I wonder if Mr. Billy Collins has ever approached the ineffable connection between paint-by-number art and Andy Warhol? It seems that paint-by-number (PBN) came from nearly nowhere, a near state of being nowhere and nothing, just after WWII, to the point of selling millions of sets by 1952.
It was an astonishing thing, really, how the PBN craze took over America. And it just so happens that 1952 was the first one-man show for Andy Warhol, and was also the beginnings of the Pop Art movement, which seems to me a rush to the most common denominator trough the commoditization of consumerism and popular culture, creating art out of visible nothingness. Warhol in particular trained his sites on images that were already twisted around people’s neurons and living in their memories. Art was made from images injected into the heads of consumer buying units, a delightful confusion of imagination and the already imagined, a reaction to a familiar sub rosa advertised image.
Perhaps Warhol’s art was part of a larger whole, an
illustrator to a bigger point, a performance unintended to stand alone. But that is what happened, the art separated
from the wider message, and soared to great acclaim.
Warhol seems more like a paint-by-number color memorist, filling in the blanks of an already-mostly-formed memory burned into the long term memory via years of advertising and severe repetition. Nearly the entire broadcast industry was created to support this memory-making process: Seinfeld, Spongebob, The Office, Your Show of Shows, and all the rest, created not necessarily for your pleasure but as a series of interchangeable 11-minute-long placeholders to hold the viewer/listener to the point where they would be exposed to 180 seconds of product identification. It is the repetitious memory formation that the folks depended upon so that when you go down the supermarket aisle looking for an 89-cent can of tomato squeezings called “soup” that the 799 exposures to the Campbell Soup Company’s product line will direct you their way, a primitive bit of biological programming. And for all of the trimmings and philosophical-critical digressions, Warhol capitalized on creating art on vast shared memories, coloring in a shared image, reaching into the minds of millions for something that everyone could see and understand—and not have to think about, not lose one neuron in interpretation, and enjoy it like an comfy old slipper.
Where Warhol succeeds and PBN fails is at the art/appreciation point—few people took the PBN seriously as an art form, mainly because it wasn’t presented as such, except for those who somehow took the thing too seriously. Warhol took his creations seriously from the very beginning—and perhaps there was really nothing more than the defense of his art that was the art itself. It just seems to me that, in the history of art, it tool 1500 years or so for linear perspective to be rediscovered, another 500-odd years beyond that to bend and mystify nature in the form of Impressionism, and another 30 years to lose all recognizable natural forms all together. And then after Braque and Duchamp and Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter, and the Fauvism, Suprematism, Vorticism, Dadaism, Deco, De Stijl, Surrelaism, Concrete art, Abstract Impressionism, and on and on, that after all of this since Nude Descending, that we are lead to Pop Art and silkscreens of soup cans. It just seems to me to be more about the packaging than the package, which might just well be a wrapped bit of nothing.