Looking at art is normally a course of study for me—examining the paintings, photographs or sculptures; carefully noting their texture and colors and composition; reflecting on the individual works in a collection; and analyzing how they fit together as a whole. This is how I begin to understand both art and artist, and it usually takes time. Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” is a completely different experience. This is “Andy Warhol 101” on speed, and that is not a complaint.
The intent is clear at once: we will learn about Warhol’s impact by comparing roughly 45 of his works side-by-side with those of his contemporaries and successors. I use the word impact purposefully. Warhol’s reach is great, which becomes increasingly obvious when we wander the galleries and see how artists up to the present day interpret his paintings, sculpture, and films. The museum’s audio materials suggest that through his notoriety and groundbreaking work—Warhol is credited with originating the pop art movement—he shaped the careers of many. One such artist, Robert Mapplethorpe, so idolized Warhol that he went to meet his role model at the legendary nightclub, Max’s Kansas City, where Warhol and his diverse entourage commandeered the Back Room most evenings. The drag queens he encountered on that visit and on the boozy nights that followed, fascinated Mapplethorpe. His “Self Portrait” (1980) is a product of that attraction. He is not alone in his admiration of Warhol and the avant-garde thinking he represented.
The massive exhibition of some 150 pieces is organized thematically in five sections. “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power,” focuses on Warhol’s obsession with celebrities, which was evident in his personal and professional lives. “Red Jackie” (1964) is one example. Warhol’s close friend, Julian Schnabel, created “Barbara Walters” (1990) out of broken plates that he glued to a wood panel and painted over in oil—his friend’s borrowing of Warhol’s style is as recognizable as Barbara Walters’ image. It is no secret that Warhol, too, borrowed from others.
Another section, “From Banality to Disaster,” addresses Warhol’s interest in everyday subject matter, particularly advertisements and the press coverage of disasters, which he deemed depressingly deficient. His concurrent enthrallment with and mocking of 1960s American consumer culture is evident here too (“Big Campbell’s Soup Can,” 1962).
Sexuality and gender, other areas where he is recognized for pushing artistic limits, are examined in “Queer Studies: Camouflage and Shifting Identities.” Warhol’s body of work encouraged candor about sexual identity, and the exhibition includes such photographers as Richard Avedon and Catherine Opie to demonstrate the increased openness that resulted.
“Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality,” highlights Warhol’s borrowing of existing photographs, or as the museum calls it, “appropriation,” and the New York Times review terms “theft.” The repetition of images is another method he pioneered (“Marilyn Monroe’s Lips,” 1962) along with appropriation of the paintings of others. Abstract work is also featured.
Finally, “No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle,” delves into his filmmaking, publishing, and design. An entire room wallpapered with a Warhol cow design destroys any notion that painting must be limited to canvas. He saw art as part of the outside world and empowered others to stretch their boundaries. The same room is home to a ceiling full of silver helium balloons, Warhol’s vision of clouds.
The scale of such creations demanded a large workspace and Warhol’s studio, a silver-painted warehouse called, “The Factory,” served the purpose. As his notoriety grew, The Factory became the site of numerous grand parties attended by the wealthy and famous. As much as Warhol disparaged fame in his artistic work, he reveled in his own celebrity. In his book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he addresses this contradiction: “Making money is art and working is art, and good business is the best art.” He was apparently an excellent businessman and artist.
Go. Learn. Enjoy. It is fascinating to experience this absorbing entry into the Warholian world. If there are glitches, they do not detract from the overall impression. In at least one instance, it appeared that a painter had imitated Warhol, when in fact, the painter’s work came first by several years. Minor snafus aside, I guarantee you’ll appreciate Warhol’s astounding impact by the time you leave the museum, and agree that he deserves his fame, far more than the fifteen minutes he predicted we would all have one day.
The exhibition runs until December 31, 2012. An informative audio tour is available ($7 for adults) and recommended. Further information can be found on the museum’s website, www.metmuseum.org
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