The Shock of Sudden Flatness

With so many publications declaring the suit on life support, it should comfort the tailored clothing faithful to see how tightly Andy Warhol clings to the popular imagination. Burger King’s ad agency pitched what would become the chain’s 2019 Superbowl ad knowing Warhol had four times the Instagram mentions of Sarah Jessica Parker, Melissa McCarthy, Charlie Sheen, Jason Bateman, and Steve Carell combined. And when Warhol’s burger-filled face aired in February, more people than you or I will ever meet saw a man who somehow made navy blazers look cool. 

It’s too bad only one Pop Art icon found that sort of staying power. If Andy Warhol flatters our coat and tie sensibilities, there is another artist from the same era who challenges them. Working a few miles from the Warhol Factory in her Tribeca studio was Marisol, the first-name-only contemporary of Warhol whose work revels in the sort of shapes menswear enthusiasts try their hardest to avoid. Flitting freely between sculpture and painting, Marisol’s art is a celebration of flatness. 

In tailoring, where elegance is synonymous with graceful curves, flatness feels more like a curse than just another aesthetic possibility. Internet forums are littered with similar stories: a man has entrusted his suit to a dry cleaner, only to find the cleaner has flattened the lapels against the chest. A landscape of sloping fabric now halts at a crease, and the wearer’s claim to elegance and taste, once assured, now wobbles on its perch. And so, a menswear enthusiast walking to his dry cleaner carries the same recessive fear as a New Yorker whose path takes him right beneath a row of second-story air conditioning units. 

In Marisol’s world, sudden flatness is the point. Her portraits frequently look as if a genie turned a magazine illustration into a real person and gave up as the transformation began. And that battle between two and three dimensions is where the work draws its power. 

A Hugh Hefner portrait in Marisol’s hands morphs into a lopsided monstrosity. Hefner’s face, painted on a hulking block of wood carved like a hammerhead, reaches so far beyond the shallow slab on which his body is painted that he looks as if he wants both to tip over and challenge the viewer to a duel. 

Change the shape of the slab, and the whole meaning shifts. MoMa’s placard for Marisol’s sculpture of Lyndon B Johnson notes its “coffinlike shape,” which might recall both Kennedy’s assassination and the staggering death toll of The Vietnam War. The portrait’s shoulders, far more square than any amount of padding can hope to achieve, suggests the artist saw in Johnson a sort of exaggerated, even bloated, self regard.

Marisol’s portraits aren’t all mocking exaggerations. Her rendition of Andy Warhol is comparatively unassuming, a ghostly outline of the artist holding his arms tight against his chest as if to hide inside the chair-shaped confines Marisol gives him. If there’s evidence of her close relationship with Warhol– they partied together after all– it’s her decision to paint him three times, each panel getting its own angle in what looks like a spell of loving fixation.

If surrounding ourselves with expressively flat sculptures does little to muffle the shock of a smooshed lapel, maybe our spring wardrobes will help. This, after all, is Flatness Season. Half of us have switched to camp collar rayon shirtsto dazzle the checkout line with our sense of whimsy. Pre-flattened collars have spread to outerwear too, like this Stephan Schneider jacket whose look would not change much if a building’s air conditioning units toppled onto it at once. At best, we can hope that once we reach again for our serious suits, we’ll have forgotten how afraid of creases we used to be.

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