Searching for Warhol’s “Cum” at Thaddaeus Ropac

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Searching for Warhol’s “Cum” at Thaddaeus Ropac

LONDON — I’m searching in vain for something called “Cum Painting” by Andy Warhol. The date is fluid, approximately 1978, according to the press pack. Why not? Life’s for the living.

My journey begins just to the right of the first-floor gallery door. I step back a pace or two, into the center of the room. I am standing in a gobbet of magnificent, light-filled Mayfair swank, one of 18th-century London’s finest interiors. 

What about that painting over there? The little piece I’m staring back at is in a swooningly luxurious, come-buy-me-if-you-have-deep-pockets gold frame, and it’s just to the right of a magnificent door with a pillared surround, complete with Corinthian capitals. The trouble is — I’m walking toward it now, boldly, scenting that I’m onto something tangible at last — the canvas looks completely unpainted.

So I get up breathing close and finally spot a very few faint, yellowish blemishes or blotches. This must be it, then, Warhol’s cum, 50-something years in the drying out! Or perhaps it belongs to one of his friends. The press pack was a little vague about its provenance. 

Welcome to Alchemy at Thaddaeus Ropac, in which a range of artists with famous names mix strange substances together with outcomes of variable interest. 

Are these really profound mysteries? Or more profound mystifications? Alchemy — that yearning, from time immemorial, to transform base metals into gold — has often been the driver, inspirer, and motivator of postwar art, from Kiefer and Warhol to Beuys, from Sturtevant to Polke, Vedova, and Rauschenberg. 

This show presents examples of works by all these artists, and it leaves us asking such questions as these: Has the idea of the studio as an alchemical laboratory, in which the artist-mage stares with wonderment and pent breath into their bubbling crucible, for all its gnomic and bewitching promise, actually helped to bring into being works of enduring interest? Does the uncontrollable mystery of these helter-skelter journeyings into the unknown amount to much more than shamanistic posturing? 

Some of the least interesting works here are by Joseph Beuys, tedious little so-called “drawings,” almost square or almost rectangular, scrubby and rust-colored, with pencil scribblings, several of them done on the back of hotel notepaper, and made to look a tad less insignificant (and more salable) by being enclosed within huge frames. Not unless you believe that every last little mark made by the shaman in the broad-brimmed hat is as precious as lead transmuted into gold will you find these visually alluring. And what are we to make of this work on a shelf called “Bathtub for a Heroine”? It looks as thrilling as sounds from its bald description: “Bronze, immersion heater with lead.” And why are three dates given for its making (1950/1961/1984)? Did it keep falling to bits? 

Much better — in so far as they don’t seem to take themselves quite so seriously — are works on long copper sheets by Robert Rauschenberg. The fact that these images appear to be hidden inside the material, and to emerge with a degree of mysterious reluctance, makes them look rather wonderful.  

These aside, this show is an existential crisis writ large. The gallery’s description is full of pretentious puffery: philosophical ideas, catastrophe theory, and much else. But how engrossing are these works to look at, really? There’s the rub, Andy.

Andy Warhol, “Piss Painting” (1961), urine on linen, 42 x 72 inches (photo Ulrich Ghezzi; © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / ARS, New York, 2023)
Sigmar Polke, “Katastrophentheorie IV” (1983), synthetic and natural resin on canvas, 78.74 x 62.79 inches (photo Charles Duprat; © The Estate of Sigmar Polke / DACS, 2023)
Robert Rauschenberg, “Copperhead-Bite V / ROCI CHILE” (1985), silkscreen ink, acrylic, and tarnish on copper, 96.75 x 48.75 x 1.1 inches (© The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / ARS, New York, 2023)

Alchemy continues at Thaddaeus Ropac (37 Dover Street, London, England) through July 29. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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