The Semiotics of Warhol

Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, via the Tate’s website.

Andy Warhol’s celebrity prints are clearly icons (explicitly representing real people), yet he uses them as symbols for…what? “[D]eath and the cult of celebrity” according to the Tate website where I found the above (ahem, digitized) version of the (ahem, iconic) Marilyn Diptych. In other words, The Marilyn Diptych is an argument (“a sign which is apprehended to be a symbol” in Parmentier’s words) by Pierce’s standards. Parmentier explains in Foundations of Piercean Semiotics, “a proposition… determines its interprétant to represent it as being merely an index of its object. Now this is not to deny that the interprétant still represents both a term and a proposition to be conventionally related to their objects; the claim being made is that, in addition to this level of representation, interprétants have the power to apprehend semiotic grounds as being other than they are.” Here Warhol’s purpose isn’t to depict an individual – we are not, for example, seeing her humanity – his purpose is to evoke our cultural encyclopedia and examine “her” meaning within it.

Dr. Irvine’s “The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Semiosis, and Cognitive Semiotics,” poses the question “Is language the main, or sufficient, modelling system for all human symbolic activity?” Assuming this means spoken or written language, I think the Marilyn Diptych is a clear example of why words aren’t always the strongest symbols. Could the word “Marilyn” printed a million times have achieved a similar effect to the photo? It could absolutely represent something powerful, perhaps even a related “message,” but it would be no substitute for the impact of a familiar image. A face has a singular visual impact – and the depiction of faces in two dimensions is part of a long tradition of portraiture. An instantly recognizable face, simplified, rendered in a range of colors and shades, printed 50 times edge to edge, evokes another layer of meaning for a modern audience. 

Warhol created visual impact with both mundane and grand subjects by applying a blend of high art and commercial design principles. In fact, the symbolic function of his grand subjects (pop culture icons) is mundane and the symbolic function of his mundane subjects (Campbell’s Soup can) is grand.

Warhol’s “Shadows” series, via the Hirshhorn Museum website.

Which brings me to the “Shadows” series. This is my personal favorite body of work by Warhol, yet I wonder if its semiotics are too ambiguous for collective interpretation. This series has had mixed reviews and Warhol himself famously referred to it as “disco decor.” Here he has chosen a subject that is unquestionably mundane yet perhaps a bit grand in its eternal mystery – a shadow. He has treated it with a similar technique to previous works, experimenting with color and repetition. He (or an assistant) has slathered on different colors of paint with a mop. And then, if you look at it in the context of the Hirshhorn exhibit in the photo above (or in person as I had the good fortune to do), a curator has marked Warhol’s argument with the curved wall of the museum and his or her own decisions about how to order the paintings. Can we agree on what it says? Probably not. What does the ambiguity mean?

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About Liz Sabatiuk

Be it through digital media, Argentine tango, or interdisciplinary studies, I seek connections. Discovering unexpected connections is crucial to solving the complex problems of today’s world. And the feeling of connection – to self, community, and the planet – can drive us to make changes large and small in our lives and the lives of others. I’m pursuing an M.A. through Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program to learn to better identify, explore, and facilitate these connections. When not studying at Georgetown, I create and edit content for Bedsider.org, a birth control support network that makes birth control easy.