Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Regarding Warhol, Being Regarded

Nine Jackies. Blur your eyes and think of Rothko...
1964, acrylic & silkscreen on canvas, 65"x53". Met Museum, Gift of Halston.
(c) 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. ARS, NY
Is the Met Museum’s exhibition Regarding Warhol, which traces his influence on other artists, so obvious that it need not have been put together? Or is it simply a burning topic that once and for all needed to be made manifest? My mind kept flicking between the two poles while strolling through the large exhibition (Sep 18—Dec 31), curated by Mark Rosenthal with Marla Prather, Ian Alteveer, and Rebecca Lowery.

Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat. A less-seen Warhol!
1984, acrylic & silkscreen on canvas, 90" x 70".
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh Founding Collection
Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

(c) 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. ARS, NY
The case for just how influential and versatile Warhol truly was is made quite convincingly. His body of work comprises multitudinous series that changed dramatically and frequently: content-wise, from his ubiquitous (and profitable) celebrity portraits, to his flashbulb nightlife snapshots, to macabre sensationalist or quotidien newspaper-divined imagery. And formally—from his essential cameo portrait, to the matrix format, to giant versions of consumer products, to photo-to-silkscreen paintings, to neon-hued bold compositions.

Within these categories, it’s simple and fun to link nearly every peer of Warhol’s, or younger artists, back to his oeuvre. It’s almost like a parlor game for the high (low?) minded. Cindy Sherman’s ever-shifting play with identity, Sigmar Polke’s impressionistic or object-based paintings, Hans Haacke’s subversive merchandising, Jeff Koons’ sculptural sanctification of pop stardom, sundry Robert Gober works. The canon of artists is a compendium of the last half-century; subtract Warhol and you have a perfectly serviceable survey of the major trends in contemporary art.

Most of the 60 Warhols in the show are from the first half of his career; many are the more elegant or dramatic icons of his work, such as Jackie, Elvis, and the disaster images, plus some films (Empire, screen tests of Lou Reed and Nico). Much of it is so familiar (if not household names, household imagery) such as Marilyn and Flowers, that it’s a bit of a shock to see them again in the flesh, in this relatively haughty context. They’re so ubiquitous that they have ceased to have any artistic impact, a trick of multiple subversion that Andy no doubt would’ve found amusing.

To exit the show, you must walk through the modern galleries, and this is what finally provided an epiphany. Past Pollocks, Rothkos, Stills, and De Koonings, old friends that all sung out fresh notes in the wake of a brisk round of art association. I thought, Oxidations, Dollar Signs/Jackies, Triple Elvis, unflattering honcho portrait. (Now that I’m writing about it, the connections seem more distant, but they felt very strong immediately.)

Ai Weiwei, Neolithic Vase with Coca-Cola Logo, 2010
Paint on Neolithic vase.
Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, NY
Then through the Greek/Roman hallway, past the marble torsos which looked identical to some of Warhol's Torso works, and some of the archetypal urns and vases referenced by Ai Weiwei's Neolithic Vase with Coca Cola Logo that I'd just seen. (A real Neolithic vase. On which he painted a Coke logo—the act upstaging the object. Warhol may have deified the common household artifact, or signed his name to any old thing, but not a Neolithic vase, to my knowledge.)

It begs the question, did Andy come to the Met and tour the galleries as part of his leisure or work, or on second thought, how often? Did he bring his Polaroid, or simply make mental notes? In the end, he emerges as a pack rat of ideas and influences, a time capsule of sociological trends and popular people. Yet instead of just storing those ideas away, he interpreted them and gave them (or sold them) back to us. The world's greatest cipher and salesman, haunting us yet.

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