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RICHARD EDER

Distinguishing Art From Artif ice : IN THE REALM OF APPEARANCES : The Art of Andy Warhol By John Yau (The Ecco Press: $19.95; 128 pp.)

August 22, 1993

Out of his corner, windmilling and punching up a storm, comes the poet, critic and gadfly of the art scene, John Yau. He is addressing the 30-year Andy Warhol phenomenon, in decline, perhaps, since a depressed art market and the inevitable leakage of hype out of a posthumous balloon cut the $600 million valuation of his estate by some two-thirds.

More generally, Yau's collection of epigrams, apothegms and plain insults buzzes around the wider phenomenon of pop art and post-modernism. Not that post-modernism, pop art or even Warhol are necessarily his targets; sometimes he seems to speak out for them. In this intellectually unzoned book, where ramshackle shanties multiply among at least one shining construction and a few elegant ones, it is not always clear where Yau stands. Many of his punches are aimed at the art and art-critic Establishment, but he hops back and forth and gets in the way of some of them himself.

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Yau is provocative to a fault. The trouble with saying so is that it is misleading as well as true. Misleading, because in our combative culture "provocative" is a compliment. If somebody comes onstage holding a pie, we are more likely to assume that it will be thrown than that it will be eaten. Provocation has been the reigning piety of the Western tradition at least since Erasmus. It would be wrong to question it but not, perhaps, to point out that it can stunt as well as generate. Sideswiping a baby carriage is provocative.

Yau spares baby carriages, but he is pretty lethal with writers who deal with contemporary art. He accuses art writer Barbara Rose of talking out of both sides of her mouth in deference to the massive pop-art barrage of the '60s and '70s. He calls her "smarmy." Critic Peter Schjeldahl is also smarmy and, like Rose, anxious to broadcast his privileged position of intimacy with the artists he writes about. Interpreting as unqualified praise a nuanced piece by the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik about Warhol's heir, Jeff Koons, Yau insists that Gopnik suffers from "infantile narcissism." It must take a privileged position of intimacy to know that.

Brilliant in one important respect, his book is confusing, repetitive and disjointed. An epigrammatic approach can take all this; what it requires, on the other hand, is glittering sentences. Many of Yau's ignite a spark and immediately envelop it in smoke. Others can be sloppy. He writes of critics "arguing over how many angels can boogaloo on the head of a pin." Don't unzip a cliche unless you are going to better it: How does "boogaloo" improve on "dance"?

He begins with a distinction between fame and notoriety. Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell were famous and not notorious, he writes, Gertrude Stein and William Burroughs were notorious and not famous, and Andy Warhol and Georgia O'Keefe both famous and notorious. This seems to hint at an interesting distinction--along with his observation that today's culture finds the visual arts far more exciting than literature--but it gets hopelessly mixed up.

Though notoriety is clear enough, I am not sure just what he means by fame, nor can I tell whether he is praising or dismissing Stein or how he can argue that anyone who praises Picasso and dismisses Stein is a hypocrite. She was a genuine artist, in fact. But Yau seems to suggest the following: Picasso, presumably great, painted her, and many people know her today mainly because of the painting and her closeness to the legendary Picasso circle. Therefore, his reasoning seems to go, if you buy the legend, you have to buy Stein. But why not examine her work instead of the legend? This is, after all, what Yau tells us to do with Warhol and accuses his fellow critics of not doing.

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But Yau has a number of ideas that are provocative in more than the baby-carriage sense. One in particular makes the scattershot bombardments just about worth getting through. It proposes an illuminating distinction in one of the great lineages of contemporary art; the one that goes back to Dada and surrealism and comes down to the present day, and that runs from Marcel Duchamp and Rene Magritte down to Warhol, Jasper Johns, Julian Schnabel and Koons, John Cage in music, and a whole range of performance art and absurdist theater.

Among the apparent frivolity, the comic shock effects, the seemingly perverse irreverence, the deliberately glitzy outrageousness that characterize these artists in different ways, Yau makes a fundamental distinction. In Duchamp, Cage and Johns he sees a continuation of the artistic tradition of a search for reality, however idiosyncratic the means. In Warhol and his followers he sees a kind of abdication from such a search, in favor of aesthetic complicity with what will sell. For Duchamp and his heirs--I extrapolate Yau's point--outrageous wit is a way of expressing what is real; for Warhol it is something that will be publicized and sold because there is no artistic reality apart from publicity and sales.

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