chapter  2
20 Pages

Absent Bodies/Absent Subjects: The Political Unconscious of Postmodernism

Commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Art in America published a set of interviews with a dozen gay and lesbian artists in June 1994. One of the points that emerges is the overriding significance of Andy Warhol to a new generation of queer artists. Deborah Kass, for instance, says:

It is characteristic of queer politics as Kass understands it both to mythologize Warhol as the ‘first queer artist’ and, in the same breath, to demand a historical analysis of the situation in which he became the characteristic artist of his moment. As Kass implies, Warhol arrived in New York at a time when Abstract Expressionist painters were beginning to affirm the existence of ‘the artist as a masculine solitary, his artwork as a pure statement of individual genius and autonomous will’ (Jones 1993:630). In the 1950s, Warhol responded with the whimsical defiance of his ink and gold leaf drawings of women’s shoes and nude young men. In the Pop Art paintings of the early 1960s, he challenged the terms of artistic presence and expression that underwrote the aesthetic of Action Painting. Rejecting gesture and direct touch, he devised a method of painting with silk screens that placed the artist and his assistants at a deliberate, ironic distance from artistic making. We are now becoming aware that Warhol and other gay Pop Artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were neither alone nor the first to challenge the dominance of the male heterosexual model of artistic genius. If there is a particular moment at which this debate begins to be engaged, it may well be the occasion of the ‘Lecture on Nothing’ that John Cage delivered in 1949 to the Artists Club, a bohemian group that ‘became the primary arbiter of what would be called abstract expressionism’ (638). Warhol’s fey, nonconfrontational drawings of the 1950s, then, are tactical responses in a contest between queer artists and critics, on the one hand, and assertively straight ones, on the other.