Ask anyone to describe the work of Andy Warhol and they can easily rattle off a list of the Pop artist’s most famous subjects: all those Marilyns, Campbell's soup cans and Brillo boxes, the Marlon Brandos and Coca-Cola bottles.
But Warhol was a master of disguise and reinvention.
Constantly identified with his early 1960s work—those silkscreened images of consumer goods and film icons—Warhol’s 40-year career actually encompasses installation, film, material experiments, abstraction, sculpture, magazine publication, photography, a television show and time capsules.
Do we get to know the real Warhol in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s staging of the traveling exhibition Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again? We do not—because there’s simply no such thing.
Ever elusive, Warhol routinely answered personal questions with charmingly off-kilter aphorisms. “I never like to give my background,” he said. “And anyway, I make it all up different every time I’m asked.”
Finding the different Andys across the three floors and over 300 works that make up the exhibition is part of the fun.
Grouped together by theme and chronology, the bulk of From A to B lives on the museum’s fourth floor, covering subjects like “female icons,” “death and disasters,” and the even more dramatic “death, sex, faith, and politics” section.
He was, for the most part, apolitical. (Though one fantastic screenprint renders Nixon as a green monster and urges “Vote McGovern.”) But Warhol’s sexuality was never downplayed or concealed in his work.
In his early elegant line drawings displayed on the second floor, Warhol draws beautiful men staring out at landscapes, biting their lips and arching their necks.
John Giorno, Warhol’s lover, appears in a similar pose upstairs in Large Sleep, a sculpture that takes frames from a film of Giorno sleeping nude, enlarges them and screenprints the images onto Plexiglas.
Knitted together with Warhol’s sense of intimacy is a bit of dispassion—a studious and scientific gaze. In a darkened gallery behind Giorno’s image, a selection of Warhol’s films play on 16mm.
Looking directly into the camera in one of the now-famous screen tests, Edie Sedgwick tries to hold still, making each small movement or variation in her expression all the more apparent. She looks extremely vulnerable.
Multiple screenprints on the same canvas achieve a similar result.
No image is static for Warhol. Even when someone as beautiful as a young Elizabeth Taylor is reproduced through mechanical means, perfection is unattainable.
Over the course of From A to B, what emerges most compellingly are the lesser-known works—delicate early paintings, a strange commercial for a sundae, a series of sherbert-colored sunset prints, a vacuum cleaner performance and a film of David Bowie acting like a mime.
Popular, well-known pieces aren’t any less impactful in light of such discoveries.
Querulous observers will whine about the ubiquity of Warhol’s images and style. But Campbell’s Soup Cans still impresses. (Only in America could there be so many kinds of soup!)
Really, when we critique Warhol for selling out or losing touch, or for churning out celebrity portraits on commission (see the museum’s Instagram-like arrangement on the fifth floor)—could it be we’re not looking closely enough?
Selections from the 1980s, the artist’s “late years” (though he was only 58 when he died in 1987 after a routine gallbladder surgery), make efforts to recuperate Warhol’s latter day reputation.
There, we see a return to early form—black and white paintings of material clipped from newspapers—as well as new experiments: collaborations with Keith Haring and Basquiat, the publication of Interview magazine, television content that is both awkward and mesmerizing.
Visit, and see if you can withstand the pure joy of a room full of Silver Clouds, puffy Mylar balloons inflated with helium.
Warhol thought of them as paintings that could “float away.”
X factor and chameleon-like qualities aside, Warhol was at his core a compulsive maker. In films shot in the Factory, his silver-walled studio, he mostly fades into the background, working on screenprints, reading the newspaper, quietly listening to someone on the phone—often all the while chewing gum. In his cryptic way, he explained as much as he needed to about his art. The rest of the work is on us to interpret and enjoy as we will.
(Yep, I did it.)
Zig-zag your own way through ‘Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 19–Sept. 2, 2019. Details here.
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