Published: January 22, 2019
By Kristin Nord
NEW YORK CITY – During the early 1960s, Andy Warhol challenged the established order with his paintings of Campbell Soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and S&H stamps. Were these works that celebrated American consumer culture a pure put on? Or was Warhol, through his silkscreen paintings, asserting that art exists in the mundane and the everyday?
His works, “with their multiple agglomerations, chimerical smudges, spectral gradations, pictorial fragmentations and iconographic disintegrations, explored the tension between presence and absence,” Okwui Enwezor, a renowned expert in modern art and past director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, writes, in the catalog that accompanies “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again,” a magisterial exhibition currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Warhol, Enwezor continues, “had discovered a way in which to intensify our relationship to the paintings, as if we were seeing the images contained within the surfaces of the canvas for the first time.”
“With pieces like “Big Electric Chair” (1967-68) rendered in bright, happy colors; “Before and After,” 1962, which depicts the pre- and post-nose job profile of a woman, 1961; and the silkscreen images of celebrities (he helped perpetuate Marilyn Monroe’s iconic status by making silkscreens of the starlet’s face for months immediately after her death in 1962), Warhol didn’t just push the envelope – he tore it up,” Donna De Salvo, the museum’s deputy director for international initiatives and senior curator, asserts.
De Salvo, who has overseen this thoughtful tour de force, hopes museum visitors leave the final gallery with a firmer grasp of how incredibly innovative and experimental the artist was throughout his lifetime, right up until his untimely death in 1988.
When Warhol arrived in 1949, New York City was home to “numerous small, overlapping, sometimes rival networks of artists who were forming ‘a multifaceted base of an alternative culture,'” Sally Barnes, in her book Greenwich Village, 1963, writes. Together they would seed subsequent art movements, and would shape the debate about postmodernism in the 1980s.
The time was ripe for Warhol, after a decade of success as a window dresser and illustrator for newspapers and magazines, to reinvent himself as a fine artist. He dropped an “a” from his surname, underwent cosmetic surgery on his nose and donned his trademark wig and makeup. But in many ways, he remained true to the obsessions he cultivated as a gifted, sickly child of Slovak immigrant parents in Pittsburgh, who had entertained himself as he convalesced with coloring books and scrapbooks of his favorite Hollywood stars. He would remain star struck by Hollywood throughout his life, and would be seemingly galvanized by the prospects of wealth and fame and glamour.
He was soon rocketing ahead on a blinding trajectory that would lead him from silkscreen painting to filmmaking and publishing as well. Warhol had clearly left behind the humble family living room he depicts in an early watercolor made when he was a student at Carnegie Mellon Institute of Technology. Yet it was as if an inveterate outsider’s eye had primed him to pick up on the iconography on America’s grocery shelves much the same way he had absorbed iconic messages he ascertained as a practicing Byzantine Catholic. Over time these influences coalesced into a personal language. His portrait of Marilyn Monroe as gilded martyr-saint, 1962, just months after the actress’ suicide, provides an early example. There would be a lifetime of others.
In his early newspaper ads for the I. Miller Shoe Company, we see Warhol’s uncanny ability to transform the products into objects of desire. Who would not want a buccaneer boot that embodies Elvis Presley, or bead-encrusted slippers worthy of Cinderella? Why not appropriate celebrity photographs from the daily press, and transform them? Soon enough in his serial paintings of Elvis, Marilyn, Liz and Jackie, it is as if through his silkscreened images replete with smudges and streaks and off-kilter registrations, we were experiencing them as he did, as home movies.
Conversely when he embarked full-time on filmmaking, we find a number of his earliest films masquerading as still images. In two of his best-known experiments, Sleep and Empire, hours pass and very little happens.
For his short, silent, black and white film portraits, his sitters were given a set of “diabolically challenging performance instructions, and expected to pose for a nearly unendurable three minutes,” the late Callie Angell, longtime curator of the Andy Warhol film project at the Whitney Museum, in her catalog, Screen Tests, writes. “The emotional and physiological responses to this ordeal are often the most riveting aspect of the Screen Tests, adding complex layers of psychological meaning to the visual images structured by the artist.” These, like much of Warhol’s work, “are conceptual hybrids, arising from the formal transposition of idioms from one medium to another.”
“They are as rigidly formal as his early minimalist films, as society-conscious as his silk-screened portraits of the 1970s, and as visually striking as his paintings of Hollywood movie stars,” she says.
For this exhibition, a number of films are being screened in their original 16mm format, and are stationed in the museum’s black box gallery so as to be in dialogue with Warhol’s related paintings. Other important films, including Outer and Inner Space, 1965, and Lupe, 1965, will be shown in the museum’s theater through the run of the exhibit. These feature his iconic and tragic superstar, Edie Sedgwick – and offer a rare opportunity to view them on a double screen, as Warhol intended.
While his mural, “Thirteen Most Wanted Men” mounted on the exterior of the New York State Pavilion at the of the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens, N.Y., would be censored and silvered over, to De Salvo’s mind it was one of Warhol’s’ most brazen attempts to broach male homosexual desire in a public arena. Early drawings of male genitalia, and his filmic attention to male dancers and young poets, artists and wannabes, some of whom would be included in his “13 Best Boy” series, shines further light on this openly gay artist’s inquiries. While many of these works were shocking in the 1960s, when homosexuality was illegal, the landscape of acceptability has changed radically since then.
Warhol also managed Velvet Underground, whose earsplitting Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia performances were sending audiences scurrying for the exit doors. An incident in 1967 at a black-tie banquet of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry at Delmonico’s Hotel on Park Avenue was a case in point; “Psychiatrists Flee Warhol,” the headline beamed the next day in the New York Herald Tribune. For middle class suburban families, Warhol’s amphetamine-fueled silver Factory, the midtown studio where he worked, had come to personify perversity, with its miscreants, socialites and creatives. Yet the EPI’s experiments would influence filmmakers and video performance artists for generations.
De Salvo and colleagues have taken great pains to probe Warhol’s lesser-known autumnal period, when he not only survived an assassination attempt, but flourished. There are examples of his collaborative paintings with young conceptual artists Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and one of his “piss paintings,” known as his “Oxidation” series, 1978. In the brilliantly colored portrait series, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” 1975, we encounter among his drag queens the stunning Marsha P. Johnson, who would become an important activist in the fight for transgender rights. There is “Shadows,” 1978-79, a massive work, that art critic Holland Cotter has proclaimed an abstract masterpiece, in which “darkness has no source and no end,” which was on loan through mid-December from Dia Art Foundation Calvin Klein headquarters at 205 39th Street.
In the final decade of his life, AIDS was ravaging the NYC arts scene and Warhol’s loss of friends and lovers was profound. There are only a few paintings in the show that address this apocalyptic crisis, with Warhol’s “Camouflage Last Supper,” 1986, particularly poignant. In one of the final works of this retrospective, we find Warhol interacting with Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting by cloaking it in fabric that was designed for the battlefield, to obscure the human form.
There has been considerable debate over the years over whether or not Warhol was political – and as a regular consumer of the tabloids, Warhol was well-aware of the ways in which these publications used scenes of carnage and disaster to boost circulation and sales. Yet as early as 1964, in his first monographic exhibition in Europe at Sonnabend Gallery in Paris, another catalog essayist, Hendrik Folkerts, curator of contemporary and modern art at the Institute of Chicago, argues Warhol was signaling that something in America was seriously awry. Warhol’s silkscreened suicides, execution chambers, road and air crashes and violent civil rights demonstrations provide an anguished overview of a tumultuous time, Folkerts adds.
To De Salvo’s mind, Warhol became our foremost Twentieth Century history painter, “who had a capacity to find themes within consumer culture and their equivalent within art history.” His genius was to pull them together, which is why, she continues, “he’s one of the few people who will have his 15 minutes extended over and over again.”
“Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again” through March 31 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan, 212-570-3600, www.whitney.org. The exhibition travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (May 18-September 2) and the Art Institute of Chicago (October 20-January 26, 2020).
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