In 1960, two prominent art dealers, a museum curator and a documentary filmmaker called on Andy Warhol in the Lexington Avenue townhouse he’d come to own from the proceeds of his wunderkind success as an advertising artist. Warhol wanted their opinion on which of two paintings of Coke bottles was better—the more fine-artsy one that included some Abstract Expressionist drips or the one that was a cold reproduction. Unanimously, the group agreed it was the latter. “This moment,” says Whitney Museum curator Donna de Salvo in the big, heavy, gold catalogue for the museum’s big, heavy, gold-plated Warhol retrospective, “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again” (on view Nov. 12-March 31, 2019), “is generally viewed as pivotal in Warhol’s favoring of a commercial aesthetic over the mark of ‘art.’”
Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again
Whitney Museum of American Art
Nov. 12-March 31, 2019
The visit and verdict set Warhol (1928-1987) on the path to becoming the single most important artist of the 20th and, so far, the 21st century. While Monet emphasized brushstrokes and light, Picasso twisted form into Einsteinian relativity, and Pollock let his subconscious flow in skeins of paint directly onto vast canvases, Warhol changed not merely the form but the entire attitude of modern art—from combative heterosexual avant-gardism to passive-aggressive, gay irony. As the perhaps necessary surfeit of explanatory wall texts points out, his method both “extolled” and “skewered” American culture.
The initial shock of Pop Art, which Warhol both aesthetically and personally embodied, came not from the art itself, but rather its crashing the gates of “high art” in galleries and museums. Although multiple generations of post-’60s artists live and work unconsciously in Andy’s world, many of them are oblivious to that frisson. Many are too young to have seen its last historical summing up in the U.S.—the Museum of Modern Art’s 1989 retrospective.
Now we have the Whitney giving us a direct acquaintance, if not the original disobedient thrill, with an exhibition of more than 350 works (it seems like a thousand). They range from an early painting of a nose-job ad to huge, embellished silkscreen pictures of hot-colored electric chairs and a brushed-over Mao, Brillo-box sculptures, deliberately enervating “screen test” films of practically comatose “superstars,” and later experiments with UV light, camouflage and urine. (The show will travel to San Francisco and Chicago.)
Andy Warhol was, to quote the catalog, “the ambitious, gay, Byzantine Rite Catholic son of Czechoslovak immigrants born on Pittsburgh’s working-class North Side.” His father was a construction worker who died when Andy was 13, and left him with an ethnic-sounding surname, Warhola, that he hated and later altered. Warhol’s mother cleaned houses, made decorative tchotchkes from tin cans and colored paper, and contributed much of the lettering to Andy’s lucrative early shoe-ad drawings.
A few years before he got the fateful career tip concerning his Coke-bottle paintings, Warhol—who was becoming desperate to enter what he saw as the real art world—took some homoerotic ink drawings to the scruffy Tanager Gallery, a redoubt of gnarly Abstract Expressionists, and was, figuratively, laughed out of the room. Even after he got a foothold in the New York art world in the early ’60s, he wondered why Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns—both gay and at least proto-Pop artists, but buttoned-down about their homosexuality—got more meaningful attention than he did. “Oh, when will I be famous,” Warhol said he went around moaining, “when will it happen?”
As the art world underwent a seismic shift away from impoverished but obligatory macho bombast and drifted toward being more inclusive and businesslike, Andy won his cultural bet big. Indeed, Warhol wrote, “Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist.”
He was also extraordinarily talented. It wasn’t for nothing that Warhol the 1950s illustrator boasted a client list that included CBS, Upjohn pharmaceuticals, Martini & Rossi and the Container Corporation of America; he was the sole artist for I. Miller & Sons’ famous shoe campaign, and received the Art Directors Club Medal in 1957. As a gallery-and-museum artist, he had an unerring eye for the kinds of images that would push the “is this art or a joke?” boundaries of taste yet, as one art professor I know puts it, were as publicly “accessible as an image of the Madonna was to a person living in the Rhineland in the middle of the 11th century.”
What gives Warhol an unexpected grandeur is his perhaps religious sense of tragedy. He’s the only Pop artist who isn’t essentially comic. His “long preoccupation with death” (Ms. De Salvo again, in the catalog), his fervent and troubled Catholicism (in the 1966 Warhol film, “The Pope Ondine Story,” the star shoots up amphetamine), and his clearly schizoid attitude toward cheapness and glitz remove him from visual happy talk about comic strips, gigantic badminton shuttlecocks and Standard Oil gas stations by, respectively, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Ed Ruscha. In Shakespearian terms, all those other Pop artists are “The Merry Wives of Windsor” while Warhol—being both the product of the “form and pressure” of his times, as well as the cause of them for artists who’ve come after—is pretty close to “Hamlet.”
That Warhol’s celebration of our society’s leaden vulgarity and materialism seems worthy again and again of museological examination isn’t, however, the problem. That it’s still so socially current, so persistently now, so apt a visual description of our thoughtless consumption is, alas, an enormous one. It’s time to move on.
—Mr. Plagens is an artist and writer in New York.