The blockbuster exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art could be called Andy Warhol—From A to Z and Back Again. Because it’s a very comprehensive view of the life and art of the man who was one of the 20th century’s greatest influencers. If you think of Warhol as a producer of silkscreen multiples like Campbell’s Soup cans and portraits of Marilyns and Jackies, this exhibit is eye-opening and illuminating. (The exhibit transfers to Chicago this fall.)
This is the largest U.S. retrospective of Warhol’s work to date, with about 350 works in many media. The main exhibit is on the fifth floor of the Whitney but there’s also a gallery of his portraits on the main floor, and an exhibit of experimental multimedia works on the third floor (including the famous Andy-Warhol-eats-a-Whopper video from 1981. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because Burger King used some of it in its Super Bowl ad this year.)
Warhol was a supremely talented artist and a brilliant illustrator. He moved to New York from his native Pittsburgh in 1949 and started out as a window dresser and worked as a commercial illustrator for magazines and ad agencies. He designed award-winning LP record covers and many ads for I. Miller Shoes. You can see the fine lines and beautiful detail (and sometimes a bit of anthropomorphism) in his illustrations of shoes and perfume bottles.
The exhibit leads you through the commercial illustrations, personal drawings, paintings, prints, photos, silkscreens, films, videos, music production, his Factory years and more. The last galleries show his giant Mao painting, works in collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the 35-foot mural titled Camouflage Last Supper 1986, a rendition of the Last Supper under camouflage print. Throughout the galleries, you can see how he took everyday items and turned them into art, thus redefining art for the modern age. A creative revolutionary, Warhol grabbed elite museum and gallery culture by the throat and flung it into the mainstream of popular culture and celebrity.
The first installation at the Whitney is a gallery covered in Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper (1966), where images of hibiscus flowers are displayed. He created the Flower paintings in 1964, using four hibiscus flower images from a magazine and, with the help of assistants, silkscreening them across more then 500 canvases. For his first Whitney retrospective in 1971, the gallery card says, Warhol directed that all his works be hung on the Cow Wallpaper.
While Warhol was creating commercial illustrations, he was also working on his own illustrations and personal portraits, including homoerotic drawings that were first exhibited in the mid-‘50s. He experimented with techniques including making paintings using photographic images as his source material. In the early 1960s, he hired a photographer to shoot arrangements of commercial products such as Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell’s Soup cans in his studio. He then used these photos as the basis for a suite of still-life drawings, shown in the exhibit. He also used techniques from the commercial art industry, like photostatic machines, early versions of photocopiers, to create images.
Warhol, Branding and “Pop Art”
The term “pop art” was first used in the 1950s. Robert Rauschenburg, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein were among the artists first identified with it, but the moniker has been hung on Warhol’s work off and on, even after he moved on to filmmaking.
Warhol once advertised in the Village Voice that he would put his name on anything and then listed a range of products he was interested in, including cigarettes, music, sound and film equipment and food. He even listed his phone number.
Warhol was a genius at branding and creating his own personal identity. He died in 1987, before the internet age. Can you imagine what he would have done today?
He coined the term “15 minutes of fame” to describe the pervasiveness of celebrity culture. Also relevant in the internet age, when one tweet can bring 15 minutes of fame (wanted or unwanted) to anyone.
Obsessions with Celebrity, Death and Disaster
Warhol had many interests over the years and they often guided the work he produced. Early in his career, he was obsessed with Truman Capote and one of his first exhibitions showed drawings based on Capote’s writings.
He was also obsessed with death and disaster and many of his celebrity portraits linked those interests. His portraits of Marilyn Monroe were made after her death in 1962. Nine Jackies was made after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His work also included enlarged prints about disasters and several silkscreened works titled Big Electric Chair.
Other famous Warhol images are Silver Marlon and Triple Elvis. One of his multiples is Ethel Scull 36 Ways, recognizing an early collector of his works.
Music and Film Production
He produced the Velvet Underground’s first album (funded the production costs) and arranged their collaboration with singer Nico.
In 1963, he bought his first camera and began making films—the first ones were Sleep, Eat and Blow Job. About this time he moved his studio to a loft on East 47th Street, which became known as the Factory. Later he moved the Factory to the neighborhood near Union Square. He later filmed Empire, Kitchen, My Hustler and Poor Little Rich Girl. The Factory became a hangout for young artists, musicians and Warhol admirers, including Ingrid Superstar, Ultra Violet and Edie Sedgwick. He later began publishing the magazine, Interview.
About Warhol’s Life
Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh in 1928. His parents, Andrej and Julia Warhola, emigrated there from a Ruthenian village is what is now the Czech Republic. The family spoke the Ruthenian dialect at home because his mother didn’t want to learn English.
He collected movie star photos as a child and a signed photo of Shirley Temple was a prized possession.
He was considered talented as a child and attended free art classes for talented children when he was 9 years old. He earned a BFA in pictorial design at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University).He moved to New York in 1949 and changed his name from Warhola to Warhol.
The exhibit title is drawn from a 1975 book title, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), written with Pat Hackett.
Warhol, always a collector, created his Time Capsules, boxes in which he stored routine documents, notes, letters and objects—the detritus of his life. When he died, there were 610 Warhol Time Capsules.
He survived an assassination attempt in 1968. He died in 1987 at the age of 58 and is buried in Pittsburgh.
My Warhol Overview
“Mr. Paradox, who never left, is back,” is how Holland Cotter begins his New York Times review of the Whitney exhibit.
Seeing a retrospective exhibit like this one is a way to explore the full range of talents of an artist. The impact is like seeing David Bowie Is, the excellent 2014 exhibit curated by the Museum of Contemporary Art (and shown last year at the Brooklyn Museum). If you went to the Bowie exhibit knowing him for songs such as “Space Oddity” or “Rebel Rebel,” your mind was expanded by learning about his early interest in design and identity, his long-term interest in fashion and visual appearance, and his ability to transform himself in radical ways. Warhol apparently influenced Bowie, since the musician included a song titled “Andy Warhol” on his 1971 album, Hunky Dory.
Warhol collaborated with and influenced many other artists. In 1981 he began to collaborate on paintings with Keith Haring, Francesco Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He influenced many other artists, especially Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst.
My Favorite Museum Moments
A father dragging a son through the gallery. The boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, is shouting, “This isn’t a museum. I hate this. I want to go somewhere else. This isn’t a museum, Daddy. This is too fancy.”
An older couple, he armed with a camera. He positions his smiling wife artfully in front of each Warhol portrait (Jackie, Marilyn, the Mona Lisas (Thirty Are Better Than One, 1963), while she poses, sometimes flirtatiously, sometimes shyly. They will have a full view of the Warhol exhibit, each image personalized.
Watching a docent or curator with a group of young students as they discussed and created their own versions of Warhol’s works.
This article was previously posted on Third Coast Review.