On Andy Warhol

Art in review

Richard Deming
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram

According to a statement cited by The New York Times, Donna de Salvo, chief curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, has made explicit her aim in organizing the new retrospective of the work of the artist Andy Warhol on view until 31 March 2019: “To humanize Warhol and get people to actually look at what he made is not as easy as it might sound.” There is an undeniable irony in that ambition, given that Warhol himself once said in reference to his silk-screen presentations of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy, and others, “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.” Of course, de Salvo has long been one of the most committed of advocates for Warhol and is well acquainted with the ways that the idea of Warhol–nowadays we would call it “the brand”–can supplant the actual work of Warhol. Who better than de Salvo to know, too, how the very structures of the art world so often work directly against the goal of humanizing an artist by continually seeking to commodify art, with Warhol being a figure who, to a large degree, actively leaned into such forces. Nevertheless, set beneath de Salvo’s statement is a fundamental question that I want to bring to the fore: How does one look at a piece by Warhol in order to really see it?

The retrospective as de Salvo has organized it is mightily comprehensive, rightfully so in light of Warhol’s cultural significance, and for that reason it can be a bit dizzying. Although exhibitions of aspects of Warhol’s work are frequent, and his images (and influence) seemingly ubiquitous, this is the first such large-scale, inclusive exhibition since the important Warhol retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1989, just two years after the artist’s death. More than thirty years have passed since Warhol died of a routine surgery complicated by the lingering internal damage from an assassination attempt by the writer Valerie Solanas in 1968 (and probably further complicated by the artist’s decades-long use of stimulants and “diet pills”), and so the Whitney’s current retrospective has the benefit of historical perspective with regard to Warhol’s corpus and the critical distance that can only occur over time.

Given not only the historical scope of the show but also how prolific Warhol was across the vastly different kinds of art and media he would take on–from photographs to films, from prints to paintings, from installations to sketches his reach was wide–the show resists easy summation. It includes the obvious classics: the 1964 Brillo boxes and the Campbell’s soup cans from 1962; the portrait of Edie Sedgwick is to be found, as well as the series of multiple Mona Lisas titled Thirty Are Better Than One. A room is devoted to the Death and Disaster series and its silk-screen depictions of car crashes, electric chairs, suicides, and police brutality pulled from journalistic photographs, transfigured by the artist in bright colors and serial repetition, again and again. If you have seen a Warhol–and who in America hasn’t?–it undoubtedly appears in the show, in some form or other. Certainly this familiarity contributes to the sense that people no longer see the work, if indeed they ever did. The exhibition seeks to change that dynamic by demonstrating how Warhol’s sense of aesthetic possibilities developed over the course of his career.

Warhol’s most iconic images sit alongside far less famous images drawn from earlier in his life. Somewhat puerile but charming sketches from the late 1940s and delicate, often homoerotic line drawings made in the early 1950s (Warhol was born in 1928) represent the earliest work, before pop fully entered Warhol’s–or anyone’s–aesthetic consciousness. These images are various: quaint but earnest drawings of hands; Truman Capote, a focus of Warhol’s youthful ardor, sketched in repose; male genitalia rendered in naive close-up: an ease, a sweetness marks his productivity of the early 1950s. We then see many examples from his days as a wildly successful commercial designer and illustrator working for the toniest Madison Avenue ad agencies. The famous Warhol shoes are represented, and the cats, and the book and album covers, as well as a striking anti-drug campaign that features a drawing of a young man jabbing a needle into his arm, the image that much more powerful because of Warhol’s seemingly nonchalant style, which neither dramatizes nor moralizes. The clear sense of the line being drawn by a living, compassionate hand might be another step toward humanizing Warhol.

The early work makes clear that Warhol absorbed vernacular techniques of American folk art as well as the crafts he practiced as a sick child making collages and paper dolls to distract himself, and he used these techniques in advertising as a way of subverting expectations of a direct manipulation of desire. Seeing these early efforts does help us track how he collected ideas throughout his life and brought what he learned as a commercial artist into the rest of his career. His time working for agencies comes across, then, as his educating himself in public, and his time in advertising is best seen as the training ground where he developed the skills and the vision that would support his real desire to become a serious artist. This is not a wholly new argument, of course, but it is one that is still necessary to keep in mind in order to counteract the idea that Warhol was somehow not serious about art and was much more interested in celebrity and fame than in articulating an aesthetic experience of subjectivity.

Critical interest tends to focus on the work done in the 1960s, the time when everything Warhol produced seemed to be a new revolution in terms of what might count as art. It is almost too easy to say that his work changed after he was nearly killed by Solanas. At a minimum, most take his work in the 1970s and 1980s to be far less dynamic and argue that Warhol’s sensibilities settled for the cool cynicism of creating portraits of the rich and famous and spending time at parties. There is some truth to this, and the Whitney’s first-floor gallery is devoted to such images. These feel the most dated as well as the most calculated, and cordoning them off from his more formally ambitious work intensifies that feeling.

The main gallery is not devoted wholly to the work of the 1960s. Clearly the retrospective wants to be responsive to the whole of his oeuvre, and the main gallery is perhaps where the most compelling aspects of the show are to be found. There one finds rawer pieces such as The Last Supper (Be Somebody with a Body) and Heaven and Hell Are Just One Step Away. These too are silk screens, but they are black-and-white, text-heavy pieces (the latter consists simply of the slogan in a blocky font) that look almost sketched. In that way, it is hard not to read them as Warhol deconstructing his own early work. Moreover, Warhol was a lifelong devout Catholic, so the religious elements resonate as something more than a detached, disinterested snarkiness, especially if we notice the way these works seem to presage his own death. Warhol’s entire life was a negotiation with the constraints of the body, but after his near-death experience in 1968 mortality was never far from his mind.

Still, it is hard to say whether this massive new exhibition can in fact humanize Warhol, at least broadly, since the retrospective is itself a blockbuster celebrity show that is apt to keep the work resonating most fully in that register, at least with most viewers. If crowds come precisely for the celebrity of Warhol and his talent for cultivating that attention, if they come to see, firsthand, the source of Warhol’s fame and attention, what are the ways by which the work can specifically register the human? When I visited the show during its opening week, I was constantly slipping forward, stepping back, ducking in order to navigate my way around people using their smartphones to take selfies with the work; every few yards, hands thrust in my direction to indicate that I needed to pause so I would not ruin the shot. “I need a picture of me in front of these Elvises for my mother,” I heard one bearded young man with a T-shirt emblazoned “Brooklyn” across the front say to his friend. “Does she like Warhol?” his friend asked. “No,” he responded, “she loves Elvis.” At one point, I was even asked politely by a late-middle-aged couple if I would photograph them in the room featuring the famous mid-60s flower silk screens that hung on walls covered by Warhol’s recognizable cow wallpaper. “Be sure you get some of the cows,” they said; “we’re from Iowa.”

Did that couple note that the flowers themselves were repurposed images of four hibiscuses that Warhol had published in the magazine Modern Photography, arranging them on a new background of leaves, silk-screening various iterations of that new image, and then painting them so broadly that it becomes difficult to identify what exact kind of flower is shown? Did they consider how Warhol effectively took a representation of four flowers and then used his artistic processes to present them anew, divorcing them from their original function of pointing to an actual but absent reality? Are these the ways that one could say the work was really seen?

We could, and perhaps should, argue that in Warhol’s hands the paintings are thus not the representation of an original source (the flowers qua real flowers) but are the representation of the act of representation. They signal how a new context transforms a thing. The original photographer, Patricia Caulfield, saw the flowers and created an image that materially manifested for others her act of seeing. Warhol does the same with Caulfield’s image, but foregrounds the way the artistic act intervenes and transforms whatever it focuses on. Certainly, the couple did not think about how they had taken Warhol’s wallpaper and its implied ironic critique that contemporary art acts as mere decorative backdrop in a well-heeled middle-class home and then themselves treated it as just that: wallpaper. Or is taking art as wallpaper a way that the middle class can include art in a practical way? Inadvertently, the couple proved a point and demonstrated how Warhol’s work was ironic in the most effective sense: it was both earnest and critical, often at the same moment and by the same gesture. Nonetheless, we might also ask: Was it Warhol or cows or New York that the couple were trying to capture in the photograph they had me take? In other words, what was it that they were connected to in what they saw? It would be easy to say that at some level the couple identified with this artist, who, despite becoming the epitome of New York cool, was the youngest son of immigrant parents and came to New York from a tiny town in Pennsylvania. Although he was to become the New York insider’s insider, the epicenter of a cultural network of musicians, artists, and personalities, Warhol was also always somehow perpetually outside it all, always awkward, never comfortable. Speaking with Gretchen Berg, Warhol once said, somewhat obliquely, “[Pop is] just taking the outside and putting it on the inside or taking the inside and putting it on the outside.” He stood outside human interaction, and yet by being outside it, he saw how pop culture might include him. How it might include everyone.

Is that to psychologize either Warhol too much or that Midwestern couple visiting New York too unfairly–if, that is, it is unfair? Perhaps, but it is, in any event, also an attempt to get at what creates the conditions for a human understanding of Warhol and the possibilities of an unspoken fellow feeling.

I am not sure that those responses indicate the humanization of Warhol, or even that the work is now being seen on its own terms. In the face of such responses as I witnessed when I visited, in a moment when so much of human interaction is “curated” for and by social media, what would it mean, after all, to humanize Warhol’s paintings, his Brillo boxes, his films, his cow wallpaper? A few crucial questions arise here. One, of course, is what it means to humanize someone. That is, how do we foreground that which we might call human in the work? While this is a large, weighty concern, we might come at it in a different way and ask something that seems too rarely asked about Warhol, which is, What was his interest in celebrity? Was the work “merely” his way of willing himself into fame (call this the “via Kardashiania”), or was fame and celebrity–the commerce of art–the means by which he could keep working? Decades ago the seminal critic Harold Rosenberg contrasted Warhol, about whom he was more than suspicious, with his beloved Abstract Expressionists, figures such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. “The Action painters,” Rosenberg insisted, “repudiated picture-making in favor of acts of discovery and self-transformation. Warhol interprets literally the overshadowing of the artwork by the artist; that is, he sees it strictly in terms of the art market.” In this reading, Warhol exploited the machinations of the burgeoning contemporary art market that placed the persona rather than the product at the center of attention. Yet if this were wholly true, why would Warhol so often leave out explicit markers of a self? Warhol doesn’t make that self so much as he finds the self through the responses he has to what was around him.

The late philosopher Arthur Danto, one of the most astute commentators the artist ever had, once wrote, “Warhol, in giving us our world transfigured into art, transfigured us and himself in the process.” The first step in humanizing the work would be to particularize it–each silk-screen iteration of Elizabeth Taylor, each soup can, every Elvis–and to let the impact of the work build, not by a thousand natural shocks, but by letting it accrue, piece by piece, into a world that is recognizable because it is the one within which we live, the one we come to know by what we love, by what calls us to small, devoted acts of attention built on the stuff of the everyday. In gathering together hundreds of pieces from the entire career of this artist, the Whitney exhibition offers hundreds of different fragments for beginning that process of moving from A to B and then, with luck, back again in order to begin it all anew.

Richard Deming is a poet and critic and the author of several books, including Art of the Ordinary: The Everyday Domain of Art, Film, Philosophy and Poetry.
Originally published:
January 1, 2019


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like

Soup Can; or, On Hospitality

Anything can become a weapon in America, especially against those who dare to cross the color line
Wendy S. Walters

Still, Image

Excerpts from In Remembrance of Things Past
Gerard Malanga


Furious Permissions

For Susan Sontag, style was nourishment
Brian Dillon


Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.