Gee, He Has No Brushstroke: Gender Performance in Andy Warhol's Oxidation Paintings

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Date: Annual 2016
From: Art Inquiries(Vol. 17, Issue 1)
Publisher: Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Document Type: Essay
Length: 5,506 words
Lexile Measure: 1640L

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Beginning in 1977, Andy Warhol and his assistants worked on a series of expressive and nonrepresentational Oxidation Paintings for which they urinated onto canvases coated with copper-based acrylic paint (Fig. 1). The uric acid forced the metallic surface to oxidize, creating soft-edged, abstract, green and black forms against a flattened field of reflective copper. The generated forms are irregular in nature, and therefore distinguish them from the Pop artist's mechanical mode of painting with silk-screened stencils at the Factory. The Oxidation Paintings implicitly recall the subjective action/reaction performance between painter and canvas that justified and defined Action Painting. This branch of Abstract Expressionism has been conceived primarily on the masculinist terms of Modernism, which was undermined by Warhol. The bodily material of the Oxidation Paintings imbues them with a suggested gender, and their historiography codes them as male, with the urine read as an indexical sign of the penis. Drawing upon these ideas, this essay thus argues that Warhol and his choreographed assistants composed in a manner that evoked the male member as mark-making tool, but visually denied its worth. By eliminating visible reference to the heraldic "phallus" in the paintings, Warhol expressed a queer masculinity that can be read as a pictorial representation of his own fluid gender identity.

The Oxidations have been cited as Warhol's return to avant-garde production, and his first foray into non-representational abstraction. (1) They were completed alongside the artist's work on the Shadow Paintings which are composed of brightly colored images generated from silk-screened Polaroid photographs of ambiguous shadows cast by mat boards in the Factory (1978-79). He received much critical acclaim for this series because of the foreboding mood expressed through the largely abstract imagery. (2) Both the Oxidation and Shadow Paintings were created as nonrepresentational works, but only the Shadows were made with Warhol's signature style and stenciled technique. As such, they hold a higher position in his historiography because they are more readily linked to Warhol. Immediately preceding both of these series, Warhol worked on a group of Torso and Sex Parts Paintings (1977), for which he transferred Polaroid photos of genitalia and nude male torsos onto large canvases with silk-screen stencils. The gratuitous sex in this series has situated the paintings among the artist's least regarded work, despite their connection to his signature style and technique. The Oxidation Paintings were produced between the abstract Shadows and the erotic Torsos and Sex Parts, which makes this chronology important because the Oxidations have been read as both erotic and nonrepresentational. The savvy viewer will imagine the sex parts used to produce the paintings, and the soft edged forms remain abstract in its purest definition. But the Oxidations occupy an unsure place in the artist's oeuvre because they do not conform to Warhol's Pop Art style or method of production, and in the context of the Sex Parts, they may seem juvenile leaving many critics skeptical of their importance. For example, in his monograph on Warhol, Victor Bokris dismissed the series stating: "the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A561685525