The Similarity and Difference in the Work and Methodology of Andy Warhol
By Gioia Sawaya
“You can’t have similarity without difference, and you can’t have difference without similarity.”1
The relationship between similarity and difference is one that has brought forth many questions, answers, and criticisms. In describing similarity and difference, Reiser and Umemoto state that “similarity can emerge out of difference, and difference can emerge out of similarity. Today, we are moving away from the understanding of the discrete to an understanding of discrete elements as parts of a self-similar structure.” 2
But how does repetition ﬁt into the scheme of things, and how can this logic stand in relation to the artistic ﬁeld? The logic behind repetition can be applied regardless of content. What is interesting about it, however, is the emergence of pattern. Reiser and Umemoto argue that “repetition in multiple models is necessary to make selection, while repetition within a single model is necessary to register differentiation.”3
In a deepening of the understanding of repetition in relation to the idea of generating differentiation, this piece will discuss this notion while examining the work and methodology of Andy Warhol: one of passivity and of variance.
“I am a very superficial person”, says Warhol. From a vague philosophy carrier of multiple meanings, to graphical illustrations very superficial and naive, the philosophy of Warhol is to interpret some scenarios, very vapid and simple in nature, by exploring the possible relationships between them and the medium used. In repetition, Warhol finds inspiration. It is in this technique that his feelings find an artistic body and a shape. His silk-screenings expose colors, textures, traces, patterns and superpositions of icons that reveal illustrations of speculations based on a search for identity, an attempt at communication, translation, and a transfer of the idea that the silk-screen is trying to pose, impose, propose, and stabilize.
Within these speculations emerges a supposition and within this supposition, one notices that Warhol approaches repetition through stereotypes. Even though his silk-screenings look similar, they are in fact different. His print-making technique makes repetition part of the meaning of the image. While being a technique used to allow precise delineations, even when one single silk-screening is felt as repetition, Warhol doesn’t stop repeating images until repetition is “magnified” into a theme of variance and invariance; in other words, a spectrum of successes and failures of “identicalness”. Therefore, when the medium could be easily used with more precision; in fact, it is not. Warhol’s purpose here is to emphasize on the idea of “repeating” by “not repeating precisely”. Hence, one can say that Warhol has succeeded at “failing to repeat”. This suggests that in Warhol’s work, successful repetition is to be avoided, while failing to repeat is to be emphasized.
Therefore, Warhol’s methodology defines a territory whose character is derived from the action of self-replication and its interrelations. Similar to genetics, self-replication plays a powerful role in the idea of emergence and in generating differention.
By definition, genetics are based on an analogy within the genetic structure and the behavior of chromosomes within a population of individuals. While each generation consists of a population of character strings that are analogous to the chromosomes that we see in our DNA, each individual represents a point in a search space. But every organism has a set of rules, a blueprint as to speak, that describes how that organism is built up from the tiny building blocks of life, and these rules are encoded in the genes of an organism. Very occasionally, a gene may be mutated, and this mutated gene will be expressed in the organism as a completely new trait. Thus, one can thus see that self-replication and mutation are becoming interestingly well-known topics extending beyond natural science to reach artistic processes and methodologies that can result in a leap forward.
Going back to the work and methodology of Andy Warhol, by simply defining borders and exposing figures (like the iconic figure of Marlyn Monroe, for example) links are created, relations are formed, and new layers start to appear. While remaining free and with no fixed boundaries, a configuration of nodes of concentration of synergies and exchanges emerge, sedimented over superpositions of repeated actions.
Calling his studio “a factory”, Warhol was interested in mass production, in commerce, and in the business of making money. Using repetition of similar or identical ready-made objects as a formal structure, he referred to himself as “a machine”. But unlike the work of Francis Bacon, in his work, Warhol embedded a figurative image. His art was a surface. Maybe to describe it more accurately, his work was several surfaces superposed together to create a feeling of pure narcissism.
However, figures generated on the silk-screen are just utopian fantasies if the silk-screen itself is not taken as a material element and repetition as a model for diversity. The key behind this philosophy is to recognize the potential of the “emerged”, thus exploring the beauty of the next layer as a hidden system with a regenerative core. Shifting from the idea of repetition to the idea of emergence, Warhol’s work indicates actions strongly farsighted, aimed at placing pop-art landscapes at a completely different level. His methodology is based on a simple but sensitive vision. Based on that, repetition has become a new centrality in his pop-art landscapes: an opportunity to re-compose illustrations in terms of form, structure, balance, and composition. In other words, it has become a chance to recombine their genes into a totally new off-spring, while having some traits of resemblance.
Hence, the potential of the emerged layers come from a palimpsest of delineations, occasionally coming into focus through similarity and difference.
“Repetition is displacement; repetition is difference… repetition is pushing the limits of resemblance and limitation… It has some other factors and dynamics.” 4
Therefore, repetition, by its very own nature, marks a rupture. Regardless of where and how it is applied, it opens up for new horizons and proposes new possibilities beyond displacement and difference. It is a process used to help uncover new layers hidden behind, helping to emerge new traits and meanings.
As a conclusion, repetition represents a transition from the pursuit of the similar to the discovery of the different. To Warhol, this potential has emerged in a modern form. It became the battlefield on which to test the consistency of his replicated ideas and figures while requiring him to look at mutation for inspiration, taking the philosophy behind the properties of a biological “gene” to be used in his own field, which is art. Looking into these literature and theories (of emergence) in relation to morphogenesis, and to mutation and difference in evolutionary computation, Warhol was able to stand out. He was able to achieve difference through similarity that is neither simple nor easy no matter how mundane it may seem.
His artistic manifestations conformed to a methodology of repeated actions, extruded and embodied by paying emphasis to selection, replication, and mutation strategies. As such, the evaluation of his outputs was possible, and the difference between the emerging figures for each of his illustrations was to be observed. Interestingly, observation quickly became part of Warhol’s work.
At some level, this philosophy reminds of the dissemination of reality and meaning, and the rise of spectacle as a postmodern theory first discussed by Baudrillard and Debord. By negating his role as an artist, he allowed his work, to essentially become the “spectacle”. He allowed it to become more accessible to his viewers whom he succeeded in immersing them in his artwork as active participants. Thus, he cultivated their collective identity and excitement in experiencing his artwork.
Therefore, even when some may argue that his artwork is injected with banality and is devoid of emotional resonance, with no meaning whatsoever behind the surface level, Warhol’s philosophy is based on questioning the prerequisites of art by deflating it, hence elevating the repetition technique as something more than a technique. This opened up his work to various interpretations, a whole new set of superpositions to explore.
1 Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto, “Atlas of Novel Tectonics”, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006), 44
2 Ibid. 44
3 Ibid, 46
4 Elaine Sturtevant, “Oral History interview With Elaine Sturtevant”, Sturtevant in conversation with Bruce Hainley and Michael Lobel on July 25-26 2007 (New York: Smithsonian Archives of American Art, 2007), 39. Last updated on July 16, 2015.
About the author:
Gioia Sawaya is an architect from Lebanon. She holds a Bachelor in Architecture from the “Notre Dame University”, Lebanon and a masters degree in “Strategic Design of Spaces” from “Instituto de Empresa”, Madrid. Gioia’s research methodology focuses on the role of theory in relation to the design process, examining the possibilities that challenge the rethinking of architecture and space in a novel way. Currently, her research interests look into the intersections between design and technology, going beyond the traditional boundaries into the technological shifts that are transforming the way people live today.