Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / There are certainly strong generational reasons for the Whitney to mount “Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again,” its penetrating current retrospective. It goes almost without saying that Warhol changed art history by melding the commercial and the “fine,” and, in his energized aesthetic embrace of the whole world (especially New York), by irreversibly expanding the horizons of art and substantially advancing its conceptual dimension. At the same time, it’s tempting to question whether he has more particular contemporary relevance – or at least whether today his work resonates positively or constructively.
Warhol’s star rose during the 1960s – like the present day, a time in America of ideological ferment and political activism but also, crucially, one of extraordinary idealism forged in the triumphs of the civil rights movement and the Great Society if as well in the tragedies of the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War. His riffs on the ephemeral and empty character of fame were inherently sardonic, juxtaposed (as they are at the Whitney) with recognition of uglier and less transient features of society such as violence and bigotry. But at the same time, all the positive energy and dynamism in the air afforded his targets a cushion of good will that allowed them and their fans to embrace Warhol as the prophet of Pop without really abasing themselves: he was simply seeing things clearly. The United States remained ascendant on the global stage, so he could acknowledge Mao’s importance without drawing much political (as opposed to critical) resentment.
The zeitgeist today is, to say the least, different. The psychic buffer of idealism and supremacy has eroded. A retrograde political movement now threatens the most salutary achievements of Warhol’s prime time. A worst-case scenario that he might have merely satirized – the election of an unqualified and unhinged neo-fascist clown to the presidency – has come true. Arguably that makes Warhol’s insights about the power of celebrity, however profound, flatteningly so. Further elaboration about the cheapness of political discourse and the persistence of the grime beneath the glitter might serve only to rub it in. You could even contend that Donald Trump has appropriated and toxically expanded Warhol’s methodology of recontextualization and transmogrification of the image. But this assessment misses something about Warhol’s work that is just as important as its knowing sarcasm, and that is its Delphic gravity: in his offhand elusiveness, outrageousness, and iconoclasm, he conveyed the grasp of something wise that his audience didn’t yet possess but could discern through him. He thus imparted the importance of fearless oracles to a progressive society. This was the most profound aspect of his own self-commodification.
The Whitney’s exhibition keenly captures this quality. As much as he was a sly and self-conscious visionary, Warhol was also an ebullient outsider savant who abhorred insular complacency and cluelessness. His primary instrument was visual art that was to a greater or lesser degree enigmatic in context – whether Brillo boxes, paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, or silkscreen iterations of Marilyn or Jackie – or gleefully louche, like the “piss paintings” that riff on the AbExers’ gestural vocation, his own shrill self-portraits, and the psychedelic colors. The Factory gestalt’s blithe aloofness made him seem apolitical, but he was not, which the exhibition makes very clear. In particular, the AIDS epidemic seemed to both compel and free Warhol to be less circumspect about his homosexuality, as it did many other gay people, and less coy about other things. On the main floor of the exhibit, the curators tactically lead with straight-up camouflage mural, made in the mid-eighties but harking back to earlier work, and end with his Camouflage Last Supper (1986), the camo now overlaid on a vague but unmistakable image of da Vinci’s classic painting. Neither was Warhol impersonal. On the first floor of the museum, a roomful of his portraits of famous and lesser-known friends and acquaintances, which he did not generally show, reveals a degree of sentimentality not usually associated with him. But there is nothing soft or non-committal about these or later works. Greater earnestness and directness did not mean a reduction in his wit or potency.
Warhol undoubtedly would have had much to say about Trump, but of course he would not have deigned to declare that Trump represented the nadir of glam over substance or a repulsive crystallization of homophobia, misogyny, and racism. Warhol instead might have chosen to reflect elliptically, as he was wont to do, that Trump was “abstract.” The subtext might have been, if only, but that would be lost on Trump and his followers, who would merely be flummoxed and therefore angry, and all the more vulnerable to oblique but definitive exposure. Warhol’s governing compulsion may have been to insist that we see and acknowledge the complicated and insidious world that we have had a hand in creating. That is a timeless mandate, now more urgent than ever.
“Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again,” organized by Donna De Salvo with assistance from Christie Mitchelland Mark Loiacono. Whitney Museum, New York, NY. through March 31, 2019.