Andy Warhol: A to B and Back Again at the Whitney Museum of American Art
November 12, 2018 – March 31, 2019
99 Gansevoort Street, between 10th Avenue and Washington Street
New York City, whitney.org
Eighteenth century commentators made a nice distinction between ‘celebrity’ which they defined as fleeting achieved during but not outlasting one’s lifetime, and fame (fama) as a noble and fitting reward for great works, usually military valor or literary achievement, which would inspire posterity to virtuous emulation. – James Delbourgo
Andy Warhol was obsessed with celebrity and that obsession undoubtedly brought him fame in the 18th-century sense of the term. He also coined the ubiquitous phrase, that “in the future, everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes” which resonates sharply in the current era of reality TV and social media. The exhibition’s first nod to the famous and the celebrated is the Lobby Gallery where a salon-style hang of Warhol’s trademark portraits are displayed from ceiling to floor. These paintings of the wealthy and the celebrated serve as modern versions of traditional oil painting portraiture, albeit constructed using photography-based silk-screen methods.
Warhol’s artist’s proofs were used to create a sort of pantheon of the 20 Century. Figures such as Mick Jagger, Lee Radziwell, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar form a tableau of such luminaries that sat for portraits in the Factory. Warhol’s self-professed “Business Art,” part of which was portrait production, lined his coffers, allowing him to advance his experimental and avant-garde projects in unremunerative areas such as film, video, music and journalism.
Warhol’s collection of leading figures from the 1970s and ‘80s recalls the 19th-century project of Nadar who captured images of “Le tout-Paris” in his legendary early photo studio. In a direct antecedent to Warhol’s “Interview” magazine, Nadar envisioned a type of subscription service to circulate images of leading figures such as Charles Baudelaire, Sarah Bernhardt, Eugene Delacroix, Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola. The portraits situated in the Lobby Gallery are single source elements of final artworks that were usually comprised multiple image panels. Thus, the Ground Floor gallery stands in as an image feed of Warhol’s Factory portrait production.
The exhibition opened on the fifth floor with a large camouflage painting and a vitrine with contents from one of Warhol’s Time Capsules (1973-74). Warhol filled and then sealed boxes with various objects from his Factory. The example here included a drawing of a chair by Yves Saint Laurent, a Lou Reed album, a book on Marcel Duchamp, a postcard of the Empire State Building, The Beatles coloring book, a Cy Twombly catalog, and a variety of personal letters: a snapshot of the denoted time period through detritus and ephemera. There is a random quality to the selection of the packed contents as each box reveals an archeological object-based narrative.
The “Time Capsule” formula seems to have been the inspiration for an exhibition that crams in voluminous quantities of material without a strong organizing arc. The temptation to amass a profusion of artworks was taken to an extreme often at the expense of thoughtful display strategies and attention to audience viewing experience. An exhibition itself should never be source material for a catalogue, but unfortunately this show often falls into just such a trap. That said, the resultant publication is highly comprehensive and will serve as an invaluable scholarly resource for generations to come.
One fifth floor gallery was packed with iconic works such as 32 of his Campbells’ Soup Cans installed as a grid. While this grid is the traditional Museum of Modern Art hang with which museum goers are now quite familiar, one wonder why, for this outing, the curators chose not revisit the original Ferus Gallery (1962) horizontal shelf installation? The Brillo Boxes are massed in a crowded corner. Coke Bottles, S & H Green Stamps and One Dollar Bills with Dance Diagram hung on the horizontal in the center of the gallery demonstrate a glut of famous Warhol artworks. Groupings of such well known pieces struck this viewer as crowded and unimaginative.
In an adjacent gallery, Warhol’s Bull Wallpaper served as a backdrop for several renditions of his Flower Painting. This doubled-up presentation is justified by the fact that Warhol intended for artwork to be hung on the wallpaper artwork, as is noted in accompanying wall text. The opportunity to include Silver Clouds, the mylar pillow balloon installation ,that would have created an interactive environment, is lost by the serial repetition of Flower Paintings groupings in yet another curatorial insistence on creating their own installation art.
Early works of commercial illustrations were situated in a vitrine in an attempt to perhaps separate them from Warhol’s fine art practice. The shoe drawings as gifted to various influencers highlights Warhol’s early business acumen. The ephemera in the wall vitrine offered highly informative material on Warhol’s commercial art career. However, the disastrous early Living Room (1948) oil painting adds little to his artistic legacy. There was too much emphasis on early works: Two walls of very similar drawings was particularly superfluous.
The gallery dedicated to Warhol’s use of mass media images with corresponding drawings powerfully revealed his inventive image selection and highly skilled painting process. The impact of comic book figures such as Dick Tracy and Superman stand in as potent examples of the radicality of Pop Art’s High/Low innovations. The drawings based on news events reveal careful studies that again demonstrate both Warhol’s fascination with mass media content and his skilled draftsmanship.
The elegiac paintings Mustard Race Riot, Lavender Death (Rosenberg execution) and the haunting Electric Chair are potent political statements while the Disaster series, that includes works such as Tuna Fish Disaster, Suicide Fallen Body and Orange Car Crash are a critical commentary on print journalism and its sensationalist depictions of tragic human events. However, the distinction between clearly political images and the sensational media topics is something the curators did not lucidly demarcate.
A strength of the exhibition was the compilation of video footage on the second floor with a bank of six TV monitors displaying highlights ranging from Factory footage (David Bowie visits) to Interview TV segments (Brooke Shield, male models). The archival quality of the presentation managed to bring the Factory era to life. Another research point presented weel was Warhol’s collaborative projects with artists such as Francesco Clemente, Keith Haring and most notably Jean-Michel Basquiat. Likewise, Gallery 3 was stunning as the large-scale works were given ample space to breath. The pairing of two abstract Rorschach paintings – the monumental Last Supper with Camouflage and White Mona Lisa – offered a model of exactly the kind of thoughtful, spare installation that allows artworks to resonate within an impressive gallery space lacking in earlier phases of this exhibition.
Overall, Andy Warhol From A to B and Back Again brought out everything and the kitchen sink in a profession of the “more is more” ethos. There was a lack of focus on the political content of Warhol’s practice and the social radicality of the Factory’s highly experimental environment. At the Factory, Warhol pioneered highly collaborative production practices, fusing fashion, music, journalism, and filmmaking and fostering a cult-like entourage of downtown denizens – an aspect that is not adequately expressed in this exhibition.
Warhol created a “world apart” that reflects an era when social worlds collided and sometimes merged in venues such as the Factory and later Studio 54 where the artist and his entourage were regulars. Equally, he created an alternative environment, specifically as a gay male figure, not unlike Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Joel-Peter Witkin. Warhol surrounded himself with a family-like cohort of “Superstars” and Factory workers that operated in opposition to the routine status quo of traditional white male dominated workplaces.
The social environment of Warhol’s cultural space reflects a High/Low dichotomy that is often assigned only to the visual language of the Pop Art movement. Warhol radically extended this phenomenon into social space in both his portrait and interview subjects, the Factory social milieu, and the contents of his numerous Time Capsules. This essential component to the artist’s legacy is lost under the weight of an overabundance of artworks and archival materials that comprised – and compromised – an overly encyclopedic retrospective.print