Rummaging through the internet on the topic of Andy Warhol piss paintings two points immediately jump out - the paintings are either praised as a novel step in artistic experimentation, or considered among the worst of his late works. Their value, however, does not seem to be affected by such contradictory opinions. One of his piss or oxidation paintings, as they are also referred to, was sold at Christie’s in 2008 for astonishing 1,889,000 dollars. Their creation came after a rather dry period for the artist when his work was widely criticized as too superficial even for him. His exhibition from late 1970s and early 1980s were received with harsh criticism, particularly his 1979 display of celebrity portraits in Whitney museum and the exhibition of dollar-sign paintings in 1982, which prompted Stuart Morgan, a critic at Artforum to unapologetically observe how :” In recent years his shows have been increasingly disappointing… Warhol's work has always been empty, but now it seems empty-headed.”
Slowly reaching the end of his career and life, Warhol suddenly decided to turn to something that he has been avoiding thus far, and to give it a personal and a slightly ironic twist - the abstraction. While Warhol’s most famous artworks are based in pop figuration, which earned him a crown of the king of Pop Art, abstraction was left for the painters of Abstract Expressionism and color field painting to experiment with. Clearly polarized American art scene of the time between figuration based in celebrity and popular images, and abstraction that served its function in Cold War cultural bickering, was hardly prepared for the emergence of the piss punch delivered by Warhol and his studio minions. Blurring the lines between genres and art forms, Warhol’s piss or oxidation paintings in their visual presentation could hardly be pronounced as novel, but the mode of their execution breaches the thus far established distinction between different art practices. Aesthetic form achieved through the use of bodily fluids, and not any fluid but the one considered a waste, complicates their interpretation, and positions oxidation paintings between the discourses dealing with social divisions, artistic experimentation with body, abstract art, and finally eroticism.
Andy Warhol worked on his Oxidation series in 1977 and 1978. It was created in his studio, better known as Factory, which was visited by many of his friends and aficionados in this period. His urgency to take a further step in experimentation with artistic methods that led him away from typical Pop Art pieces is not clear, but some instances could be inferred from different interviews. Warhol’s statements could tip off the reasons why he took the transgressive step of using waste liquid in art. He confessed that: "I might be well known, but I'm sure not turning out good work. I'm not turning out anything" and "I wasn't creative since I was shot". Pressure to return to his previous fame that was somewhat tarnished by “business art” he was engaging in - starting a gossip magazine, creating monotonous movies and doing commissioned portraits of Nancy Regan and Imelda Marcos, among others - could only be relieved by literary pouring out art from the accumulated emotional waste. And it came out in splashes.
Oxidation paintings were not created by Warhol alone, but in their execution participated many of his friends and visitors of the Factory at the time. The process included spreading out of canvases on the floor of his studio, and application of a copper paint. Then, Warhol would invite people to urinate on them, which would lead to aesthetically rich effects, as uric acid would react with the paint removing metal components in it. Some colors developed immediately while other appeared over time, such as blue and green hues that topped red and brown copper oxides. The achieved results were far from fortuitous. Warhol experimented with different metallic paints and the amount of the used fluid. Food that his assistants took also influenced the effect urine created on canvases. Ronny Cutrone was among the artist’s favorites, because: "he takes a lot of vitamin B so the canvas turns a really pretty color when it's his piss". Although it may seem that this notoriously base method required little or no effort, for Warhol it amounted to hard work. It required artistic skill otherwise the work would turn out to be a complete muddle. "If I asked someone to do an Oxidation painting, and they just wouldn't think about it, it would just be a mess. Then I did it myself - and it's just too much work - and you try to figure out a good design".
Although the use of body in oxidation paintings is limited to application of metallic colors on a surface and later pissing on it, the body still remains a significant element of each of these works. The creation of oxidation art came after Warhol admitted in his journal that after him being shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968, he has not been creative. However, piss paintings of the late 1970s were not the first he created. At the time of the biggest success of his artworks, he experimented with urine as well. The first piss painting Warhol made clandestinely in 1962. However, this work was not saved, and the importance oxidation paintings would have in his oeuvre are relative to his later career. In that period, Warhol engaged with some ghosts that hunted him from his early artistic days. By the time he moved to New York in 1949 Life magazine declared Jackson Pollock the greatest living artist in America. His drips cemented abstraction and Abstract Expressionism as the most important artistic style that was, with the help of CIA, exported abroad as the true visual expression of democracy and freedom. Body and bodily movements were crucial in creation of these paintings. Aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism depended on artists’ prowess and skills in controlling the gestures of their own bodies, and with them the free application of paint. Stirred somewhat by the stories of Pollock urinating on paintings he gave to clients he didn’t like, and also in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace after a row over one of his murals, Warhol seemed to ridicule such macho nonsense with his piss paintings. Provoked by the exemplary place given to Pollock’s art based on aggressive and presumably viral application of paint, Warhol played on this phallic symbolism by substituting paint brushes with sexual organs.
The use of bodily fluids and body in general, situates piss paintings in the niche with other famous works where body is basis of art but also the tool of its construction. Focusing on the waste body produces, Oxidation series is similar to Piero Manzoni’s 1961 work Merda d’artista or Fiato d'Artista. Filling 90 cans with his own excrement or balloons with his breath, Manzoni continued his conceptual work on the importance of artist as a ‘source’ of art, the critique of consumerism, and obsession with permanence, adding to his previous work where boiled eggs were marked with his fingerprint and given to viewers to eat in the piece Consumption of Art by the Art-Devouring Public. Body is a material source of his work but also a concept which engages social and artistic postulates of his time. Performance and feminist artists also use body in multiple ways, questioning its social and political meanings and limits. However, Andy Warhol’s Oxidation paintings are more than conceptual statements. Primarily engaged in critique of Abstract Expressionism, piss paintings are an extremely original take on abstraction, which proclaimed haughtiness is ridiculed through the use of base materials, but which nonetheless create aesthetically rich and beautiful results.
Bringing base material to an art form paraded as the highest and most valuable form of artistic expression devoid of politics and commercialism by critics such as Clement Greenberg, ruptured some of the art historical postulates and traditions. Warhol did something similar with his previous artworks by bringing commercial and apparently shallow topics to the core of high art expression, but Oxidation series continued this performative mode by taking on, possibly unknowingly, broader social issues as well.
Divisions created between, in the past, presumably civilized and uncivilized societies, and today between acceptable and unacceptable political or gender expressions conceptually rely on the ideas of purity and defilement. Order is preserved through exclusion of disorderly elements which are observed as dirt that defiles the otherwise pure environments. A need for purification and re-ordering of reality was behind many exclusionary politics and systems of oppression such as colonialism or racism. Dirt stood for disorder which needed to be eradicated for a semblance of order to be created in its place. A need for dissolution of social divisions that fed such conceptual understandings of dirt and purity reflected in visual methods converge high art forms with base materials as in Arte Povera, or the emphasis is put on body and its often despised and segregated functions, as in piss paintings. Far from being a purveyor of societal change, piss paintings on the conceptual level address complexities of social structuring by combining elements and forms that stand on its opposite ends. Piss paintings are not novel in their visual aesthetics or the use of urine. Paul Klee mentions in his diary that his friend Haller once was not able to find water on the streets of Rome to do a painting on Via Appia so he used his urine. Even today such practices are present, and urine is used both as a material and an inspiration, such as in works of Gavin Turk and Helen Chadwick. However, the conceptual meanings behind the abstract styles achieved by uric acid are complex and often cut into the social orderings and notions of propriety. Warhol’s inspiration for piss paintings might as well come from New York gay clubs, such as Toilet, where naked men would lay in tubs for other naked men to urinate on them. The sexual is something that is part of these works in either subtle or overt ways. As Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose image was printed on one of the Oxidations put succinctly, these paintings are like a “stained sheets of an erotic encounter”. Regardless of the multiplicity of interpretations or their experimental potential, the importance of Oxidations is in their engaging rapport with the world, where deeper meanings are uncovered through the obvious.
Featured images: Andy Warhol - Oxidation Painting. Image via villagevoice.com; Andy Warhol portrait. Image via pintrest.com. Andy Warhol - Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982. Image via Widewalls archive. All images used for illustrative purposes only.