What can one say about Andy Warhol that hasn’t already been said? He has inspired, infuriated, and amused critics, his peers, and artists of later generations. His work has been shown around the world, and his auction prices soar with every passing year. However, the Whitney Museum in New York has just opened a massive comprehensive retrospective of Warhol’s art. Organized by Donna De Salvo, Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, reveals much more about the still omnipresent Pop artist.
Straddling the line between a traditional chronological curation and an argument for radical reassessment, this exhibition presents both Warhol classics and lesser-known work from before and after his supposed Pop zenith in the 1960s. Interestingly enough, the works and themes beyond Marilyn and the soup cans are actually the most captivating pieces in the show.
Most people who know Warhol know that he was fixated on death, image reproduction, fame, and consumerism, but fewer people are aware that Warhol was extremely experimental in the 1970s and ’80s. This was the time he also lost favor with critics, and De Salvo aims to reclaim these years. For example, many pieces from the 1950s are extremely homoerotic or queer in theme. Delicate drawings of a shirtless men and delicate shoes were always deemed illustrative, since he was making similar commercial work at the time, yet these private works were incredibly provocative and beautifully executed. Then in the 1970s, a series called Ladies and Gentlemen returned to themes of queerness with paintings of drag queens and trans women.
One side of Warhol that may seem surprising is that many of his works are actually quite serious and contemplative. Portraits of skulls and shadows from the 1970s may seem unremarkable on paper, but instead, they veer almost into total abstraction. And with Warhol’s factory line of reproduction, he experimented greatly with paint application and color. The oxidized “piss paintings” of the late 1970s look like Abstract-Expressionist pieces from the ‘40s and ‘50s. However, rather than splattered paint, it’s secretions of the body that creates these works. Despite the visceral qualities of their production and the austere results, it’s an innovative approach to abstraction while also a mockery of the Ab-Ex movement’s toxic masculinity.
The exhibition is sprawling, and I could write five more reviews about it, but needless to say, Warhol is much more than Pop. In this show you see that the artist had interests in not just fame and glamour and death, but also politics, the history and production of art, and queerness (especially queer sex). You may think you have seen all of Warhol, but consider visiting this retrospective for some welcome surprises.