field of vision as readily as it filled their stomachs.
Granted, the sudden appearance of consumer product imagery within the realm of easel painting was strange in America and Latvia alike, but Latvia's residents at that time rarely saw two hundred units of any particular item on a store's shelves, much less patronized hypermarkets or believed that their leaders were consuming the same things as the "bum on the corner" (well, except for vodka, with its own special democratizing effects). In any case, I would propose that Vorkals's motivation to use imagery from a Bee Gees album cover in his diploma-work tapestry was vastly different than Warhol's motivation for silkscreening the Brillo logo onto plywood boxes. (Tellingly, Vorkals felt no motivation whatsoever to utilize Warhol's salacious cover design for the Rolling Stones' 1971 album Sticky Fingers.) This disparity is understandable, given that the respective cultures had vastly different image-repertoires, degrees of advertising saturation and experiences of domestic convenience. Even if a Pop-minded Latvian artist in the late 1960s or early 1970s had wanted to appropriate the most pedestrian local advertising motifs for his or her paintings – visualize the stodgy packaging of Baltija cigarettes, Rigas Melnais balzams, you-name-it – these graphic stylizations lacked the visual audacity of Warhol's choices, not to mention the aura of ceaseless innovation and market manipulation. Hypothetically, then, such an indigenously Latvian consumerist creation would have had a fraction of the impact of "Westernist" works made by Vorkals & Co. in their student phase. Not that there weren't excellent examples of home-grown Pop. Photographer Atis Ievins immediately comes to mind in this respect, and his psychedelically-hued wallpaper-like silkscreen installation of 1973 titled Hippie Girl, which repeated a posterized photographic image of well-known Riga "flower-child" Ninuce, epitomizes the style. This gridded work, along with his silk-screened portraits of Riga's countercultural intelligentsia, argues that Ievins could also claim the title "the Andy Warhol of Latvia."
As you see, I am trying to argue both sides of the Warhol/Vorkals proposition simultaneously, a dandiacal enterprise undertaken in the spirit of Warhol himself. But rather than concluding whether Vorkals is another Warhol, my ultimate objective is to elucidate the conditions under which Vorkals has returned to the Pop fold in recent years, and moreover, why this is significant for Latvian art. Looking at his series It's Andy Warhol!, one detects key aesthetic affinities between the two artists that are not immediately evident in the appropriated Warholian motifs per se. Both men command virtuoso drawing abilities, although their deployment of this talent is far different. Warhol mostly relegated his gift to precious sketchbooks while Vorkals's draftsmanship is everywhere apparent and in constant productive tension with the flatness of the commercial logos he fixes within the illusionary, perspectival spaces of the drawn passages. The two artists share a profound, almost promiscuous receptivity to the vast universe of mediated imagery, although their compositional treatment of found images is antithetical. Warhol largely approached composition as a ready-made, either given within the existing image source (the Brillo box, the head shot of Marilyn, free-floating dollar signs) or its serial existence in repetitious mass-media representations or consumption patterns. Vorkals begins with the same seemingly random act of selection but aggressively intervenes with the motif's given composition, most often through the act of juxtaposing other motifs, but also through a deconstructive analysis of the internal structure of the source image.
Of course, the "randomness" of image selection is illusory in each artist's case, and both Warhol and Vorkals no doubt appreciate(d) the complex ontological implications of their choices. Warhol's genius was to select images that manage to startle us because of their inappropriateness – inappropriate because they are already utterly boring by nature or, if titillating or scandalous in nature, at risk of being made boring by overexposure in the mass-media – and then, reverse audience reception by making the boring sensational and the sensational even more boring. Finally, even boredom becomes exciting when it sets an art market record at auction. For his part, Vorkals's genius is to select images that cultural consensus has deemed appropriate for art (thank you, Warhol and Christie's) but images that mass-media's coverage of art as a commodity has rendered all but invisible to us, and then reinvigorates audience reception, even as he does so through the typically diminishing operation of pastiche. The banality of celebrity that Warhol foregrounded in his Marilyn portraits is, in a sense, redoubled as Vorkals takes the deadpan image of a dead celebrity painted by a dead celebrity-artist and presents it almost as an element of a scrapbook assembled by an idolatrous fan who, despite his tributary motives, asserts his own creative prerogative (specifically as exuberant composition) that violates the aesthetics of the original. Ultimately, it is this violation that interests us, especially as it vacillates between homage and obliteration.
Appropriation is always a balancing act between violence and deference, and the best practitioners of appropriative art-making manage to make the one response look quite like the other, diametrical as they are. For instance, when Robert Rauschenberg took an actual drawing by Willem de Kooning and physically erased all graphic marks from the paper in his Erased deKooning of 1953, it seems as though he attacked de Kooning's authority by destroying his work, whereas it had been done with de Kooning's blessing. When Sherrie Levine precisely copied a well-known Walker Evans photograph, it seems as though Levine concluded that she could not possibly improve upon it, but the action essentially usurped Evans's authorship and even authority. I oversimplify the ramifications in each case, but my larger point is that Vorkals discloses that his appropriative operations, with their intensive intrusions of text, collateral imagery and incidental graphic detritus, are invariably homages. He acknowledges this in interviews, but more importantly, he demonstrates it with extraordinary – one is tempted to say "loving" – draftsmanship and an intuitive, yet scholarly, grasp of the original artists' pictorial intentions. This command of technique from a multitude of painting traditions allies him less with Warhol than with a far more proximate personality, Miervaldis Polis, somebody with whom, to the extent of my familiarity with the critical literature, Vorkals is not commonly linked, despite their formidable appropriative facility and innate sense of humor that rescues their quotations from sterility.
In a book published in 2002, I explained my rationale for acquiring works by Vorkals, Polis and many other Latvian artists for the Norton & Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at Rutgers University's Zimmerli Art Museum. As part of an extended essay, I correlated Vorkals to another virtuoso, Boriss Berzins on the basis of his "refined humor, incisive draftsmanship, meticulous color sense and, most important, an implacable heuristic impulse that generates suites of paintings that tend to answer formal questions with further, harder questions." Not to be unimaginative and self-referential, I would like to quote more from that essay because I am unable to find a better way to introduce what I believe is Vorkals's principal achievement within Latvian art history.
"The fact that Vorkals began conducting these (formal) interrogations in the early 1970s in watercolor indicates the high degree to which the medium had developed in Latvia during the previous ten years, and Vorkals expanded this evolution in a distinctly conceptualist vein. Watercolor had been an instrument of abstraction for others [Olgerts Jaunarajs, Kurts Fridrihsons, et al.], whereas in Vorkals's hands it became a vehicle for figural illustration of abstract thought. His 1974 work Morning, for example, is less a description of a time of day than an expression of incipience. Instead of producing foggy atmospheric effect, the milky passages of white define absence waiting to be filled, and the faint geometric notations on this obscured field indicate paths for future elaboration. Minimalist aesthetics inform this work to an extent rarely seen in Soviet-era Latvia – only Ilmars Blumbergs provided company at this juncture, but his investigations were three-dimensional – and this is evident both in the austere appearance of Vorkals's paintings and in the procedural clarity that regulates the presence of compositional elements and subordinates them to an almost mathematical or grammatical logic.
Another work from the 1970s, The Golden Mean, takes as its central motif a well-known photograph of Lenin's childhood family. The young Vladimir Ilich is extracted from the group of sitters within the sepia lozenge in almost the same way figures disappeared from retouched photographic group portraits during the Purges, except that the iconological dislocation performed on the unimpeachable Lenin is that of a Transfiguration: To the side of what had been the Son, the grown Father of the Revolution assumes the immediately recognizable form of a propaganda medallion. The Holy Spirit, one might say, is manifested in the superimposed algebraic notation for the Golden Mean, which emphasizes some supposed natural, harmonic order in extrapolating Lenin from the personal realm to the ceremonial. At the same time, Vorkals exposes the formulaic nature of Soviet political representation, as well as the process of reification that ideologists jump-started when they modeled commissioned representations of Soviet leaders on religious icons. As deliberate as his critique may appear, Vorkals would object to any consideration of this work as Gedenkenmalerie, or even a conscious deconstruction of Gedenkenmalerie's programmatic political task. Instead, he would maintain that the specific imagery in The Golden Mean is incidental to the pictorial operations, which methodically trace a multiplicity of optical effects and their associated meanings. The proportional relation of AB to BC begets BC's relation to AC; the aureate appearance of a family photo begets an iconic image; visual identification of personages begets a literary history; and so on. While all of this should, in accordance with the Golden Mean, conspire toward some higher principle, Vorkals grounds it all within the sensible confines of a sensuously painted object, all the more striking for its laconic attitude toward the subject. Like Berzins, he is too serious a painter to be bothered with the vicissitudes of cultural politics."
Forced to listen to such an academic assessment of his art, Vorkals would no doubt yawn. Similarly, he would probably squirm to hear the following assertion: Among Latvians, Berzins was arguably the most innovative painter of the 1960s, and the same could be claimed for Vorkals with respect to the 1970s. Nevertheless, Vorkals must be credited for a fundamental perceptual shift that his paintings effected in Latvian art, and this progressive change is best explained by critic Leo Steinberg's concept of "the flatbed picture plane".
The term arose in Steinberg's seminal essay "Other Criteria", which countered the restrictive, teleological thinking of Clement Greenberg, America's prevailing theorist at the time and tireless champion of Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction. Because Greenberg's formalist goals for modernist painting did not easily accommodate the radically innovative work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Steinberg sought a theoretical framework that might do so. He reasoned that, in addition to Greenberg's prescription of "allover" composition and assertion of flatness, artists like Rauschenberg and Johns furthered the evolution of modern painting by challenging the convention of the picture plane as a vertical surface, determined by our veridical perception of the world through sensory, primarily visual, data collected while standing upright. (Imagine the Renaissance conception of painting as a window, framing the optical operations of linear and atmospheric perspective, occlusion, chromatic variation, etc.) For Steinberg, Rauschenberg's collage-like silkscreen paintings "no longer simulate vertical fields, but opaque flatbed horizontals", a reference to the typographer's device for assembling and securing loose type (text elements) and printing plates (imagery). "Rauschenberg's picture plane had to become a surface to which anything reachable-thinkable would adhere. (...) Any flat documentary surface that tabulates information is a relevant analogue of his picture plane..." Steinberg summarized this innovation as a change in the "psychic address of the image, its special mode of imaginative confrontation, and I tend to regard the tilt of the picture plane from vertical to horizontal as expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture."
More than anyone else, Henrihs Vorkals was responsible for effecting this change in psychic address, this shift from nature to culture within Latvian painting. (Much the same could be argued for Ojars Abols and Maris Argalis, although neither could represent nature to the sublime degree as Vorkals, and so their work seems less a tabulation of "anything reachable-thinkable".) For thirty-some years, upon a flatbed picture plane, Vorkals has combined images of his native landscape and people, excerpts of other artists' work, fragmentary text, pure geometric bodies, diagrammatic elements, and so forth. The juxtapositions are aesthetic here, linguistic there, and intellectually engaged throughout. Placement and/or syntax is everything, much as words are organized through grammar to produce meaning, and composition coheres through the Golden Mean to produce harmony. But, then, in the hands of a master, rules are also meant to be broken, and Vorkals stops short of presenting completed, hermetic meanings or perfect, self-contained harmonies. In the same way that Warhol and Rauschenberg prized image imperfections and degeneration, Vorkals allows – encourages – incompletion and obliteration within his compositions. This renders any single interpretation impossible and, indeed, becomes our point of access as viewers.
Vorkals was 17 years old when Warhol said, "I want everybody to think alike. Russia is doing it under government. It's happening here all by itself." I can't imagine that Vorkals ever shared that desire, and even at 17, he certainly knew better than to agree with Warhol about uniformity of thought in the Soviet Union. Vorkals's highly expository work demonstrates what he values about his artistic sources, not necessarily what the historian may value, not what the collector may value, and certainly not what the viewer should value (despite the fact there will always be some hybridizing of opinion when so-called masterpieces are collectively regarded over time). Selecting elements of popular culture, the original Pop artists elevated their subject matter in a way fully at odds with the aesthete's and the average Joe's reception of these same elements. In his role as a neo-Pop artist, Vorkals doesn't select popular culture as much as he selects reactions to pop culture: Our regard for Marilyn is now inescapably refracted through our regard for Warhol's Marilyn. Indeed, for Latvians who had little or no access to Marilyn Monroe's films during the Soviet era, to encounter her face in a Vorkals drawing is to recognize a famous painting subject, not an actor. And in redrawing the Coca-Cola logo (but in an eroded form), Vorkals highlights not only base material culture and its trajectory into capitalist high culture, but also its distinctly different history in communist and post-communist social experience. It then becomes the viewer's task to situate him- or herself within that broad cultural landscape.
With this layering of imagery and multiplicity of iconographic registers, Vorkals could never convincingly be called "The Andy Warhol of Latvia" in terms of superficiality, banality and other Pop commonplaces. But it would also be a mistake to conclude that Henrihs Vorkals is so historically complicit and so aesthetically calibrated that he's incapable of delivering a gut punch in the tradition of Warhol's Death in America series. Four years ago, I was meeting with a SoHo gallery director, a longtime colleague who had asked for my recommendation of a Latvian artist who might appeal to her specific clientele, a group she described as partial to postmodern irony and the highest artistry (which is to say, extraordinary rendering skills). I was showing her works from Vorkals's portfolio when we came to his series depicting the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with its combined quotations of CNN news footage, Time magazine photojournalism and Roy Lichtenstein's comic book-derived violence. The director's excitement over the portfolio, her usual mild hauteur, and even the most basic signs of comportment instantly vanished. Granted, Ground Zero was only a short walk down West Broadway, her gallery had been shuttered for a month following the attacks, and her business had not yet rebounded, but the expression on her face was one of renewed horror and shock. She whispered, "People will never..." But Vorkals knew that people have before, and they certainly will again. Warhol taught us that.
Original in English
First published in Henrihs Vorkals, Riga 2009. (Latvian version)
Contributed by Studija
© Mark Allen Svede