Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame has extended to half a century and counting. If the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, is any indication, Warhol’s moment of celebrity won’t be ending any time soon.
Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years is a sensational exhibit. This is true in terms of its vast scale, the quality of the works of art on view and the intriguing manner of their presentation. It demonstrates, as few earlier Warhol exhibits have done, the “sensation” that the trend-setting artist created in the 1960’s and 70’s. Love his art or hate it, you cannot dismiss Andy Warhol. He opened our eyes to the realm of modern design. He changed the way we see the world.
The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition presents forty-five works by Warhol juxtaposed with one hundred similarly-themed creations by his contemporaries and successors. This is not so much a retrospective of Warhol’s life or even a “compare and contrast” overview of his times. Rather, it is the visual record of a creative exchange between Warhol and his fellow artists, living and dead. Of equal importance – perhaps even greater – Regarding Warhol is an open dialog between these artists and the art lovers fortunate enough to visit this extraordinary exhibition of their work.
Regarding Warhol is arranged in five thematic sections dealing with the modern news culture, the passion for celebrity, gender issues, materialism and the consumer society and the rise of multimedia spectacle. Echos and elements of these topical groupings can be found liberally intermixed in both Warhol’s oeuvre and in work of the artists he influenced. If the Metropolitan Museum exhibit gets one salient point across it is this: the Warhol generation did not produce art in a vacuum.
Andy Warhol’s personal background was prosaic enough. He was born Andrew Warhola in 1928 in Pittsburgh. His parents were immigrants from eastern Europe and very devout Christians. Warhol showed early promise as an artist and his father saved enough money, before his death in 1942, to pay for tuition to art school at Carnegie Institute of Technology. Warhol graduated in 1949 and almost immediately landed a job with the magazine Glamour. He quickly became one of the premier fashion illustrators and store designers in New York. Photos of him from the time, with black-frame glasses, bow-tie and well-trimmed hair present the image of an American success story during the “gray decade” of the 1950’s. Warhol would supply plenty of color to the “swinging 60’s.”
Warhol’s artistic breakthrough came by adapting the time-honored literary adage of “write what you know.” In his search for inspiration, Warhol looked at the image-rich culture of post-World War II America and found what he needed in the newsstands and supermarkets around him.
129 Die in Jet!
Campbell’s Beef Noodle Soup 19¢
What the “Mid-Century Modern” American saw a thousand times on the front page of the daily newspaper or the well-stocked supermarket shelf was multiplied a million-fold on television. Warhol’s truly ingenious insight was to replicate the TV viewing experience with serial images of smashed cars and brand-label products and then take them a step further by transforming the repeated picture into a singular, transcendent and immediately recognizable form. The contemporary cult of the secular “Icon,” an over-used word today, stripped of its sacred hallmarks, can be traced to Warhol’s 1962 debut show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. It was there that Warhol unveiled his 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans. It was but a short step to the now iconic Big Campbell’s Soup Can, 19¢(Beef Noodle), one of the featured works on display in the Metropolitan exhibit.
Warhol had earlier placed several painted works in the store window of the Bonwit Teller department store in New York City where he designed store displays. But the serial image works enabled him to try out a new medium, which became his signature style: silk screening. In 1962, he created Green-Coca Cola Bottles, another watershed work in the Metropolitan exhibit. Warhol used two separate screens to paint this work, one for the green of the Coke bottles, the other in caramel brown for the soda. According to the exhibit wall text, Green-Coca Cola Bottles “was part of Warhol’s first consignment in October 1962 to Ileana Sonnabend’s Paris gallery, an important link for the dissemination of Warhol’s art in Europe.”
Europe would prove a fertile ground for Warhol’s version of Pop Art, which was already well-established there. In 1963, several avant-garde artists in West Germany founded the “Kapitalistischer Realismus” or “Capitalist Realism” painting movement. Two of the leading figures of the group, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter had fled from East Germany where the dominant art style, Socialist Realism, held art in its iron, propagandistic grip. Polke and Richter were decidedly ironic, however, in the way that they depicted Western-style consumerism in their art.
This is readily apparent in Polke’s 1964 oil painting, Plastik-Wannen (Plastic Tubs). Unlike Warhol, Polke does not celebrate a recognizable brand item like Coco-Cola with its tapered bottle and distinctive logo. Polke’s plastic containers are so non-nondescript as to be almost invisible, as are most utensils or dishes in daily use. Yet, without these mass-produced, throw-away containers, the fast-food industry and many other components of today’s consumer society would be totally unworkable.
Without Polke’s plastic tubs or Warhol’s Coke bottles and soup cans, we would be forced to revert to hand-made containers. The Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, recently underscored that fact by painting the Coca-Cola logo on an actual neolithic vase, dated to 5000-3000 BC. If that seems a bit drastic, Ai Weiwei certainly shows that we should not take objects for granted. Nor should we surrender our cultural identity to the goods and services that we use.
In 1963, just as his product “icons” were making a splash in the art scene, a world-changing event presented Warhol with the opportunity to focus upon two of his other, seemingly contradictory, interests: death and glamor. The event was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Warhol’s Nine Jackies replicates the experience of watching the shocking film clips of the murder of President Kennedy in November 1963. Warhol used only one photo as his source, a close-up of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy squinting in the afternoon sun, a lock of dark hair dangling over her forehead. Time has paused for a brief moment before the life of President Kennedy is snuffed out and Mrs. Kennedy’s happiness is shattered. There is an intimation of this impending tragedy in the way that Warhol has smudged the final two blue-toned versions of the image. A crisp, well-delineated gray picture of the scene then appears. The moment of reckoning has come.
The face of Jacqueline Kennedy that we see repeated in Nine Jackies is a very human, very empathetic one. Because of this evident humanity, the effect of looking at this serial image is deeply unsettling. Our instinct is to turn away, to shield ourselves from witnessing what we are unable to prevent. But we cannot stop watching.
In a brilliant stroke, Warhol created another image of Jacqueline Kennedy the same year, 1964, as he produced Nine Jackies. Warhol repackaged the real, vulnerable First Lady into a manufactured commodity, a safe, comforting, recognizable object like a bottle of Coca Cola or can of Campbell’s Soup. But Red Jackie is even more jarring than Nine Jackies. The glazed, cherry red lips a-la Marilyn Monroe have been painted on her. The dangling lock of dark hair has been carefully brushed back. The gentleness and vulnerability of her expression is covered with a protective veneer of bubble gum pink mascara. Warhol has bullet-proofed Red Jackie so that no would-be assailant can ever again harm Jacqueline Kennedy – or disturb our daydreams of Camelot.
During the 1960’s, Gerhard Richter was also preoccupied with death and the Kennedy assassination. His chosen style of painting was to use shades of black, white and gray to convey the effect of of a newspaper half-tone. While the oil paint was still wet, Richter would then use a dry brush to blur the image. He had already experimented with this new style before the impact of Warhol’s techniques had made itself felt in Europe. Richter’s source material was photographs, paralleling Warhol’s methods. It is an intriguing example of kindred souls arriving at similar creative effects without being initially aware of the other artist’s work.
Richter used photos as his source, even when he could have easily painted directly from life, as in the case of his children. “I mistrust the picture of reality conveyed to us by our senses, which is imperfect and circumscribed,” he later said, by way of explanation. The still point of the photograph, however, enabled him to come to grips with his subject.
Richter painted a trilogy of works devoted to the Kennedy assassination soon after the event. This included a depiction of a grieving Jacqueline Kennedy, which deliberately obscures her obvious identity to convey the universal sense of suffering. This painting, Frau mit Schirm (Woman with Umbrella), is not in the Metropolitan exhibition, nor are the other two works. This is a rare and unfortunate omission in an otherwise balanced exhibit.
Another of Richter’s signature works from that period, is, however, on display. This is Helga Matura, painted in 1966. The subject of the portrait was a high-profile prostitute whose murder was never solved by the police. Her killing was one of a number of notorious prostitute deaths “by persons unknown” in West Germany during the late 1950’s and 60’s. Richter’s blurring technique, in this case very softly executed, gives this remarkable painting the effect of a hologram, a ghostlike and unforgettable depiction of beauty lost to death.
Life for Andy Warhol nearly imitated his death-obsessed art. He was shot and critically wounded by a disgruntled writer named Valerie Solanas on June 3, 1968. Though he survived, the momentum of the brilliant period of innovation that began with presenting the 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans in 1962 did not. But the influence of his experimental art and film making, as well as his candid embrace of gender issues in advance of the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the Feminist Movement of the 1970’s, set the tone for the half century to come.
The Metropolitan Museum exhibit probes Warhol’s continuing influence by correctly showing that it was more of an agenda-setting initiative than the creation of a general style that later artists conformed to. The sheer diversity of art on display by contemporary artists like John Baldessari, Robert Gober, Karen Kilimnik and Cindy Sherman is almost too much for even the well-articulated arrangement of the exhibition to handle. If there is no common thread to art today, it is largely because Andy Warhol unraveled the strands that bound American society together in the 1950’s faster than they could be replaced and reconfigured.
Regarding Warhol certainly demonstrates the vast range of talent in the world of art post-Warhol. Yet, it also shows that a coherent, unifying vision for modern art is yet to be achieved. As with Warhol’s portraits of his last protégé, Jean-Michel Basquiat, the elements are all there. They just have to be – somehow – joined together.
Regarding Warhol September 18–December 31, 2012, The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, 10028