Mysterious to the End: Andy Warhol’s late work
Andy Warhol: The Last Decade at the Brooklyn Museum
June 18–September 12, 2010
200 Eastern Parkway,
Brooklyn, (718 638 5000
After his near death in 1968 when he was shot by Valerie Solanas, Andy Warhol’s greatest art was behind him: that at least is the critical cliché. Great in the 1960s when he offered a critical perspective on celebrities and death, in the 1970s he supported the Factory with the much criticized, highly commercial portraits. And then in the 1980s, it is often said, he just faded out. This once radical innovator successfully pursued the rich and famous, and devoted too much attention to the journalistic record of this social life, Andy Warhol’s Interview; he failed to build upon his early achievement. Warhol himself often worried that he was passé. He feared that the trendy young Neo-Expressionists, Jean-Michael Basquait, Francesco Clemente and Julian Schnabel were outdoing him. And he worried about his place in history. When he visited the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1981, he decided that his own recent art looked “like nothing compared to that stuff.”
This show of fifty some works of art, which comes to Fort Worth from the Milwaukee Art Museum, critically examines that received idea. Usually after locating a style, a mature artist settles in to develop it. In 1962, after more than a decade working as a very successful decorator, Warhol developed his signature style very quickly. But in his last decade, he effectively deconstructed that style. Thanks to his financial success, he had the space and assistants needed to quickly create many very large pictures. Surprisingly sensitive to critical reviews, he kept restlessly searching, as if he were a young man seeking a style. His art in the period 1978-87 certainly was varied. He did Self-Portraits, some showing himself oddly disheveled; the Oxidation Paintings; the Shadows; revisions of the classic 1960s Marilyns, Campbell’s Soups and Mona Lisas; various logos some from advertising, others religious—Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away! – is one example; the Easter Eggs; many Last Suppers; and the abstract Camouflages, Rorschachs, and Yarns.
Sometimes you can better understand the art under review by going immediately outside of the exhibition. I saw this show at Fort Worth’s new Tadao Ando building where it was displayed on the second floor on the right at the top of the stairs. This luxurious building provides the most sympathetic possible setting for these paintings, for even the enormous ones fit comfortably within the beautifully proportioned very high galleries. If, however, you turn left, then you enter a room containing eight of Sean Scully’s Catherine paintings. Starting in 1979, until 1996 each year Scully and his then wife Catherine Lee selected his best painting and called it Catherine. Working in the same era as Warhol, Scully’s paintings come from a very different world. Warhol presents one conception, then another, moving relentlessly far forward. You wouldn’t miss anything rollerblading through his show. Scully asks that you stop and reflect, taking time to note how varied are his deployments of a seemingly limited motif, the stripe. His art demands intense close up contemplation. In these paintings he really does find and develop a style. Scully’s Catherines could be installed alongside the old masters across the street at the Kimbell Art Museum; Warhol would be totally out of place there. This exhibition naturally looks quite different at the Brooklyn Museum, where it appears in a very different context.
In offering this contrast, I am not making a comparative judgment about the value of Warhol’s and Scully’s art, but only seeking to get this deeply puzzling exhibition in focus. Warhol’s 1960s pop art was part of an international movement devoted to images of commodities. But in his last decade, Warhol often wasn’t a pop artist. He had new subjects, and ways of treating them. Although he was very famous and famously sociable, his art became oddly difficult to place. Sometimes he looks back to pop themes, but other times he wrestles with the legacy of abstraction or deals with religious concerns in a highly personal way. Always concerned to get ideas from other people, he now collaborated with younger figures, Basquait and Clemente, who have very different styles. His collaborations might have been personally stimulating, but they produced his weakest art. Indeed, when all three artists worked together, they created the least satisfying painting in the show, Origin of Cotton (1984). Even when working on his own, Warhol didn’t find a way to synthesize his diverse interests. It is not clear if he knew where he was going or whether his premature death prevented him from achieving a final synthesis. Warhol remained mysterious to the very end—the last decade of his career is as puzzling as its beginning. What did he want to achieve?