Does Louise Lawler Make You Cry?

November 28, 2017

Does Louise Lawler Make You Cry?

            Louise Lawler’s work has been plagued by totalizing readings about the art market and appropriation. We rely on truisms about the domestication of the art object in Lawler’s photographs of masterpieces in collectors’ homes, and we rehearse a tentatively feminist reading of her critiques of capitalism and male authorship without delving into how this operates beyond purely representational terms. Her retrospective Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in its precise and judicious, but certainly thorough, hanging, invites viewers to derive an intimacy with the array of materials on view without reverting to essentialisms. I imagine that this has always been Lawler’s goal, and that she finally had a chance to amplify the emotional registers of her work.

            We might, then, invest in one piece only and trace the affective relationships it inspires. Lawler does, after all, address us directly in Does Andy Warhol Make You Cry? (1988) and who are we to not respond? She combines a photograph of Andy Warhol’s 1962 Round Marilyn at auction alongside a Plexiglas wall label that reads, in all capitals and with an odd space between text and punctuation:



It would be easy to understand this as a critique of the auction system, which commodifies artworks and equalizes them with the Crate and Barrel catalogue, thereby draining them of any remaining aura. As the online accompanying text suggests, “It’s difficult to imagine being moved to tears by a reproduction of a work of art, or even the work of art itself, while being forced to consider it as a commodity.”[1] However, I take Lawler’s question seriously, not as an affirmation of the primacy of authorship, but rather because Andy Warhol, or at least what he represents, has indeed made me cry. What if we still cry, even while knowing all the evils of the art world and its patriarchal foundations? And do we hate ourselves for it? Or perhaps we cry not because of Warhol per se, but because we willingly put aside all the critiques Lawler has put forth throughout her career.

The best writer to take on Warhol was the queer/feminist literary historian Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and I expect Warhol made her cry too. In her meditation on Warhol’s obsession with his bad skin and its connection to white privilege, Sedgwick argues, “Thus, one of the things that anyone’s character or personality is is a record of the highly individual histories by which the fleeting emotion of shame has instituted far more durable, structural changes in one’s relational and interpretive strategies toward both self and others.”[2] This is to say that shame is an essential component of our relationships with others, especially if, like Warhol, we are queer or invested in the resonances of identity. For Lawler to directly ask if Warhol makes us cry is to reinstall this shame, to name us, to pick us out of a crowd and put us in the spotlight—as if we are back in high school gym class. The space between “CRY” and the question mark only intensifies the distance that has been momentarily created between us and history, between our bodies and other bodies, between ourselves and who we wish we were.

            This is where a new vein of Lawler’s critique emerges. Warhol represents a gay male history that was and remains so potent that countless artists have followed him in his attempt to evoke a personal and emotional dimension of replicated imagery. That Lawler chooses one of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portraits is surely not random, as Warhol stands at the crossroads of queerness and tragic images of women. The latter became central to artists of Lawler’s generation, such as Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and Barbara Kruger, though it is true that Lawler is less associated with feminist art than her colleagues. Not on view in WHY PICTURES NOW? but certainly relevant is Kruger’s silkscreen print Untitled (Not cruel enough) (1997), which overlays a picture of Warhol with the phrases “Not cruel enough,” “Not beautiful enough,” “Not man enough,” “Not real enough,” and finally, most importantly for my purposes, “Not pathetic enough.” The legacy Warhol represents is indeed pathetic, or to use Lawler’s terminology, tear inducing. It is a legacy of attempting to make oneself visible to the world largely through images of others (in this case, glamorous women), which is perhaps all that artists, critics, and historians can do, for we are caught in a maze of representations and reproductions. Lawler’s identity politics is thus assuredly feminist, but her feminism is constituted by gender as it relates to a series of affective connections and failed affective connections among genders and sexualities. This results in an expanded queer-feminist field.  

            The artworks that Lawler famously re-photographs are therefore coextensive with the movement of our own bodies in the world, no matter how we define ourselves, and this understanding expands normative readings of her work to include not only the objecthood of postmodern art, but also the emotional bonds that run parallel to capitalism, display, and reproducibility. If Warhol was all about aspiration, so too is the range of works that Lawler represents as separated from the deifying lineage of art. This Lawler accomplishes not only by re-photographing, but also by adroit cropping and distortion. There is something pathetic about this contextual revision, for once again, art is thrown into relief, against its will, and perhaps feels its own shame, even as it is displayed in a glorious living room. I know Pollock’s work would rather be in yet another textbook than in Lawler’s Pollock and Tureen (traced) (1984/2013), which is itself a rare treat since most of us know this image as a photograph that was indeed in our introductory art history lectures. This is not to give too much agency to works of art, but rather to produce a metaphor wherein we can understand objects as parallel to a larger system of human despair induced by disconnectedness.

            Lawler therefore asks us to place ourselves in proximity to these objects, but whether we choose to identify with them (as Warhol did) is up to us. Another historian of literature, Lauren Berlant, describes this condition of quixotic or painful identification with regard to melodrama (a queer genre to be sure). We seek “permission to live small but to feel large; to live large but to want what is normal too; to be critical without detaching from disappointing and dangerous worlds and objects of desire…the motivating engine of this scene has been the aesthetically expressed desire to be somebody in a world where the default is being nobody, or worse, being presumptively all wrong.”[3] In this context, we, alongside Lawler’s re-contextualized objects, might long for a connection to all that capitalism provides, even as we know it will ultimately harm us, for to live spectacularly requires sacrifice. It requires tears.

           I do not believe that we are indeed all wrong, to use Berlant’s terms. This is not a wry joke Lawler plays on us, despite her captivatingly self-conscious humor. I conclude with a moment in which Louise Lawler herself made me cry. In 1990, Artscribe magazine asked Lawler for a portrait of herself to put on the cover. Instead, she submitted a glamor shot of Meryl Streep. Sure, it is a laugh at the expense of celebrity culture in the art world. More than anything, however, it is something of a Warholian gesture, for who among us does not want to be considered universally talented, beautiful, and interesting? The substitution of Lawler’s body with that of another is moreover a queer gesture, and suggests an interchangeability of bodies that may or may not have been produced by shame or embarrassment. What if we were to understand this not as critique, but, paradoxically, critique-as-aspiration based on a yearning to be someone else, to have an entirely different history, like all the artworks we can pick out in WHY PICTURES NOW? Or is this a gay male misogynist projection in the tradition of Warhol? How dare I assume anything about what a female artist wants or needs? Her struggles are certainly different than my own. I surmise Lawler has been saying this all along: our desires are irreducible and often at odds, and from that conflict emerges a discomfiting beauty.   




[1] The Museum of Modern Art. “Louise Lawler: Does Andy Warhol Make You Cry? (1988)” Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2008), 112. Accessed 1 September 2017.

[2] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. “Queer Performativity: Warhol’s Shyness/Warhol’s Whiteness.” In Doyle, Jennifer, Flatley, Jonathan, and Muñoz, José Esteban, eds. Pop Out: Queer Warhol. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 141-2. Italics in original.

[3] Lauren Gail Berlant. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 3. Italics in original.