In 1983 Warhol began a series, rumor has it, at the behest of Zurich gallerist Bruno Bischofberger. The famed gallerist was born in 1940, and became internationally renowned for being one of the first proponents of Warhol and the American pop artists, as well as the contemporary art phenom Gerhard Richter. Warhol and Bruno’s relationship began in the early 60s and their first exhibition together was in 1965. Only three years later the two would enter into a contractual agree wherein Mr. Bischofberger would have right of first refusal, which is legalese for Mr. Bischofberger having first dibs on a new Warhol before Warhol could offer it to anyone else.
Supposedly, Mr. Bischofberger had told Warhol to make paintings for children, and as Warhol famously had amassed a large collection of toys so he took up the mantle. A dedicated observer of the world around him, Warhol channelled the loud Americana symbolism of the toy’s package with incredible clarity. Harkening to the themes that are ever-present in Warhol’s work, these toy paintings elucidate the central tenets of Warhol in a unique way. In fact, these paintings prefigured some contemporary sentiments such as the outsourcing of labor and geopolitical policy. A few of the paintings, many of which were on display in 2014 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, read “Made In China,” “Made in Russia,” and “Made in Japan.”1 By today’s standards it almost seems drole to even bring up that labor is outsourced as it is considered such a widely common business practice. However, in 1983, this practice was relatively unheard of. Furthermore, 1983 was a uniquely wild year for US-Soviet relations. As the child of Polish immigrants Warhol was acutely aware of USSR aggression. To quote former USSR Leader Mikhail Gorbachev “ Never, perhaps, in the postwar decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence, more difficult and unfavorable, as in the first half of the 1980s.”2 Paintings such as Toy Painting , Fish offer the first entry ways into this form of seeing. Consider that the fish is a classic symbol of Catholicism which by the virtue of its display means the belief in Jesus Christ as the savior. When the fish symbolism is juxtaposed with the cyrillic text lining the top and bottom edges of the painting it becomes clear that the piece is a prayer for peace and hope in a tumultuous world.
Warhol was an expert appropriator and manipulator of Americana symbols which he used to create poignant commentary on the world around him. Thus, here the swirling anxieties and worries of a nation on the brink of war, which the then French President Francois Mitterrand compared to the “1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1948 faceoff of Berlin,” are juxtaposed with symbolism of levity, play, and the freedom of youth.3 Through bold colors and outlines, these toy paintings also harken back to Warhol’s commercial art background and to the playfulness of youth.
Another aspect of note is that a majority of these toy paintings are actually “abstract” paintings of the toy’s box, rather than just the toy itself. But in a sense, creating this kind of imagery is far more Warhol than a painting of a toy could ever be. By representing that which is exterior to the toy making the metaphorical leap that the painting is then about something larger than just what is on the canvas. It follows thus that the decision to paint the box is to also say that the painting holds more to it than what is on the outside, just as the box holds more than just the imagery printed on the outside. Immediately the viewer is then forced to pay attention to what’s around them in a new way, and as Warhol was a contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists/Action Painters of New York, this was an especially biting critique. Look at Clyfford Still next to Ad Reinhardt next to Barnett Newman next to Willem De Kooning. While everyone around them was trying to create some sort of unique pictorial language that only they could speak, Warhol sought to find that which was unquestionably in the American zeitgeist. Ironically, Warhol’s idiosyncratic use of the imagery around him is so undoubtedly his that, on a staunchly formal philosophical level, it could be argued that these paintings are in a sense action paintings. Warhol’s unique approach to art is so revolutionary because it at times subsumes everything around it while simultaneously resisting definition as his works always seem to offer a new reading of seemingly disparate aspects of society.
By doing so Warhol’s work has longevity in both relevance and significance. Warhol was considered a counterculture figure in his time, and his work was in fact the antithesis of what “Art” was at the time. However, this lends significance to Warhol’s work as when you view him in the context of the artist with which he was contemporary, then how revolutionary he was becomes immediately apparent. As Andy once said himself “once you ‘got’ Pop, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought pop, you could never see America the same way again. The mystery was gone, but the amazement was just starting.”4 Furthermore, the fact that Warhol was so revolutionary for his time will always lend a level of relevance to a contemporary viewer. Imagine the young teen who, whether it is true or not, believes they are ahead of the cultural curve also makes Warhol relevant for years to come as Warhol was clearly ahead of his time, a prescient observer Warhol will be ever relevant for anyone who feels like they’re on the bleeding edge of culture.
1 Rapp, D. (2013). Warhol for Kids: A Pop View of Toys. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/.premium-warhol-for-kids-a-pop-view-of-toys-1.5296345
2 Fischer, B. (2008). A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/a-cold-war-conundrum/s ource.htm
4 P. Hackett , Popism: the Warhol ’60s, New York, 1980, pp. 39-40. Retrieved from https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/andy-warhol-american-1928-1987-monkey-toy-painting-6098958-details.aspx