The Eye Comes First

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Andy Warhol, "Self-portrait with Skull," 1977.

The first time I saw Andy Warhol, I thought he looked eccentric and ascetic, like a cross between Charles Manson, Gandhi and the Pope. I was in grade school, and Warhol, all in white, pale-skinned and wispy haired, was staring up from the pages of a late ‘80s edition of Chronicle of America. The text next to the image, a brief obituary, probably said a “gangrenous gallbladder” contributed to Warhol’s death, but “gangrene” is all I remembered. Like tuberculosis or typhoid fever, it seemed an antiquated, horribly sacrificial way to die and thus enhanced the ascetic quality I’d already associated with the artist. The second image in the obit was of one of Warhol’s soup cans. While I didn’t understand the can until years later, that’s how Andy impressed himself on me: wispy spirituality next to a crisply rendered, oversized Campbell’s can. From the start, my experience of the pop art star was intensely visual.

Though Warhol’s soup cans now belong to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, they debuted at Ferus Gallery in L.A. in 1962 and they’ve returned to this city for their 49th anniversary. For the next three months, you can see all 32 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Like many, I have come to take the soup cans for granted. They have their critically carved out place as, to borrow from critic Gary Indiana, “the first shots” of a visual revolution that didn’t aim to “rescue American banalities from banality but to give banality itself value.” But  talk of banalities, consumerism and pop has undercut how visually striking the things themselves are.

Andy Warhol's Campbells Soup Cans, exhibited at MOCA Los Angeles.

The cans struck Ferus dealer Irving Blum hard when he visited Warhol’s New York studio in 1961 and offered the artist his first-ever solo show. Still, when the series debuted at Ferus, the paintings took some getting used to. “The gallery next door put soup cans in its window and said, ‘buy them here they’re cheaper,'” said art historian Shirley Nielson Blum. A few L.A. collectors knew a good thing, however. In an oft retold piece of L.A. lore, four or five soup cans sold for $100.00 each, then Blum asked for the paintings back. “Andy wants to keep them all together,” he explained, and Blum himself continued to own them into the ‘90s, by which time they’d grown in worth to $10 Million. Scam or not, the paintings do fare best as a group. Hung on MOCA’s walls, they’re perfectly spaced and immaculate, like colored product placement in a black and white Bergman film—wholly unforgettable.

Ferus often gets disproportionate credit for starting the ball rolling for contemporary art in this city, but other galleries played key roles, too. One, Nicholas Wilder Gallery, started out across the street from Ferus. Because Nick Wilder was the first to give Cy Twombly, who died last week, a solo show here in L.A., he’s been on my mind. In a treasure-filled interview he gave the Smithsonian Archive of Art in 1988, the year before he died, Wilder described the difficulty of getting people to just look.

David Hockney, "Portrait of Nick Wilder," 1966.

He told interviewer Ruth Bowman he fell into art because he “was just curious about how you arrived at the visual experience that you were going to be stuck with.” But some collectors wanted words and explanations to validate art for them:

What you usually did, depending on the person, is you tried to break down their resistance to seeing. You tried to disencumber them. . . .

So you show them how the Morris Louis was painted or how Ron Davis arrived at the plastics or you did an analogy. You said, “Oh, gee, we’re looking at a [Hans] Hofmann now. I have to tell you my Hofmann experience. . .”

. . . If you could get them interested, usually––this is hindsight––on the level you were interested, all of a sudden you had a convert and you could sell them paintings.

Said Wilder, “the eye precedes the idea. It’s just that simple.”