Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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The first retrospective organized in the U.S. since 1989 looks afresh at the oeuvre of Andy Warhol (1928–1987), one of the most talented American artists of the second half of the 20th century. He was a creative and thoughtful innovator of all forms of art — drawing, painting, silkscreen, sculpture, film, photography, magazine creation, and video. He mastered all of these techniques using his unique style and marketed the finished products with the help of his highly cultivated persona.

“Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” superbly organized by New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, now enlarged by the addition of about thirty pieces unique to SFMOMA (including the “Silver Clouds” Mylar balloons, 1966), contains over 300 examples, and includes some of his most quintessential and familiar efforts.

Seen as an integrated whole, although divided among three floors at SFMOMA, the show portrays Warhol as having a vital and interconnected 40-year-long career, which began with commercial illustration in the 1950s, moved to his Pop icons of the early 1960s, then to his experimental work in film and other media (1960s–1970s), and, finally ends with his 1980s abstracts.  Accompanied by new materials, scholarship, and research, this is a brilliant review and reassessment of Warhol, the artist, rather than a focus on Warhol’s carefully curated cult of personality.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1928, Andrew Warhola was a sickly child who loved to draw and loved his mother, Julia. She moved to New York in 1952 and lived with him there until 1970. Warhol’s early freelance works on paper —  including illustrations for magazines, record albums covers, and drawings for I. Miller shoes — are unfortunately hidden away (some below eye level) on the second floor.

The heart of the exhibition on the fourth floor is the artist’s 1960s Pop Art style, which moves chronologically through Warhol’s career and features some of his most renowned images from his most active period (1960-68). In 1962, he developed the new technique of silk-screening photographic images onto canvas and then mixing the same image in various combinations.  

The early and robust “Dick Tracy” (1961) is followed by some famous Pop Art paintings, including “Green Coco-Cola Bottles” (1962) and the iconic “Brillo Boxes” sculpture (1969, version of 1964 original). Warhol’s displayed celebrity portraits still sizzle, including “Triple Elvis,” 1963, “Silver Marlon” (Brando), 1963, “Nine Jackies,” of Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband’s 1963 assassination and the gigantic, enigmatic  Chairman Mao,” 1972. In other works, we see a darker, more powerful side of Warhol, with images such as “Big Electric Chair,” 1967 and “Gun,” 1981-2.  

Equally impressive is the gallery set aside for Warhol’s late abstract paintings, containing two large-scale Rorschach paintings (1984) and the collaborative piece created with Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Paramount,” 1984-5.

Because of all the media attention Andy Warhol sought and received during his lifetime, it is challenging to go beneath the façade to his inner life. In his early works, a tender, curious quality is noticeable. But his persona of the 1960s, with his celebrity friends and groupies, was at odds with his remoteness; it served to hide his personality from the art he created.

Some assess Warhol’s most significant contribution as that of popularizing art through his own celebrity, his portraits of the rich and famous and his use of commercial icons. But there is a quiet, creative, and influential artist beneath the hype that is made evident in this impressive exhibit.  

By Emily S. Mendel

©Emily S. Mendel 2019    All Rights Reserved

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