Fillip 8 — Fall 2008

Robert Smithson and Any Warhol at the Factory, New York, c. 1965. Photograph by Nancy Holt.

I Dream of Drella
Joseph Mosconi

I had an awful nightmare last night....I was taken to a Clinic. I was sort of involved in a charity to cheer up monsters—people who were horribly disfigured, people born without noses, people who had to wear plastic across their faces because underneath there was nothing. –A., The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) _Uh-oh. Andy Warhol is dreaming again—this time he’s an inquisitive interlocutor to Robert Smithson in Saul Anton’s dialogical art-novel _Warhol’s Dream. In a cerebral conversation that touches on the subjects of perspective, iconicity, monumentality, surface, death, science fiction, the role of the museum, the limits of art, the prehistoric versus the post-historic, circular and linear time, and the architecture and identity of the Empire State building and the Twin Towers, as well as myriad other topics, Anton manages to ventriloquize with varying degrees of success the voices of two of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.

Venturing such an imagined conversation is not without its perils. Among them is the difficult task of reconciling the documented statements by Smithson on Warhol with the convivial repartee that Anton has constructed for them in his fictional dream-dialogue. Smithson was both an admirer and critic of Warhol’s work, and he critiqued his precursor with characteristic precision. Among his published writings, Smithson drew attention to two particular aspects of Warhol’s practice that are relevant here. The first was his method of production. “I don’t happen to have a mechanistic view of the world,” Smithson said in a 1973 interview with Moira Roth. “Andy Warhol saying he wants to be a machine is this linear and Cartesian attitude developed on a simple level. And I just don’t find it very productive.” Against Warhol’s perceived mechanistic tendencies, and against an earlier abstract trend in his own practice, Smithson proposed a dialectical method of production that would, by his own account, find its most mature fruition in his Nonsite sculptures.

Interestingly, another feature of Warhol’s practice that Smithson chose to comment on was his use of language—specifically the “self-inventing dialogue” employed in Warhol’s films. In his 1968 essay “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art,” Smithson, following Serge Gavronsky, describes the language used by Warhol’s film subjects as forceless and unconvincing: “Warhol’s syntax forces an artifice of sadomasochism that mimics its supposed ‘reality.’...Even his surfaces destroy themselves.””2 (read footnote)”:#note2 Here one finds the aporia inherent in the nightmare Warhol recounted; one tears off the plastic mask to find nothing but a void underneath. This scenario enacts a common criticism of Warhol: that his work is shallow, all surface, and overly obsessed with the social. The problem with this critique, as Smithson knew, and Anton must certainly be aware, is that the surface and the social are entirely valid and fruitful subjects of artistic investigation.

Anton skillfully broaches this problem by mimicking Warhol’s casually bemused, self-inventing voice and Smithson’s crystalline, precise prose; where the language approaches the likelihood of falling into cliché, Anton employs the artists’ own terminology and ideas to meet at a humorous play on words. Here are Smithson (Bob) and Warhol (Andy) discussing the Empire State building as the illusionistic center of Manhattan:

Bob: The center is an illusion, a moving target.

Andy: That’s true. One year, so-and-so who’s got the million-dollar house in St. Tropez is it, but the next year, nobody cares because they’ve met someone else who lives in a one-bedroom apartment, but has a million-dollar art collection.

Bob: That’s not exactly what I mean. This is a cosmic condition, not a social one. As you near the center, it retreats, like a black hole infinitely receding; but once you cross a certain threshold—what astrophysicists call the event horizon—there’s no going back.

Andy: The event horizon? That sounds like something social.

Bob: It’s not. The black hole’s gravitational force draws you in until you are compressed into its infinitely dense core.

Andy: Is that what happened in 2001?

One of the dangers of putting two artists as different as Smithson and Warhol into imaginary dialogue with one another is the inclination to treat them as opposing spokesmen of a false binary: Smithson, the scientist of time, space, perspective, control, and entropy, and Warhol, the maven of mediation, society, surface, flatness, and fame. It is to Anton’s credit that much of his book is dedicated to interrogating the received wisdom of Smithson and Warhol’s legacies, and to that extent his book functions as both a work of art criticism and a philosophical treatise in the manner of Plato’s dialogues or, more fittingly, Denis Diderot’s Le rêve D’Alembert (1769). Not surprisingly, Anton is currently completing his doctoral dissertation on the origins of modern aesthetics in the writings of Diderot.

Still, in many ways Warhol’s Dream acts as a primer for the ideas and theories of its protagonists—a sort of Beginners’ Guide to Robert Smithson and Andy Warhol. Thus, the questions become: Why couldn’t one simply read these artists’ primary writings? What does this exercise in ventriloquism manage to add to the copious literature on Smithson and Warhol—and what does it tell us about the condition of art today, thirty-five years after the death of Smithson and more than twenty years after the death of Warhol?

Ventriloquism is essentially an art of illusion. Anton succeeds in his fiction by tricking the reader into believing that Smithson and Warhol might have actually had something interesting to say to one another. Where the artists’ interests converge, such as on the subjects of underground cinema or the necessity of artists’ writings, the illusion that Smithson and Warhol are actually in conversation is uncanny. Where their interests diverge there is a somewhat patchwork-like quality to the dialogue, as Anton awkwardly attempts to force the conversation. It’s unfortunate that the dialogue is constrained by the limits of Smithson’s life; the range of possible topics does not extend much beyond 1973, the year of Smithson’s death. It would have been interesting, say, to get Smithson’s take on Warhol’s increasingly public and televisual persona. A bit of anachronism might have provided a nice fictional variation.

“Every variation suggests infinite possibilities,” says Anton’s version of Robert Smithson. And the variations Anton does place into his fiction allow him to explore a variety of possible trajectories. For instance, extrapolating from Smithson’s 1966–67 essay “The Pathetic Fallacy in Esthetics,” Anton transforms a critique of “framing support” in formalist criticism into a reflection on Warhol’s use of space: “The framing support has nothing to do with abstraction. You blurred the relation between the frame and what’s in the frame, but you didn’t identify the gallery as an abstract space,” Smithson tells Warhol. Elsewhere, there is a certain amount of welcome revisionism; Warhol proclaims, “I’m starting to regret that I said I wanted to be a machine,” and Anton detournes a thought by Smithson on the nature of the suburbs of Passaic, New Jersey (“Time turns metaphors into things, and stacks them up in cold rooms”) into an observation about Central Park: “With the Park, the opposite happens. Cold things are turned into metaphors.” Best of all, Anton manages to capture Warhol’s shifty avoidance of absolutes in a lightly humourous passage early in the book:

“Sure” is the surest word you can use because it doesn’t mean yes and it doesn’t mean no. People are always disappointed if you tell them no, so I try not to; on the other hand, you can’t say yes, either, because they usually take it to mean something other than what you mean. “Sure” doesn’t really mean “maybe,” either. It just means “sure,” which is anything they want it to mean, but a meaning they can’t hold you to. “Sure” is the most artistic word I know. As an art critic and historian writing more than three decades after his characters’ fictional meeting, Anton naturally brings to his project a certain amount of knowledge and self-awareness of the subsequent trajectories of art history. And so with no little irony the fictional Warhol can quip, in a plausible if notional statement, “If only sculpture could learn how to vanish,” just as Laura Hoptman, one of the curators of the New Museum’s Unmonumental show, begins her catalogue essay by writing, “After a hiatus of perhaps as long as forty years, sculpture is again leading the contemporary art discourse.””3 (read footnote)”:#note3 It seems as though Andy Warhol got his wish, if only temporarily. Like Smithson’s “new monuments,” the sculpture at Unmonumental is built not for the ages, but rather against the ages.

Similarly, the fictional Smithson, with full knowledge of the future, can tell Warhol, “Yes, but ultimately we will have to reintegrate wilderness into the home. If we don’t, we can expect innumerable films exploring the emptiness of suburbia from every possible point of view. . . .” Such a statement, while remaining true to the spirit of Smithson’s writings on suburbia,”4 (read footnote)”:#note4 could only have been written after a litany of works of suburban cinema emerged: Safe, Short Cuts, The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Far From Heaven_—basically, any movie starring Julianne Moore. Such knowingness threatens to derail Anton’s project. Thankfully, he provides just enough humour and satirical commentary to keep the dialogue engaging. Anton even turns the wickedness of Warhol’s wit on his own profession and manages to pre-empt any criticism of his book. “Well, you’re an art critic,” Warhol tells Smithson. “Who wants that? Even people who read the stuff don’t really want it, even though they think they want it. They don’t want someone to tell them about art.” So what can I tell you about _Warhol’s Dream? Does it succeed as a work of art criticism? As a work of the imagination? Sure.

  1. Robert Smithson, “Robert Smithson on Duchamp,” in _Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings _(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  2. Robert Smithson, “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art,” in _Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings _(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  3. Laura Hoptman, “Unmonumental: Going to Pieces in the 21st Century,” in Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century (London: Phaidon Press, 2007).
  4. Such as this from Robert Smithson’s “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art”: “Los Angeles is all suburb, a pointless phenomenon which seems uninhabitable, and a place swarming with dematerialized distances. A pale copy of a bad movie.” _Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings _(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

Image: Robert Smithson and Any Warhol at the Factory, New York, c. 1965. Photograph by Nancy Holt. Courtesy of Saul Anton

About the Author

Joseph Mosconi is a writer and linguist who lives in Los Angeles. He has work forthcoming in the poetry journal Primary Writing. Excerpts from an essay on the OuLiPo and their influence on contemporary writing will appear in a collection entitled The nOulipian Analects, forthcoming on Les Figues Press. He currently works at Google, Inc.

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