beginning next page home

The art-historical comparison Andy Warhol wanted us to make was not with the art of the distant past or with the photographs of his contemporaries but with the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. Warhol reported to Colacello that his "Piss Paintings" were a "parody of Jackson Pollock . . . referring to rumors that Pollock would urinate on a canvas before delivering it to a dealer or client he didn't like." Jackson Pollock's own bathroom habits have recently been researched in another controversial biography, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith's tome, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga. The authors write that Pollock: "told several friends that when he stood back and looked at one of the first drip paintings, a memory suddenly "popped into his head." "He saw himself standing beside his father on a flat rock," recalls Patsy Southgate, a neighbor in Springs, "watching his father pissing, making pattems on the surface of the stone . . . and he wanted to do the same thing when he grew up."

A more famous episode was the party in which Pollock, frustrated by the cropping of his mural in order to fit on Peggy Guggenheim's wall, peed into a fireplace in front of his patron and her assorted friends. Pollock's biographers tell of many other episodes in which Pollock, otherwise known as "Jack the Dripper," unrated in public and may even have wet Ms. Guggenheim's bed. Given this habit, Pollock's propensity for naming his paintings "number 1" -he did it five times-suddenly takes on a new meaning, for of course "number 1 " and "number 2" were favorite euphemisms for the distinction between toilet practices.

In an earlier article on Pollock, I discussed his use of the "number 1 " as a sign of his desire to paint the first painting-to throw off influence entirely and go back and imagine what it was like to be the first to paint a picture.. My approach was heavily influenced by Harold Bloom, whose Anxiety of Influence-in its emphasis on the Oedipal conflict and the struggle for pnority among artists-is of course indebted to Freud.

Freud imagined the very dawn of civilization as a scene of urination. He tells the story in a footnote in his Civilization and Its Discontents:

Psycho-analytic material, incomplete as it is and not susceptible to clear interpretation, nevertheless admits of a conjecture--a fantastic sounding one--about the origin of this human feat. It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came in contact with fire, of satisfying an infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of urine. The legends that we possess leave no doubt about the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flame as they shoot upwards. Putting out fire by micturating--a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Lilliput and Rabelais's Gargantua, still hark back--was therefore a kind of sexual act with a male, and enjoyment of sexual potency in homosexual competition. The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest was thus the reward for his renunciation of instinct.

Man exchanges base instinct for power control, safety, leisure, and art itself. If we want to believe Freud's myth, Warhol's Oxidation Series and perhaps Pollock's drip paintings are a kind of return to pre-civilization. Or we might adopt a Freudian stance of disapproval and say that in their return to instinct Warhol and Pollock, along with Mapplethorpe and Serrano, are simply being infantile. Thus Warhol's parody of Pollock's technique becomes a display of "sexual potency in homosexual competition." Warhol not only asks young men to prove their value to him by the relative effectiveness of their urination; he himself is competing with Pollock in the arena of art history. Making the best painting becomes quite literally a matter of who is the best pisser.

For Freud, this competition of peeing on the fire is homosexual. Saving the fire is associated with heterosexuality, growing up, taking responsibility--the man saves the fire, and in Freud's scheme the female tends the fire "as though woman had been appointed guardian of the fire which was held captive on the domestic hearth, because her anatomy made it impossible for her to yield to the temptation of this desire."

Now I do not want to psychoanalyze Pollock and Warhol. Instead I am trying to suggest that the connection between pissing and painting is not arbitrary and that both artists are dealing with dangerous and essential material. From Warhol's and Pollock's public bed wetting we have come to Freud's story of the origins of civilization itself. Still, even though Freud presents his story in the interest of science, he too is urinating in public, shocking us--he calls his conjecture "fantastic sounding" fabricating in words, instead of paint, the same image of men peeing. Freud constructs this story of urinating and refusing to urinate, not to undermine civilization, but to reconstruct its mechanisms. Freud asks us to behave in certain prescribed ways. We must know our desires, categorize them in all their conscious and unconscious permutations, in order to control them, no matter how miserable we become in the process. For Freud civilization is a profoundly unhappy business.

Warhol wanted us to think about Pollock when we looked at his "Piss Paintings," but he must also have had in mind a work by the artist who in so many ways was a precursor to his total practice, Marcel Duchamp. Indeed, given my subject, how could I not consider Duchamp's Fountain, the most famous work of art made out of, if not urine, the site of male urination? Duchamp's sculpture surely serves to undermine Freud's "civilization" reversing (the urinal is upsidedown) not only the boundaries between art and non-art, but also public and private behavior. Very few works of art have been written about as much as this odd sculpture, which was first presented to a jury of New York artists in 1917, by one R. Mutt. It was never exhibited, and is only known to us in photographs and in a copy Duchamp made in the fifties.

beginning top of page next page home