Andy Warhol’s glitzy reign as the silver-wigged King of Pop Art has endured light-years beyond the 15 minutes of fame that he allotted everyone else in his much-quoted pronouncement. Even those who know little about art recognize the American artist, who died in 1987, as the Maestro of the Campbell’s Soup Can, the man who turned banal consumer objects into contemporary icons. And even his most violent critics admit that he had the sharpest instincts for what was timely of any artist of his generation. The question remains, however, whether his tremendous output is the stuff of enduring art, or whether Warholmania will disappear with the next twist of fashion. The current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where 273 of his works are on display until May, provides at least a partial answer.
The MOMA retrospective appears at a time when the Warhol market increasingly resembles dealings on the stock exchange. Veteran New York City art dealer Ivan Karp describes it as “utterly bizarre and hysterical. You have to phone around to find out what a particular work is worth at a particular hour. People who know nothing about his art are paying incredible prices,” he says. “There needs to be a sorting out.” In fact, Warhol’s death at the age of 58—he suffered a fatal heart attack after routine gallbladder surgery—has had the effect of raising the price of everything connected with the artist. The auction of the contents of his Manhattan townhouse attracted tens of thousands of people. And in 10 days of fierce bidding, the sale netted more than $30 million as rich souvenir-hunters vied for everything from neoclassical busts to cookie jars, from Jasper Johns drawings to Bakelite trinkets.
Warhol’s funeral was an equally spectacular affair. The ceremony, attended by the rich and beautiful and famous—including Liza Minelli and Paloma Picasso—marked an interesting process of sanctification that began at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City with art critic John Richardson eulogizing the artist’s “spiritual” life and his good works for the poor. Now, sanctification of another sort has come with the MOMA retrospective, an honor that was denied Warhol during his lifetime.
To some extent, the show—which travels to the Art Institute of Chicago in May, and later to London, Cologne, Milan and Paris—evaluates Warhol’s achievement by a process of exclusion. The emphasis of the exhibition falls heavily on the years before 1968, when Warhol narrowly survived being shot by an unhinged hanger-on named Valerie Solanis, founder of the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM). The implicit message of the retrospective is clear: in later years, Warhol became a canny commercial hack, less an interesting creative artist than the chief executive officer of his own company, A. Warhol Enterprises, Inc. There is even some muted criticism in the catalogue, a medium that is normally as compromised as album-liner notes. Marxist critic Benjamin Buchloh takes Warhol to task for what he calls “complacent opportunism,” while New York
City art historian Robert Rosenblum describes the artist as “secular and venal.”
Although Warhol’s subject matter is indelibly associated with celebrity portraits and mass-produced consumer products, the themes that emerge from the MOMA show are somewhat different. One is the artist’s endless preoccupation with his own face. The other is a cool but obsessive fascination with the subject of mortality.
Warhol was never satisfied with his facial features. The catalogue’s official chronology earnestly states that he had a nose job in 1957, and in 1963 replaced the grey hairpiece he had worn since the early 1950s with his famous silver-sprayed wig. In spite of—or perhaps because of—those improvements, the elements of his face never seemed quite to fit together, so that he resembled one of those composite portraits drawn by police artists. It did not matter. The point was that Warhol,
with his expression of controlled vapidity, was as instantly recognizable as Picasso, with his intense, staring eyes, or Dali, with his absurd, pomaded moustaches. Warhol photographed himself ruthlessly in photo booths or with a Polaroid. And, by producing large and lavish images of himself in the studio, he flattered himself in the same way he later flattered the rich by executing their portraits for $35,000 a sitting. Typical is a 1967 self-portrait, a silkscreened, painted image that shows Warhol, finger to mouth, in a pose associated with contemplation. Just before his death, he completed a series in which his shrewd face is overlaid with patterning that acts as a kind of camouflage—a perfect metaphor for an artist who sought his identity in the distorting mirror of the press but who remained coyly private.
Apart from once flippantly expressing the desire to be reincarnated as a ring on Elizabeth
Taylor’s finger, Warhol was reticent to actually talk about death. In fact, the chapter on death in his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975) reads in its entirety: “I don’t believe in it, because you’re not around to know that it’s happened. I can’t say anything about it because I’m not prepared for it.” Perhaps not, but the body of work that has since become known as the Death and Disaster series, carried out in the early 1960s, is without doubt the most powerful group of paintings in the exhibition.
The series had its genesis in several oddly affecting paintings that Warhol did of the front pages of tabloid newspapers. They were among the last hand-painted works Warhol was to do before switching to his patented method of silk-screening photographically produced images on canvases and then simply adding color with a brush. It was a system that allowed Warhol to produce work in alarming quantities. With that new technique, he explored the more
morbid and violent aspects of the age, with multiple images of the electric chair, race riots, nuclear tests and press photographs of suicides and car accidents. Even most of the celebrity portraits of that period seem to be touched with death. His famous depictions of Marilyn Monroe were started the day she committed suicide, and his interest in Jacqueline Kennedy developed only after she had become a widow. He began a series on Taylor when she was seriously ill and, when she recovered, Warhol said that he felt he had to add lots of bright colors.
One of the merits of the MOMA show is that it clearly traces Warhol’s route to the world of fine art. The son of a poor Pennsylvania family of Czechoslovak immigrants, he went to design school in Pittsburgh. In the 1950s, he became a commercial artist and window dresser in New York City. The catalogue reprints some of his highly successful I. Miller shoe ad campaigns,
and the show contains several paintings he exhibited in the window of the Bonwit Teller department store. By the late 1950s, Warhol was winning awards for art direction, earning $65,000 a year and collecting the work of American vanguard artists, including Jasper Johns. In 1961, dealer Karp, after selling Warhol a Johns drawing, showed him a comic strip painting by the then-little-known U.S. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Warhol told Karp that he was doing work “in the same spirit” and invited him home to view his own latest work. “He had two kinds of paintings,” Karp told Maclean’s. “One kind had the drips and splatters of Abstract Expressionism that showed you were poetic. The others were quite stark, and much more appropriate to his subject matter.” Warhol, who was always seeking the advice of others, was quick to drop the drip and slather of Abstract Expressionism.
By the 1960s, Warhol was already becoming famous for being famous. In his silver-painted loft known as the Factory, the artist’s strangely passive personality in private seemed to have had a magnetic attraction for the more selfdestructive elements of New York City’s demimonde. One of Warhol’s followers—an upperclass French woman named Isabelle Dufresne who adopted the name Ultra Violet—has just published her memoirs under the title Famous for 15 Minutes (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). A hedonist in her day, Dufresne is now a stern moralist, writing that Warhol was “in a way, the spiritual father of AIDS, casual gay sex and equally casual needle-sharing having been daily fare at his Factory.” Her portrait of the elusive, almost robotic artist is nowhere more revealing than when she reports that Warhol never attended the funeral of his mother, with whom he had lived for more than 40 years. “I switch to another channel on my mind, like on TV,” Warhol told Dufresne. “I say she’s gone to Bloomingdale's.”
Dufresne’s book argues that Warhol was profoundly affected by the murder attempt in 1968. Before then, she speculates, Warhol had always flirted with the notion of death, but, after a close brush with mortality, decided to play it safe. Certainly his work became less interesting as he concentrated on product endorsements, commercial portraits or two-man exhibitions with Leroy Neiman, Hugh Hefner’s court painter. In stark contrast to the underground movies he made in the 1960s—they were alternately raw or radically boring—in the 1970s, he focused on his society fan magazine, Interview. Typically, Warhol tried to preempt criticism by saying it first himself. “I started as a commercial artist,” he wrote in Philosophy, “and I want to finish as a business artist.” It is as good an epitaph as any, although it omits to say that, for a period of seven or eight years, Warhol produced exceptional work. Or, as the American sculptor Carl Andre put it in the catalogue, “Andy Warhol was the perfect glass and mirror of his age and the artist we deserved.” Clear-eyed and chillingly deadpan, Warhol proved to be an ideal chronicler of consumer society.
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