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As curator Donna De Salvo readied Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again, the revelatory retrospective exhibition recently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, she plainly understood that a return to Warhol at this moment and in this venue would need to land with maximum impact. In the nearly three decades since the last such retrospective was mounted in New York, the late Kynaston McShine’s landmark show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1989, general consciousness of the artist has gone from widespread suspicion and skepticism to the conferral of Picasso-like status as the master artist of his era. McShine’s show needed to secure the seriousness and the quality of Warhol’s work, while putting his received reputation to rest; De Salvo, among her many challenges, needed to wake up an audience accustomed to the idea of his cultural centrality and to drive home the core visual brilliance of his peak moments as a painter and artificer in multiple media.
Along the main line of the installation, the emphasis nearly always fell on a single example of a given subject, each one nearly the largest version that Warhol made: from the dense grids of money and product labels through the star portraits, disasters, and all the rest of his appropriated motifs. Set apart from one another on high walls, each canvas took on unanticipated freshness and authority. While there was in fact more than one Marilyn or Elvis on view, the logic of the hang lent each individual work a decisive command over the viewer’s attention. By the evidence of the opening-night audience, full of seen-it-all art professionals, there was a palpable sense of surprise and astonishment at reencountering the work in this way.
The march of monumental pictorial feats reached a point of suspension with a gathering of the more disparate, smaller-scale work made in the years between his ostensible abandonment of painting in 1966 (marked by his plastering the Leo Castelli Gallery with the Cow Wallpaper and filling another
room with helium-filled pillows of shiny reflective Mylar) and the awful injuries he suffered in the 1968 assassination attempt by the deranged Valerie Solanas. But that more eclectic interim space concluded with an emphatic return to the drama of scale via a vast, looming Mao of 1972. De Salvo’s dramatic positioning of the canvas placed the artist’s newfound freedom with the brush most proximate to the viewer’s eye level. While the upper zone of Mao’s face adheres to Warhol’s longstanding logic of the halftone screen in smudgy black, the plain proletarian coat offered him a field in which to emancipate his gestural impulses in the arbitrary colors of yellow, white, red, and ultramarine against the puritanical gray and black. At the same time, the detail of the button and shadow under the collar strikes a cartoonish note, another kind of Pop reminiscent of the comic strips he mined in his earliest painting.
Past the partition that supported the huge Mao, a vista of later work opened to the visitor, bold sequences spanning the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, including Warhol’s collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat. In their approach to this latter two decades of Warhol’s career, De Salvo and her team took a wholly affirmative approach and in so doing reinforced the tacit claim of their selections and installation that the quality of Warhol’s painting manifests itself at the largest available size. Long lateral walls bore single, horizontal works, beginning with the seventeen feet of a 1978 Oxidation painting, its subtly patinated patterns and textures achieved by urination on paint infused with particles of copper. Its built-in aesthetic paradox of beauty won from the filth of the gutter bears a venerable Baudelairean pedigree, while defying assumptions of permanence and definitive form, in that the chemical processes at work within the surface never cease.
But that fascinating impermanence did not preclude Warhol translating such expansive fields into fixed form, to which the final gallery bore dramatic witness. Two canvases—one twenty-five feet in length, the other ten feet longer—faced one another on lateral facing walls. In Camouflage Last Supper from 1986, made in the year before the artist’s death. three large black-and-white repetitions of Leonardo’s Last Supper make a triptych suite substantially obscured by the forest-colored camouflage of the title; on the ultimate wall, confronting the viewer on entering the space, was the pale magnificence of Sixty-Three White Mona Lisas (1979), in which the repetitions of the painting in negative reversal fall under a continuous veil of broad, thinly applied brushstrokes, which yield an emphatic if diaphanous pattern of abstract verticals and diagonals. Take these as major works, declared the installation, equals alongside the early-1960s examples clustered at the front.
As one traced this itinerary, one large category might have seemed to be missing: the portrait. Received wisdom is that commissioned portraits derived from Polaroid snaps dominated the years following Warhol’s recovery, a money spinner he promoted by means of his tireless socializing. That picture is not entirely wrong, though the main sequence of the exhibition demonstrated a compelling counter-narrative without them. As the portrait category would have had to be drastically abridged for reasons of pace and space on the main floor, De Salvo’s solution was to give the portraits an entire gallery to themselves on the Whitney’s ground level, in which dozens were hung in a dense sort of Salon hang. And that decision brought to light less the uniformity of an assembly line than a striking variety of types and techniques.
The array made clear that Warhol was already embarked on the portraiture project before its presumed inception in 1972. Included was a fine-grained rendering of a warmly smiling Dominique de Menil, who would abundantly earn this tribute after the assassination attempt. Having just arrived from Houston for a stay in New York, she took charge of assembling the medical team overseeing Warhol’s recovery. An adjacent 1970 example depicted the Egyptian-born dealer Alexander Iolas, whose presence pointed toward an overlooked commonality between the portraits and the various thematic series Warhol undertook in the 1970s and 1980s. Iolas initiated Warhol’s Last Supper series in 1986, installing the paintings in the refectory of a Milanese palace across the street from Leonardo’s ruined original. In the catalogue, Warhol Museum curator Jessica Beck advances the idea that the artist’s response to the AIDS crisis went deeper than has been acknowledged: “The image of Christ offering his flesh in the Eucharist,” she argues, “was a symbol of salvation during a time of suffering, an unusually personal and emotional image for Warhol.” With proper attention to the always allegorical character of Warhol’s art, Beck mounts a case against the prevailing assumption that he “failed” to confront the AIDS epidemic by comparison to the younger activist artists who came to the fore in ACT UP, founded just after Warhol died in 1987.
An instructive parallel can be drawn with David Hockney, whose last New York retrospective likewise dates to the late 1980s, as both artists were then more widely regarded as facile entertainers and artifacts of celebrity culture than they were esteemed as serious artists; and in each case questions of queer sexuality were muted to the point of effective silence. As with Hockney’s recent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it cannot be a coincidence that the more consideration of queer identity has come to the fore, the more the aesthetic estimation of each artist has risen. De Salvo’s catalogue introduction casts new light on a social scene formative for a very young Warhol, the circle of gay men who frequented the studio and apartment of photographer Otto Fenn. The catalogue includes multiple contact sheets that document the cross-dressing and other playacting among its habitués, which Warhol both joined and recorded in drawings—an early instance of a collaborative impulse that the exhibition emphasized throughout.
Not all collaborations did him credit, however, as Glenn Ligon underlines in his essay devoted to the 1975 series Ladies and Gentlemen, upward of two hundred portraits of trans women of color (arising from yet another dealer commission). Ligon speaks up for one model, the Village activist Marsha P. Johnson, to stand for them all: he quotes Warhol’s glib claim, “I see them all the time. They’re friends of mine,” and acidly answers, “Right.” Ligon underscores how much questions of race have joined those of sexual identity as imperative. Okwui Enwezor’s essential catalogue contribution returns to the scene of the so-called Race Riots of 1963, to acknowledge the historical foreshortening between that time and our own witnessing of police violence against black bodies on every side. He dismisses Hal Foster’s jejune, unearned diktat that (in Foster’s words) “reading Warhol as empathetic, even engagé is a projection” on the part of wishful “left critics.” Enwezor defies such preemptive condescension to argue unapologetically for the moral depth achieved in this cycle of paintings generated by new powers of perception and memory that they call into being.
That understanding extends to other subjects Warhol treated in the larger series he titled Death in America. His own premature death makes its presence felt in the one out-of-time essay, a page by Barbara Kruger written for a special section in the Village Voice published to mark the artist’s passing in 1987. The palpable shock of his death, the difficulty even for skeptics of imagining the world without him, permeates her prose and makes for another collapse of the present moment into the past, to which the exhibition as a whole splendidly testified.
Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
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