Exhibition Review: The Whitney's Andy Warhol - From A to B and Back Again
By Matt Fink
The Whitney’s new exhibit, “Andy Warhol - From A to B and Back Again,” comes no closer than any previous endeavor in shattering the durable enigma that is its subject, the awkward prince of New York’s 20th-Century art world. But neither was that likely the aim when Whitney curator Donna de Salvo hatched the thing from the febrile depths of her mind; the enigma was created in such a way that it never be solved, like a trick Rubik’s cube, so any overt attempt to solve it would be undignified - ruinous, even.
As its title suggests, the exhibition can be experienced, quite enjoyably, in chronological order. But you could just as well start at the end, with two meters-long paintings on classical themes (the first: 20-odd, bleached clones of Mona Lisa; the second: twin Last Suppers, the whole pious business covered in green-grey camouflage), and then walk back to the beginning, where examples of Warhol’s work as a commercial illustrator are on display in large glass cases - souvenirs of an (artistic) birth, like jarred placentas preserved in formaldehyde.
But museum goers could easily, if not herded in the right direction by staff, miss the show’s most dazzling ode to Warhol’s career-long preoccupation with the cult of personality: an otherwise darkened room on the first floor - found to the right of the staircase ramming through the middle architect Renzo Piano’s mammoth facility - is lit with the literal wattage of dozens of illuminated celebrity portraits done by Warhol from 1968 to 1987, the bread-and-butter that kept his myriad other enterprises chugging along through the vicissitudes of New York’s fickle art world. Capote, Debbie Harry, Basquiat, Ali, Minelli, Mapplethorpe: observing this multitude of notables, the overall effect is to diminish, rather than highlight, any one portrait subject’s extreme notoriety.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Warhol’s art is a glimpse into a mind - whether his own or the collective psyche of Western culture - compulsively reproducing in slightly altered form the visual stimulus it is almost constantly bombarded with, thus aping the mindlessness of industrial production; not for nothing, perhaps, was Warhol’s personal Camelot called “The Factory.”
Warhol came of age before and during the advent of television, a medium that has, to some extent, helped make voyeurs of us all. The artist was without a doubt a Watcher, an introvert fascinated in an almost chilly, anthropological way with the more social - and beautiful - animals he surrounded himself with. That slightly alien quality of his is well expressed in the Whitney exhibit via a selection of his films, consisting mainly of people sitting and staring into the camera, tropical butterflies in a killing jar who seem to become more and more uncomfortable under Warhol’s dispassionate, dissecting gaze.
Was, then, the artist’s delight in repetition - his relentless scrutiny of people and objects - a form of reverent homage to fame, or one long satirical fugue on the banality of our mass culture? You can hear, if your ears are tuned to just the right frequency, the answer to that question: it’s whispered from the frozen mouthes of the Brandos, Elvises, Marilyns and Chairman Maos adorning the Whitney’s spotless white walls: “Who Cares?”
Because as ever, celebrity automatically justifies its own existence. Warhol, whose work has found a magnificent pedestal in the Whitney Museum, is something of a Rene Descartes for the modern age, whose famous maxim, “I Think Therefore I Am,” becomes in the mouth of Pittsburgh’s native son “I Am Famous Therefore I Have Worth.”
For tickets to “Andy Warhol - From A to B and Back Again,” running until March 31, 2019, click here. The Whitney Museum, 99 Gansevoort St., New York, is open Sunday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m. - 6 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m. - 10 p.m.