Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 12, 2008
Saul Anton Warhol’s Dream Zurich and Dijon: JRP|Ringier in association with Les presses du réel, 2007. 160 pp.; 1 b/w ills. Paper $22.00 (9782840662006)

In philosophy we have important dialogues by Plato, Bishop Berkeley, and David Hume. A dialogue is a great format for presenting opposed points of view, without requiring that the author choose between them. But in art history, apart from some staged scenes in Diderot’s Salons, Mondrian’s dialogues, and Roberto Longhi’s short imagined discussion between Caravaggio and Tiepolo, it’s hard to cite examples of this literary form. (There were some French dialogues preceding modernism, and of course Andy Warhol contributed to that tradition in one of his dictated books.) I’ve always been a little surprised that we art historians have not been as interested as our colleagues within art criticism in experimentation with novel literary formats. Art critics often are openly subjective, while historians are expected to be impersonal, even when they discuss highly personal subjects. Perhaps that explains why most art history writing feels a little repressed. Novel literary forms, it could be argued, provide the best way to convey vividly our experience of contemporary and older visual art. But mostly our historical writers have been less inventive than the art they describe. Notwithstanding frequent complaints about the academic nature of most art historian’s prose, few of us are willing to innovate boldly.

With Warhol’s Dream, Saul Anton has composed an imaginary dialogue between Warhol and Robert Smithson, two of the most important and very different personalities of the 1960s. So far as I know, Smithson was not an important figure in Warhol’s world (for instance, his name does not appear in Steven Watson’s very full history of the Factory [Steven Watson, Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, New York: Pantheon, 2003]). But since he, like Warhol, wrote in a highly distinctive style, it’s possible in Anton’s marvelous exercise in ventriloquism to conjure up a dialogue between these two artists. Anton begins his dialogue with Warhol meeting Smithson in a diner. They talk about film and fashion, and go to the Empire State building, which allows for discussion of the differences between how they understand architecture. When they eventually go up, Smithson, it turns out, is frightened of elevators; they then compare the Empire State building to the Twin Towers. Warhol says, “I love space and I hate time” (73), which leads to a fascinating discussion of art museums, Central Park, and television. What he likes about movies, he says at a later point, is that “they make you forget about time” (131). In this part of the dialogues, Smithson tends to lecture, while Warhol . . . well, he’s Warhol, as in a funny scene when, with reference to his own future Last Suppers, he broods about the role of Judas in the Last Supper.

Upon finding a cave (like Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed at Kent State), it’s Warhol’s turn to become anxious. “I need to know where I am. If I can’t see where I am, I get nervous.” Smithson and Warhol next debate the importance of Duchamp and the occult, the importance of science fiction, and the politics of early modernist film. “Most curators and critics act in fact more like Hollywood showmen than thinkers,” Smithson says. “Their primary concern is to enforce and oversee artistic production and deliver it quickly and cheaply to its destination, as if it were a branch of the national economy” (120). This political claim, which Warhol rejects, leads into a fascinating discussion of the role of money in the art world. Warhol talks about his Maos and the politics of Interview, concluding, “I’m not a communist. I prefer fame to politics” (123). After a close–up, detailed debate about Chelsea Girls, Smithson offers a challenging perspective on Warhol’s movies: “Your films are absolutely confusing . . . because they don’t start out confusing and never confuse you at all” (132). The two artists, who argue at length (photography is an especially contentious subject), agree that they both “talk like no one else in the world” (136).

Anton’s short book is fun and funny in a way that very little art history writing is. He offers an original and suggestive perspective on two major artists. This polished narrative must have been difficult to write, because Smithson and Warhol had radically different prose styles. Of greatest interest are the general questions that Anton’s analysis poses about academic discourse. Could academic art history be systematically written in this dialogue style? Not yet perhaps, for it is hard to imagine Warhol’s Dream being submitted as a doctoral thesis or published in The Art Bulletin. We art historians maintain a rigid distinction between creative prose, which we expect to be madly innovative, and commentary, which should obey the well-entrenched rules for academic discourse.

But perhaps this conclusion is too pessimistic or, at least, premature. Imagine dialogues in which Agnes Martin and Robert Motherwell debate, or in which Sean Scully and Frank Stella argue. Here, following Anton, I have cheated by considering artists who also are art writers. The published accounts by these painters would allow a gifted writer to compose such discussions. It would be much more difficult to imagine a dialogue between, say, Clyfford Still and Kara Walker, for they are known, basically, by their art. But it would be easy, I expect, to envisage an exchange between Thomas Crow and Arthur Danto, for these two art writers have interpreted Warhol in very different ways. Inspired by Warhol’s Dream, I am trying to imagine an academic world in which writing about visual art is quite different from what we find in Artforum and also The Art Bulletin. What would our visual culture be like, I am asking, if Anton’s book was widely imitated? But here I am inspired by Smithson’s writings, for he, unlike Warhol, was much interested in the power of utopian thinking. Warhol’s Dream is an important book because it is madly suggestive.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar