BY Ara H. Merjian in Features | 23 MAY 13
Featured in
Issue 155

Mascots & Muses

From eroticism to transcendence, the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Andy Warhol has many surprising overlaps. Ara H. Merjian traces the affinities and contradictions between an unlikely pair

BY Ara H. Merjian in Features | 23 MAY 13

As perhaps the most recognizable figures of American and Italian postwar cultures, Andy Warhol and Pier Paolo Pasolini each gave the lie to his own notoriety: soft-spoken and of gentle temperament, shrouded behind the perpetual asylum of (sun)glasses and an abiding shyness, even at the centre of self-willed attention. On the cusp of the 1950s, both moved from the provinces to the metropolis – Pasolini in exile from scandal, Warhol in search of it – where their efforts would transform a generation of artists and authors, directors and critics. Equally unclassifiable, their bodies of work span the gamut of media, modes and materials. Warhol’s experiments in painting, sculpture, photography, cinema, writing, tape recording and other formats throughout the 1960s find their match in the scope of Pasolini’s efforts, from his early days as a dilettante painter and student of art history to his prominence as a poet, journalist, director, dramatist and relentless polemicist. Their imagery has found itself exhibited in the same Documenta (the sixth edition in 1977), while their writings sit side-by-side in academic anthologies. Their sensibilities have influenced the same artists (Alfredo Jaar, Nathaniel Mellors, Graziano Origa, Dino Pedriali, Mario Schifano), their work has shared the same critics (from Alberto Moravia to Roland Barthes), and their films, in at least once instance, the same actor (Allen Midgette).

Any association would seem to end there, however. ‘Commonist painting’ was what Warhol, in flip riposte to Cold War anxieties, thought to dub his trademark art. A self-styled travesty of Brechtian collectivism, Warhol’s dream – ‘I want everyone to think alike’ – was Pasolini’s nightmare. As a voluntary conduit of late-capitalist culture, that deadpan vision – dismantling affect and authorship, even as it forged a hyper-individualist brand – stands as the consummate foil to Pasolini’s heterodox Marxism. Warhol’s Factory (which ironically sat two floors down from the headquarters of the American Communist Party, at 33 Union Square, New York) was as promiscuous in its sociality as Pasolini’s ‘Laboratory’ (his term for the time spent in solitude at his desk) was jealously private. Whether in defence of regional dialects or assailing the prevalence of television, the latter clamoured tirelessly against what he called omologazione, translated in English as everything from uniformity to conformity, homogenization to globalization. Democracy, Pasolini argued, was achieving in postwar Italy that which Fascism had failed to realize: a cultural orthodoxy in the guise of specious freedom. Modernity appears in his work and his worldview as a corrupting force – a kind of pathogen, against which the only antidote is an archaic, pre-capitalist imaginary, passed through the baffle of a mannered realism. The inverse of Warhol’s aphorism, ‘Think rich, look poor,’ goes some way in describing the Italian’s aesthetic: proverbially rich, overdetermined, overweening, even as it speaks for the actually impoverished. Aiming for high society, Warhol cast his artistic lot with the lowbrow; Pasolini refused to abase his aesthetic sensibilities, even in identification with what he deemed Italy’s ‘human garbage’. 

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Teorema (Theorem), 1968 film still. Courtesy: BFI, London.

Notwithstanding the ideological chasm that separated them, Pasolini’s and Warhol’s eccentric orbits overlapped in a number of instances. Apropos of eccentricity, critics accused both men’s work of unreconstructed narcissism – a thinly veiled euphemism for homosexuality and its bearing upon their art. Each, however, held at bay his identity (or identification) as a gay man, even as he helped to shape queer culture before Stonewall. Both enjoyed the company of mascots and muses, drawing upon them for artistic collaboration and personal frisson alike. The slow succession of apostles’ faces in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) recalls nothing if not Warhol’s contemporaneous screen tests, a mix of eroticism and transcendence in their own right. Both Warhol and Pasolini availed themselves of delinquency (not to say criminality) as the stuff of aesthetic experiment. Their premature departures arrived like the inexorable fatalities their bodies of work – death-obsessed in equal measure – had imagined them to be. Warhol received a temporary stay from his assassination attempt in 1968, only to expire in 1987 after a routine gallbladder operation; Pasolini’s murder in 1975 at the hands of a Roman hustler (assisted in all likelihood by politically motivated accomplices) sealed his role as the self-appointed prophet of his own demise. Yet more than morbidity or sexuality links the work of these figures, in spite – or perhaps because – of their almost caricatural incongruity.

‘The last time I saw [Salvador] Dalí in New York [...] I told him that I was doing piss paintings. And he said Pier Paolo Pasolini had an artist pissing on a painting years ago in his movie Teorema [Theorem, 1968]. I lied and said I did mine before that.’1 Warhol’s eponymous canvases register the wayward trace of urine on gessoed surfaces; his ‘Oxidation’ works (1977–8) apply the same effluvial premise to canvases treated with a copper admixture. A nacreous splatter attests to the renunciation of the artist’s hand, in favour of a less dexterous member. As he urinates upon the primed, framed surface where his brush might have passed, Teorema’s Pietro evokes – like Warhol’s canvases – the end-game of Abstract Expressionism and the impasse of a postwar avant-garde. 

Among the epithets bestowed upon Pop in its first flowerings was that of a ‘new realism’ – proof not simply of a genealogical rapport with Nouveau Réalisme, but a return to objects at large. What Pasolini called his ‘fetishistic love for the “things” of the world’ is not the same as Warhol’s soup cans. Yet his cinema makes repeated use of pastiche as its raw material. If Warhol needed Elvis and Jackie, Pasolini needed Saint Matthew and De Sade no less. Even the director’s iterative portraits of Maria Callas (the star of his Medea, 1969) suggest that he was not unaware of Pop strategies, though he eschewed synthetic pigments in favour of wine and other organic materials. Pasolini proved indifferent to Arte Povera’s ‘Guerrilla War’ at the decade’s end, yet his work had already suggested an artisanal defiance of industrial process and progress. 

Andy Warhol, Hammer and Sickle, 1976, synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 1.8 × 2.2 m. Courtesy: © 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pop was slow to take root in Italy. ‘The premises for Pop painting’, noted the designer Ettore Sottsass of that deferral, ‘do not exist.’2 It did eventually sway some significant figures, most notably the painter Schifano (deemed ‘the Italian Warhol’) and his associate, the experimental filmmaker Carmelo Bene (who borrowed Warhol’s muse Peggy Ann Freeman for the lead in his 1972 feature film, Salomé). Artists including Franco Angeli, Lucio del Pezzo and Tano Festa rejoined Schifano’s efforts in what became known as Rome’s ‘Scuola di Piazza del Popolo’, the epicentre of Italy’s belated Pop movement. As the cultural Utopia of anti-fascist resistance gave way to the economic ‘miracle’ of the late 1950s and ’60s, the country witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of commodities – precisely the material and mediatic sea-change that Pasolini viewed as the death-knell of regional, anti-conformist identity. Yet whatever praise he stubbornly withheld from Europe’s New Left during the 1960s, he heaped upon its American counterparts, hailing Allen Ginsberg’s Beat legacy – and the ‘new revolutionary language’ to which it contributed – as indispensable to postwar culture.3 His two trips to New York, first in 1966 and again in 1969, found him exalting American counter-culture as the most promising he had encountered. He found the city itself ‘sublime’ and deemed it ‘the navel of the world, where the world reveals itself as it truly is’. Pasolini noted that the city appeared to him ‘as Jerusalem appeared to the Crusader’ – but also as a multi-tiered cake appears to a wide-eyed child. Introducing her 1966 interview with Pasolini for the magazine L’Europeo (‘A Marxist in New York’), the journalist Oriana Fallaci reported that he was partial to Coca-Cola.4

In a kind of trans-Atlantic chiasmus, Warhol found himself struck, during a trip to Naples years later, by the ubiquity of the hammer and sickle on Communist posters. He took up the symbol in a number of works exhibited in 1977 at Leo Castelli’s gallery under the ambiguous title ‘Still Lifes’. His association with Communist imagery bore more direct consequence in Italy, with Gerard Malanga’s infamous ‘Che Guevara’ silkscreens (1968) sold through a Roman gallery with only the loosest permission from his former mentor. Warhol would take up the thread again in his ‘Mao’ works of the early 1970s (exhibited at Turin’s Galleria Galatea and Galleria La Bussola in 1972), as well as his ‘Red Lenin’ paintings a decade later. But it was with a different series of works that the artist ventured his first major exhibition on Italian soil. Debuting at Ferrara’s Palazzo dei Diamanti in October 1975, his ‘Ladies & Gentleman’ exhibition comprised more than a hundred canvases, all based on photographs of Latino and black drag queens. To Warhol’s characteristic chromatic distortions, the ‘Ladies & Gentleman’ works add a racial dimension, inextricable, in turn, from a gender-bending mischief. However recognizable in style, the portraits appeared exotic, at least for a European audience expecting more ‘Marilyns’ (1962) or ‘Brillo Boxes’ (1964). ‘Why Are Warhol’s Transvestites Black?’ queried Giancarlo Salzano’s short review in the prominent Turinese journal Bolaffiarte. A number of photographs by Pedriali stage Warhol on his flight back to New York, thumbing the issue along with other recent Italian publications. One wonders whether, among these readings, Pasolini’s own review of the show figured (he was photographed by Pedriali just weeks later, only days before he was murdered).

Pasolini’s review calls out Warhol’s subcultural menagerie as disingenuous in its obscenity, its pretension to seem anything other than the chronicle of a ‘permissive New York ghetto’, in which sexual deviation is as tolerated as it is tamed. These figures’ individuality, he writes, is indentured to an unwavering archetype, from which they may stray formally, superficially, but never actually. 

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Teorema (Theorem), 1968 film still. Courtesy: BFI, London.

Is there something that can ruffle the ‘oneness’ which the artist’s desecrating mind – out of sheer amusement – throws into a state of complete doubt – derides or worships, venerates or makes useless? Can Fascism break up something in that ‘oneness’? Or, on the contrary, can a Marxist revolution separate it first, through that fatal and total opposition – the class struggle – and later transform it until it finally disappears?

Such questions assume a sharper ideological edge as they multiply, jabbing at the ‘entropy’ of Warhol’s surfaces. Vexed by the images’ offhand paradoxes, Pasolini parses out their components with withering precision – ‘calculated’ and ‘automatic’, ‘astute’ and ‘innocent’, ‘predetermined’ and ‘left to chance’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘impotent’. Granting Warhol his art-historical due, he discusses the works’ formal strategies in terms of Fauvist painting and popular posters. It is, however, a tradition closer to home that the portraits most strikingly evoke for Pasolini. He compares them to the frontal, isomorphic figures of Byzantine mosaics, and likens them to a cathedral’s apse, ‘scattered to the wind’. If Warhol is the officiant of this virtual church, its emperor is neo-capitalist culture at large. Rather than outright disdain, however, Pasolini’s review betrays a narcissism of little difference. Warhol’s unabashed materialism belied a life-long Catholic devotion. Pasolini’s impenitent atheism, conversely, could never shake off its spiritual pretensions. His own cinema smuggles a profound iconophilia under the guise of scandalous iconoclasm. Conferring an auratic piety upon the most abject of images, Pasolini’s films practice what he deemed ‘the sacred shot’, in emulation of early Renaissance panels and Romanesque sculpture alike. This is the case not simply with his virgins and saints, but also the thugs and thieves that populate his Roman shantytowns.

Pasolini likely would have sympathized with the subversive elements of Warhol’s early work, as well as that of his ‘capitalist realism’ counterparts in Germany, like Wolf Vostel or Sigmar Polke. A 1963 essay, in fact, finds Pasolini conceding to Pop a certain critical potential – not in its subject matter, but in its semantic ambivalence between earnestness and derision. Significantly, his film La Rabbia (Rage) from the same year makes exclusive use of found footage. Excerpts from contemporary newsreels – whether of the Algerian War and atomic mushroom clouds, clips of Jackie Kennedy and Sophia Loren – appear montaged together in a procession of images at once improbable and fatally related. The effect is less that of the figurative paintings by Renato Guttuso, George Grosz or Ben Shahn – which La Rabbia invokes as alternatives to the dogma of Socialist Realism – than a contemporary silkscreen by Robert Rauschenberg. Or even, in some respect, one of Warhol’s ‘Death and Disaster’ series (1962–3). Alongside its parade of mutilated bodies, La Rabbia even features an extended eulogy to Marilyn Monroe. Some melancholic verse by Pasolini is read aloud while likenesses of the recently deceased actress unfurl in slow succession. With the fixity of a death mask, these still photographs recur on screen like the refrains of Pasolini’s requiem – one that evokes Monroe as having vanished ‘like gold dust’, ‘like the white shadow of gold’. One thinks immediately of Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962), hovering in the gilt solitude of neo-Byzantine hieraticism.

The quirks of convergence in Warhol and Pasolini’s entirely divergent oeuvres, multiply against the odds. Grosz had sat, in fact, as a judge for one of Warhol’s early critiques at art school, and Shahn’s ‘blotted line’ provided inspiration for some of his early drawings. While Warhol’s recollection above hardly confirms an outright borrowing of Pasolinian precedent, it does beg the question of his familiarity with the director. Warhol’s cinematic partner, Paul Morrissey, claimed that 1968’s Flesh (filmed the same year as Teorema) derived in great part from Mauro Bolognini’s La Giornata Balorda (Pick-up in Rome, 1961), for which Pasolini had written the script. Pasolini had also helped to pen the dialogue for the gay characters in the orgy scene of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) – a repartee that would not seem out of place in films like Warhol’s More Milk Yvette (1966), or in the twittering mouth of his recurring star, Ondine. Pasolini, for his part, was surely aware of the American’s films. His close friend, Moravia, reviewed Couch (1964), for instance, in the same column where he reviewed films like Teorema. The lingering of the camera on Terence Stamp’s crotch in the latter film envies nothing of John Giorno’s package as foregrounded in Warhol’s The Closet (1966), though Pasolini was perhaps responding to different strains of the American underground, on the heels of his visit to New York. 

 Andy Warhol from the series ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’, 1975, screenprint on Arches paper, 111 × 74 cm. Courtesy: © 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Fundamentally, these cinematic sensibilities could not have differed more sharply. Just as Warhol’s painted imagery presses high and low registers into the same conceptual plane, his 16mm Bolex camera flattens temporality into almost unvarying duration. ‘Why is nothing happening?’ Thus exclaimed at least one witness to the 1964 filming of Empire, uninterrupted by any authorial excisions or montage sequences. In his brilliant review of Couch, Moravia deemed Warhol’s cinema a kind of ‘iterative realism’.5 However obliquely, the films often approximate the cinematic ideal proposed by the Italian Neorealist luminary, Cesare Zavattini, ‘to film twenty-four hours in the life of a man to whom nothing happens’. Turning the world into a kind of readymade, Warhol’s works deflect attention from their authorship to all manner of extra-cinematic musings and anxieties. Pasolini, by contrast, never lets us forget his presence behind the camera, or the significance he imputes upon its movements. ‘I hate naturalness,’ he famously remarked. ‘I reconstruct everything.’ Pasolini was no stranger to the art of simulacrum. The shit that one wretched victim is fed in Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) was actually a mixture of chocolate and marmalade. Yet the mock-torture of an amyl nitrate-buzzed Malanga in Warhol’s Vinyl (1965), while a prancing Edie Sedgwick looks on, would surely have seemed to the director of Salò a circus of effete improprieties (notwithstanding its origins as a remake of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 A Clockwork Orange).

Salò’s notoriously indigestible imagery responds, in part, to the force-fed conformity of late capitalism, packaged in a menu of sham emancipations. It cannot have escaped Pasolini how much the popular dimensions of Pop art came to diverge from the ‘civic’ aspirations of his own poetics, and their origins in Antonio Gramsci’s national-popular culture. Warhol’s imagery siphons off the particularity of even the most singular of signs. For all their formal quirks, his ‘Hammer and Sickle’ (1976) paintings bear the same mismatched outlines as his ‘Dollar Signs’ (1981–2); his ‘Queen Elizabeth II’ (1985) works differ from the near-contemporaneous Red Lenin (1987) only in the play of a few floating squares, errant lines, respective palettes. The monarch’s bright-eyed stare and Comrade Lenin’s glower remain their own; such are the shreds of singularity that each manages to salvage from Warhol’s steamrolling silkscreen, as it presses them into metaphysical complicity.

‘VOTE CONSUMERIST’ declared a poster in a recent shop-window display on Florence’s via Porta Rossa, playfully rhyming ‘Consumerist’ with ‘Communist’ and enlivening the familiar, dowdy hammer of the party’s political symbol with a glittery sickle. Below lay a nativity scene strewn with trinkets and commodities. Here, advertising seemed to have wrested the rites of religion and politics – solemn and importunate, commemorative and hectoring – to different ends. As much as the retrospectives dedicated to Warhol and Pasolini in New York this past winter (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, respectively), this display seemed to invoke their respective legacies, and to quell their tensions with airless irony. Yet it would be naïve to intuit some kind of parity in their contemporary afterlives. The dissipation of aesthetic hierarchies hastened by a postwar, progressive left – whereby advertisement and authorship became interchangeable – has served neo-capitalism as much as it has dynamized the neo-avant-garde. Pasolini’s approach to both phenomenona – defiance and diffidence, respectively – perhaps offers a more salutary prospect in its very outmodedness. ‘The future world’, Roland Barthes noted in his essay for the 1980 ‘Pop Art’ retrospective at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, ‘risks being a world of identities [...] but not of persons.’6 That Barthes alludes here to the ‘computerized proliferation of police files’ rather than Facebook’s flattening wall only underscores the significance of his intuition. As the curators of our own online identities, we have stretched a proverbial 15 minutes into a less determinate duration.

1 Andy Warhol and Bob Colacello, Exposures, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1979, p.129
2 Ettore Sottsass, ‘Pop e non pop: A proposito di Michelangelo Pistoletto’ (Pop and not Pop: Michelangelo Pistoletto), Domus 414, May 1964, p.35
3 Maurizio Acerbo, ‘Caro, angelico Ginsberg: Pasolini, beat generation, e sessantotto’ (Dear, Angelic Ginsberg: Pasolini, the Beat Generation and 1968), Pagine Corsare, 1998
4 Oriana Fallaci, ‘Un marxista a New York’ (A Marxist in New York), L’Europeo, vol.22, n.42, 13 October 1966
5 Alberto Moravia, ‘Couch’, Al cinema (At the Cinema), Bompiani, Milan, 1975, pp.211–2
6 Roland Barthes, Pop Art: evoluzione di una generazione (Pop Art: Evolution of a Generation), ed. Attilio Codognato, Electa, Milan, 1980, pp.165–71

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (Theorem, 1968) is screening from 1–9 May at the BFI Southbank, London, UK, and is released on DVD and Blu-ray by the BFI this month.

Ara H. Merjian is Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.