BY MIN CHEN
As his career grew long, so Andy Warhol’s volubility grew short. His was already the language of primary colors and everyday objects—his art was expansive through repetition and multiplication, his films found focus in the trivial—before fame and infamy allowed him to dispense with drawn-out artist statements for pithy one-liners. He prescribed 15 minutes of fame for everyone, declared three made a party, and lauded the pointlessness of art—each time in 280 characters or less.
Who is this artist, we asked. Was he profound in his brevity? Or was he just brief? “Just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am,” said he. “There’s nothing behind it.”
This reticence and po-mo detachment, this wariness toward ascribing depth to his art burnished his aloof enigma—and in a way that he was certainly not unaware: “I learned that you actually have more power when you shut up.” Surely, though, no artist is this superficial, no person this skin-deep. Unless he was. Unless those screen prints of Marilyns, soup tins, cows, and guns were simply what they were—all surface, pure image.
Take the two record sleeves Warhol created in 1967 and 1971 for The Velvet Underground & Nico’s eponymous debut album and The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers respectively. While he’d designed record covers since 1949—when, as a commercial artist newly arrived in New York City, he took on assignments from Blue Note and Columbia Records, illustrating the sleeves of albums by Count Basie and Kenny Burrell, among others, in his kinky, wavy lines and in the spirit of David Stone Martin—his work for the Velvets and Stones records were charged with his own intent and economy of language.
As with any Warhol product, both sleeves presented unadulterated image. The plain banana on the Velvets’ record and the crotch shot on the Stones’ have become unrelentingly iconic—the former’s strict lines and saturated color, and the latter’s brazen denim-clad masculinity elevating the ordinary into the hieroglyphic. On the surface at least, they are unmistakably Warholian.
But behold, a twist. Lying just off the banana on the Velvet’s record cover, which featured a peel-off sticker on original editions, is the instruction, “PEEL SLOWLY AND SEE,” just as early pressings of Sticky Fingers bore on their covers a functioning zipper. Though, lest anyone think these works contain multitudes, those layers are but playful and illusional. Peeling off the Velvets’ skin merely reveals the inside of a banana in suggestive pink, while unzipping the Stones’ blue jeans unveils an underwear-clad crotch. It’s all in the tease; the reveals are unremarkable in their banality. In the world of Warhol, surface begets surface.
In 1962, before his pose and vocabulary grew studied, Warhol did inform Art in America: “My image is a statement of the symbols of the harsh, impersonal products and brash materialistic objects on which America is built today. It is a projection of everything that can be bought and sold, and practical but impermanent symbols that sustain us.” If his images—from banana to impersonal crotch—are indeed reflections of contemporary malaise and materialism, then their lack of depth is cleverly calculated. Barthes, who once argued, “What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself,” would approve.
And in any case, we are left with these indelible and enduring surfaces. Containing potent image and immediacy, these sleeve designs endure by obliterating the need for expansiveness. They are material upon material about material. You could dig, peel, and unzip for meaning and significance, but really, there’s nothing behind it. Hence, their power.