Alex Rothenberg '20
At first glance, Warhol’s S & H Green Stamps, 1965 packs an effective optical punch. The piece is visually arresting in its intense saturation of color, while also humbly showcasing its simplicity in motif and subject matter. This juxtaposition is quite striking, evoking a sense of Americana implicit in the design of such a ubiquitous cultural relic. Created by hand stamping images of an S & H Green Stamp trading coupon in three successive layers, the print deceptively imitates “readymade” material, but in actuality is a silkscreen lithograph offset on white wove paper. The grid-like repetition of each individual stamp acts like building blocks, creating various little microcosms of text and color that play into the context of the print as a whole. The text varies in shades of green, ranging from soft minty hues to those of dark, utilitarian forest green. An electric, almost fluorescent shade of super-saturated red is situated at the center of each stamp as well, constituting the words S & H found across the grid. The offsetting of the two colors creates an effect that is both visually contrarian yet complementary.
The work itself is not large in scale. It measures 23 by 24 inches only. However, by simulating the everyday and accessible commodity, it becomes explicit that Green Stamps is much more grandiose in scale than an average sheet of stamps would be. With this idea, Warhol seeks to make a spectacle of the banal. He quite literally gives his “stamp of approval” to the notion of American consumption of democratized goods, while exploring his fascination with reproducible imagery.
Despite its plentiful imagery, Warhol’s print lacks focal point. The relationship from one stamp to another is not so much symmetrical as it is orderly and purposeful. The overarching linear veneer is exhibited clearly, incorporating aesthetic congruity into the motif. Various nesting shapes such as rectangles, ovals and small circles create spacial gaps between each stamp, breaking up it congruity in a symmetrical fashion. In addition, this technique subliminally creates separation in the eyes of the spectator. Of the estimated 70 stamps, not all of them receive equal exposure. Some of the frayed edges are cut off, especially at the top right corner. The implication is that the work goes beyond the canvas, and into a space separate from the field of the viewer.
Presented in a museum or gallery, spectators receive the work most effectively when they are positioned standing upright in space. Warhol invites the viewer to be either stationary or mobile, centered or at an angle -- but bench sitters beware. Through showcasing S & H Green Stamps, Warhol provides gallery and museum goers with an alternative way of experiencing industrialized culture and commodity. In addition to repetition and congruity, flatness is a key element that should be taken into account while analyzing Warhol’s piece. The print invites no volumetric expression to invade the spectators space (like the work of Pollock might). Because of the color scheme and the use of negative space on a white backdrop, certain aspects of the print appear to jump off the canvas. In actuality though, the lack of volume in physical material creates a flat visual aesthetic.