The Metropolitan Museum of Art's latest show examines the work and legacy of pop artist Andy Warhol. It's an ambitious survey with plenty of painting, film, and photography that's good for newcomers to the world of Warhol.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1928, Andrew Warhola -Andy Warhol -went on to become one of the most important artists in history, transforming the public's relationship to art, artists, art-making and art consumption. As The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl points out, Warhol was a “clairvoyant” artist; he sensed and eventually embodied the populist revolution of the 1960s by adapting the formal syntax of Abstract Expressionism and as chassis for vernacular imagery, and then, definitively, with his silkscreens. But Warhol wasn’t just prescient and clever. He was a genius, with a keen aesthetic intelligence and a color sense worthy of Matisse... The challenge for any curator, then, is to give a sense of history as well as presence, of visibility and vision together, all while not falling into a trap of celebrating cleverness for cleverness' sake, to celebrate the color and form along with the content and scale. No easy feat.
Regarding Warhol: Fifty Years and Sixty Artists (on now through December 31st at the Met) features forty-five works by Warhol himself, plus roughly 100 works by fifty-nine other artists, many of whom are celebrated in their own right. Five themed sections direct the show's content: "Daily News: From Banality to Disaster," "Portraiture: Celebrity and Power," "Queer Studies: Shifting Identities," "Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality," and "No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle." As art writer Paddy Johnson rightly observes in The L Magazine,"these kinds of single-topic headings turn curating into list making instead of a practice focused on teasing out connections." More experienced art-lovers might find this "list-making" reductive and distracting moving through the exhibit, but it's a good organizing principle for newer viewers, who will see the sections as paving an easier way in to understanding Warhol's world.
The exhibit and its sections, then, inspire comparisons and contrasts between Warhol and the artists who came after him. Indeed, Regarding Warhol may be ambitious in scale, but it's a step in the right direction for the normally fusty Met in terms of modernizing its contents and offerings; it's also a great survey of 20th century mainstream art. Curators Marla Prather (who curates modern and contemporary art at the Met), Mark Rosenthal (an independent curator), Rebecca Lowery and Ian Alteveer have fashioned an approachable exhibit for newcomers to become better acquainted with both Warhol's work and his enormous legacy and influence.
Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years runs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through December 31st, 2012. Along with Warhol, the show features work by well-known artists including Jeff Koons, Ai Wei Wei, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Chuck Close, and many more.
Past the twin self-portraits of Warhol welcoming visitors is "Daily News: From Banality to Disaster." Here we see what the Met describes as "Warhol's engagement with the imagery of everyday life, his interest in items of consumerist American culture in the 1960s, and its his keen attention to advertising, tabloids, and magazines." Warhol's acrylic/silkscreen work Green Coca-Cola Bottles from 1962 is here, as is Damien Hirst's Eight Over Eight, its colorful pills carefully placed in meticulous boxes and shelves. Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei's work is also featured, his clever Coke-stamped Neolithic Vase suggesting keen, if unseemly primeval connections with corporate identity and a kind of creepy sponsorship-of-humanity inherent to modern life.
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957) Neolithic Vase with Coca-Cola Logo 2010 Paint on Neolithic vase (5000–3000 BC) 9 3/4 x 9 3/4 x 9 3/4 in. (24.8 x 24.8 x 24.8 cm) Mary Boone, New York.
Warhol's well-known Big Campbell's Soup Can, 19¢ (Beef Noodle) is here too, its presence suggesting the colorful beauty of the banal and the extent to which modern identity is bound up with consumerism and cheap, fast, mass production; nourishment is less about community, feeding, and pausing, than it is a step on the ladder of a rushed contemporary life shaped by corporate logos, the idea of "nourishment" a pastiche of itself. But the enjoyment of the piece isn't solely derived from its quiet cynicism; the work also shows off Warhol's beautiful use of color, shape, and composition, and in and of itself is beautiful on aesthetic merit alone. The tension between this visual sense and its snarky undertones is pleasing, if unsustainable within the broader context of the exhibit and its strict categories.
2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987) Big Campbell's Soup Can, 19¢(Beef Noodle) 1962 Acrylic and graphite on canvas 72 x 54 1/2 in. (182.9 x 138.4 cm) The Menil Collection, Houston.
Another section of the show, "Portraiture: Celebrity and Power," offers numerous examples of the contemporary obsession with celebrity and fame. Along with Warhol's captivating videos of Nico and Lou Reed are his silkscreens of Jackie Onassis and Marilyn Monroe. Chameleon-like artist Cindy Sherman's work is also featured in a rather camp, if too-small example, though Jeff Koons' sculpture of Michael Jackson with his pet monkey is unavoidable, offering viewers a prime example to experience celebrity obsession in all its golden, garish glory. The work, like many featured in this section, is less about its subject matter than it is about our perceptions around it; Koons portrays the singer, gilded and kingly, recalling French royalty but unmistakably rooted in the glamtastic 20th century.
Jeff Koons (American, 1955) Michael Jackson and Bubbles 1988 Porcelain
42 x 70 1/2 x 32 1/2 in. (106.7 x 179.1 x 82.6 cm) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Purchase through the Marian and Bernard Messenger Fund and restricted funds.
The section also features filmmaker/artist Julian Schnabel's chunky, multi-media portrait of Barbra Walters. Schnabel's is a truly delightful piece but feels awkward hung beside the purposely flat black-and-white work of Gerard Richter's work to its left, and Robert Mapplethorpe's poetically stark photography to its right. Both works are haunting in their own rights, and featuring Schnabel's work in the middle diminishes its own value and power over the viewer, as well as that of the surrounding artists. Perhaps most distractingly of all is Maurizio Catellan's tacky sculpture of model Stephanie Seymour in the corner. With hands cover breasts, waving hair askance and blank stare she looks like a prize moose poking out from the wall (a possible reference to the piece's "trophy wife" nickname) -it's like it's in the wrong spoted addition to the exhibit, and id.oking more gawk than thought, and distracting from the other fine works that populate the room.
Scottish artist Douglas Gordon offers his own humorous, smart take on celebrity and identity, throwing gender into the mix as well in the "Queer Studies: Shifting Identities" section. As the Met notes, the section "strives to represent a new openness toward different varieties of queer identity that Warhol's oeuvre ushered in." Warhol's 1986 self-portrait sits like a gaudy monolith between the celebrity and gay identity sections, but it's hardly the work that garners one's unfettered attention, or succinctly captures the breadth and range of this section of the show. Subverting expectations of "realism," Gordon (who won the prestigious Turner Prize in 1996) sits staring out past a fantastically tacky blonde wig, his gaze a mix of disinterest and defiance, challenging the viewer to place him and his disguises, even as he dares judgement and derision.
2012 Studio lost but found. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery
Douglas Gordon (British, born 1966) Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe, (detail), 1996. Chromogenic print 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches (75cm x 75cm) Audrey Irmas, Los Angeles.
There's a distinctly New York-feel to many of the works here, with legendary New York photographer Peter Hujar's 1979 shot of infamous downtown drag performer Ethyl Eichelbergerfeatured, along with one of Robert Mapplethorpe's many self-portraits (this one taken in 1980), which is perfectly placed and beautiful, haunting, and deeply powerful.
As well as portraiture, there's also challenging works of photography, including John Baldessari's Econ-O-Wash, 14th and Highland, National City California. Baldessari was himself given a show at the Met in 2010-11 called Pure Beauty, and his presence here is most welcome. With this work we see an Instamatic shot of the locale paired with an identifying text -which is also the work's own title. There is a funhouse mirror effect at work, along with a wry sense of wit, but alongside these, a pure expression of California life that moves the show past its more obvious New York confines. The curators' choice to include this particular work reflects a certain dedication on the parts of the curators of Regarding Warhol to include a range of creative media, from a range of places; photography stands shoulder-to-shoulder with sculpture and painting, and it isn't all strictly East Coast. It's an instinct in keeping with the eclectic, busy spirit of the show.
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris
John Baldessari (American, born 1931) Econ-O-Wash, 14th and Highland, National City, Calif. 1966–68 Acrylic and photoemulsion on canvas 59 x 45 in. (149.9 x 114.3 cm).
Entering into the next section, "No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle," viewers are greeted by Polly Apfelbaum's busy, colorful floor installation, Pink Crush, with all its frenetic, floral energy, placed beside Takashi Murakami's relentlessly sunny work, while Jeff Koons' gigantic Wall Relief With Bird sculpture hangs like a gaudy albatross on a wall, overlooking the busy proceedings It's a grandly gaudy piece, though unlike Michael Jackson And Bubbles, its theme doesn't pertain to celebrity but to the romanticized commodification of "the rural." Immersive, visually overpowering, and colorfully overwhelming, this room exemplifies the "no boundaries" theme the Met was aiming for, its "spectacle" grandly, boldly pushed forwards and exemplified perfectly by the placement of Warhol's dollar signs at the room's end. Its power is only diminished by a poor layout plan that forced viewers to walk in and out of a narrow corridor to properly view Koons' sculpture. But, perhaps we weren't meant to take that close a view -though it wouldn't be wise to make assumptions.
Though not strictly part of "Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality", Warhol's Cow Wallpaper (first seen at the Leo Castelli gallery in 1966 as part of an installation that included floating Mylar pillows and the music of The Velvet Underground) offers a whimsical conclusion; looking at Warhol's prints of Elsie the Cow adorning the high walls, as silvery helium-pillows float by, one recalls Murakami's earlier smiley-faced offering (which came many decades later, chronologically speaking) as well as Christopher Wool's Untitled painting from 1988, portraying a repeated iron-gate style black-and-white pattern. Is seriality a sort of contemporary hypnotism, resulting in a sort of consumerist narcolepsy? Or is it a modern mantra, a dollar-sign dance of talent and texture and tantalizing hints about the mind-melding muddle of modern life? Just as Regarding Warhol opens with a sort of visual-vs-content tension, so it closes with a similar, if far more interactive one. The room itself is joyous, its effect producing plenty of real-world smiley-faces and a much-needed jolt of interaction in an exhibit that asks us to look but not feel.
2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987) Cow Wallpaper
1966 Silkscreen on wallpaper 46 x 28 in. (116.8 x 71.1 cm) each The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.
Though Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years may not be entirely comprehensive in terms of chronology and influence, and may be overly ambitious in its busy layout at points, but, in many respects, the Met's rich collection outside the exhibit's formal walls more than make up for the lack, allowing visitors the opportunity to explore the artist's wider legacy in a richer context. The show works in tandem with the work outside its immediate walls, inviting visitors to further explore Warhol's legacy and the continuum of 20th century visual expression and experimentation. While some pieces feel at odds in their respective sections, the curation ultimately serves to shine a light on the enormous shadow cast by Warhol, whose appropriation of everyday items and embrace of both the banal and the beautiful made him an art world star.