Updated: Jun 12, 2020
An exploration of the Andy Warhol retrospective at the Whitney
From November through March of 2018, the Whitney Museum showcased an exhibition on Andy Warhol. This retrospective, From A to B and Back Again, explores Warhols earlier work and how he profited from his cultivated persona. There is no doubt that Warhol had a significant impact on the way visual and performance art is viewed, as well as how to create and who can create art. Spanning decades, his work includes many complex types of media, all of which are recognizable through Warhol’s signature style. The Whitney’s collection of his pieces, as well as reading Popism: The Warhol Sixties by Pat Hackett, gave me some insight into how Warhol was able to construct an impressive platform for his oeuvre and forever establish himself as an iconic artist.
From a young age, Warhol was captivated by celebrities, taping pictures of them on his walls and listening to their stories on the radio. He was also a talented drawer and writer and was recognized as such in his early years of school. Warhol’s first steps into the art world was in a largely commercial landscape, as he drew ad campaigns for shoes. Some of these pieces were shown at the Whitney, an attractive collection of drawings in gold leaf, appearing simple and tame next to his later forays. What piqued my interest was his obvious natural talent for drawing and composition that is shown in these pieces and a compilation of plain line drawings. If one was only exposed to his large scale screen prints or clusters of repetitive objects or faces, seeing his modest newspaper print drawings would reveal his basic ability as an artist. This was crucial to the retrospective as the viewer was able to witness his exploration and transformation within his art. Next came some of Warhol’s first experiments in repetition and what that means in commercial America. His piece “Green Coca-Cola Bottles” in 1962 was his expression of the simplicity and availability of Coke. Speaking on this piece, Warhol said that no matter who a person was, how famous or how poor, one could buy the same Coke as everyone else. Liz Taylor or a hobo could be drinking the same beverage. As a viewer, I was able to watch Warhols opinion on commercial art change because of his place and needs at the time. Since he needed to make money, Warhol viewed advertisements as a producer, contemplating what would sell. When he was able to create for himself, Warhol was able to observe products (and later people) as a consumer and analyse what was seen as attractive in the promotion of objects. One could see that a mass amount of something was advantageous in its ability to sell in Warhol’s pieces on Coca-Cola, Brillo Pads, and his legendary Campbell Soup cans. The glittering tower of products reveals its enticement as well as it’s eeriness, presenting the overwhelming structure the American consumer experiences.
His work varied from producer, consumer and then to viewer, as he delved into movie stars and film, returning to his beloved childhood celebrities. Capturing Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Jackie Kennedy, Warhol made images of icons that then became iconic themselves. The Whitney connected this transition from object to person because of his continued use of repetition, almost as if he was providing the public with the same subject material. That is to say that many people saw these famous personalities as marketable objects, so Warhol used the same techniques to showcase them. His use of screen print was heavily used in this time period, his space known as The Factory truly embodying its name, churning out hundred of prints as well as many other types of media. This led to his voyage into filmmaking, when he produced both short and feature films. This portion of the retrospective was fascinating as it included a few of his most eminent projects, such as Eat, Blowjob and some his many screen tests. These uncontrived films of people performing natural acts investigated these very actions, challenging the expectations of movies during the 60s and 70s. They tested the limit of what people watched and were entertained by, especially Warhol’s screen tests. Would someone watch an attractive person do nothing but stare at the screen? Yes, apparently, because Warhol made 472, and the public was enthralled. The examination of beauty seems to be a recurring theme in Warhols portfolio, but since he approached it from contrasting angles and used many types of media, each collection conveys a new idea on the subject.
It seemed obvious that The Factory would next venture into contemporary media and these years were highly prolific for Warhol and his Superstars. Surrounding himself with people such as Sedgwick, Reed, and Mapplethorpe, the public flocked to him, intrigued by this group of modern artists and muses. This resulted in financial gain for Warhol and gave him even more freedom to pursue and produce a variant of art on many platforms. From this period, the Whitney displayed a sampling of Interview magazines, which he founded in 1969, and some episodes from his MTV series “15 Minutes”. These were a return of sorts to commercial art, but instead of shoes, Warhol was selling a peek into the immensely popular lifestyle of his entourage. Warhols intense and private persona had benefited him throughout his life, his air of mystery created endless stories and legends that the public devoured. Warhol understood this and from this understanding and his past in commerce, he was able to market himself to the masses. By utilizing a modern platform, magazines and television, he was able to profit off his romanticized personality and image.
Warhol was incredibly inventive, and used his originality to cement himself as an important artist, during his lifetime as well as now. He influenced countless other artists, such as Basquiat, Haring, and Murakami, which in turn became visionaries for future generations. With the collection exhibited at the Whitney, attendees are reminded of the indisputable legacy of Warhol, his work transcending decades to impact the public today.