These two paintings are of symbols of America - so consequentially - of pluralism and capitalism. Each presents a commodity, an everyday object that is recontextualized as an art object. Both become something new through representation: John's becomes a flag, Warhol's an advertisement. And both garner meaning from their means of production.
Johns' Flag is made with an encaustic process which obscures the surface detail of his collage when viewed from afar. His collage of printed detritus - news stories, adverts, ephemera - alludes to the disparate, conflicting, floating voices of American society. One can imagine the strength of the red and white "bars"as homogenizing and deamplifying these voices, like the flag itself which symbolizes democracy and freedom but is often used to quell individual dissent and to project uniformity.
Reading into the piece the McCarthy-era's obsessive fidelity to country (and capitalism) one sees the piece turn dark, alienating. Knowing too that Johns (like Warhol) was a gay man in an oppressively homophobic country unleashes more of the biting ironies of what is at first a seemingly innocuous piece.
Like Flag, Green Coca-Cola Bottles inquires about our democracy; Do we have one? Do we all have it? How much does it cost?
For Warhol, the commodity culture of the U.S was the great leveler of social classes.
"...The President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking."
But his statements about this backhandedly question the inequalities of that structure; though we may have the same products available to us this does not change our agency in society. We are either President or Bum all the same. And if we have no money we are unable to participate even in the faux-freedom of the marketplace. Unable to feel the contentment of Pepsi V. Coke.
Undermining the egalitarian quality he ascribed to Coke, the erratic quality of his screenprint leaves some bottles empty, some full. This hints at the growing gaps of a country beginning to feel the affect of white flight due to suburbanization and the ensuing inner city poverty that Lyndon Johnson attempted to bandage later in the 60's with his "Great Society."
If we view the bottles as stand-ins for individuals, or socio-economic groups and the company Coca-Cola as a stand-in for America (as most of the world views it) then Warhol's message is less than consolatory. We are all commodities to be bought and used and disposed of. And our country makes us that way.
Both of these can be seen as prophetic emblems for growing social divides (economic, racial, sexual, cultural, gender) that fully exploded later in the 60's and 70's. They stand as a testament to the obfuscation of inequality that is an integral part of what it is to be an American. And they show the flexibility of meaning found in even the simplest symbols.
Vito Acconci's Proximity Piece and Hans Haacke's News suffocate. They suffocate the audience member with interactivity, surveillance and the forthrightness of what they are. Both pieces are infections of the gallery space which continually change their boundaries and update themselves by the second. And though they are highly active and intrusive, both are paradoxically text based - meant to be read. These are challenges to the inert reader.
Haacke's News is a constant news update - the disasters, wars and intrigue billow out moment by moment. The topics are worldwide in scope, bringing the world in its disarray to the viewer in the gallery. But it is useless information. After all this is a museum goer, cordoned off in some wing of some building on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The museum goer goes to escape and the encroachment of the world into her divertissement is unwanted. But News penetrates the amiable day at the museum - both physically and mentally.
With the war on Vietnam as a backdrop to the piece, it must have seemed to be simultaneously a call to action as well as a numbing agent - a dehumanizing filter where events and people are turned into letters and numbers. These characters and statistics are created to be easily consumed and at once made obsolescent by the next news break. It is a psychologically difficult piece, one that speaks to the initial problems of a dawning (computer) age where information is everywhere but the desire to care about it is found nowhere.
Like Proximity Piece, News tells you beforehand exactly what it is and what it will be, yet it is constantly refiguring its contours. The news is always different (yet essentially, inescapably the same), the amount of already printed paper changes, the other people in gallery walk in or walk away. It seems like a point blank affair but never is found as you left it.
In the same way, Acconci tells everyone what he is going to do. It is printed and on the wall. He is going to stand very close to you. And in doing so he will force you to become the piece. In the documentation of Proximity Piece we see Acconci echoing News in his embodiment of surveillance, of being too close, of watching too closely.
Because the gallery goer is constitutive of the piece, it never plays out exactly the same way. And it might not start at all - Acconci could never be in the gallery during the entire show. So the question of if you would be or were being followed by a man, an artist, still arose. It too is a dark piece - though funny - for all it refers to in the world: stalking, rape, domineering personalities, subjugation, bosses, authority. It harasses the viewer - in a way which might normally be legally actionable outside of the museum building. It installs a discomfort, one less cerebral than News but not one less affecting. By installing this discomfort where we expect white-walled neutrality and calm, Proximity is like Chicago in 1968: a little bit of bringing the war home.
IN LOOKING AT MYSELF ONLINE:
Donewaiting and Weedsteeler linked here. What every blog aspires to.
Poster maker C.M Ruiz name drops me in this interview when someone asks him to name drop someone.
Someone put up a catalog I co-made on this thing.