Warhol at the Whitney: Andy, his art and all his contradictions

“Marilyn Diptych,” by Andy Warhol, 1962. Acrylic, silkscreen ink and graphite on linen, two panels: 80 7/8 x 114 in. over all.

BY JUDITH A. SOKOLOFF | Can I see an Andy Warhol retrospective with fresh eyes? Can I separate myself from the bombardment of his images and words over his many decades of fame?  Can I forget Warhol’s often maligned “Business of Art” credo: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Am I able to ignore his ubiquitousness that caused many of us to tire of him?

Can I forget observers’ endless sometimes contradictory comments: He had no sexuality — though everything he created was sexual; he slid between insider and outsider personas; he was or wasn’t political; he literally died and was revived; he lived with his mother forever.

Can I ignore that he once said, “If you’re not trying to be real you don’t have to get it right,” and “Art is what you can get away with.”

Calling himself “deeply superficial,” he was a man both hidden and revealed, an artist-designer who curated himself. Can I find the man in this exhibition?

I can forget, and I can sort of find him. Walking among the 350 works in “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I simply enjoy his exuberant, in-your-face yet often mysterious works of art, his original observations of people and things, his unbounded foray into different media.

“Campbell’s Soup Can Over Coke Bottle,” by Andy Warhol, 1962. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 23 1⁄2 × 17 3⁄4 in.

I fall for Warhol’s seductive intensity, passionate colors, the sheer power of his images, his perpetual inventiveness.  Warhol’s energy bounces off the walls. He wants us to engage, and that is what I do.

Organized by Donna De Salvo, the Meatpacking District museum’s deputy director for international initiatives and senior curator, assisted by Christie Mitchell and Mark Loiacono, the show is designed to make Warhol alive and relevant for both the old and the young.

First there are Warhol’s Pop Art classics: Stacked Brillo boxes and paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and other images from popular and mass culture. I’m sorry, Andy, that you never got to shop at BJ’s or use Amazon to endlessly deliver things to your door. You would have somehow turned the process inside out.

“Big Electric Chair,” by Andy Warhol, 1967–68. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 54 1/8 x 73 1/4 in.

My eye catches flashes of hot pink — I follow it around a corner. Covering the walls of a huge gallery, Warhol’s 1960’s silk-screened pink cow wallpaper (on yellow background) and multicolored hibiscus flowers assault and embrace me simultaneously. Visitors can’t help but pose for photos against this stunning background. Children point, spin, jump up and down.

Next, Warhol’s foundational work as a commercial illustrator in the ’50s reveals the beginnings of his innovative and experimental nature. Freelance work for magazines led to a job designing newspaper ads for I. Miller and Sons shoes. Then in the early ’60s, he reinvented himself as a gallery artist. Rejecting the Abstract Expressionist work that was dominant among New York painters, he began using silk-screening, a commercial reproductive technology.

There is Warhol the filmmaker. In a dark room, you can view several short films and videos from the period from 1963 to 1968 when he produced hundreds of films in a wide range of genres and styles. There’s Warhol, man of letters: On display are books, magazines and texts he published throughout his career. The “Death and Disaster” section reveals a fearful side: police attacking civil-rights workers, car crashes, suicide, the electric chair in Ossining Prison shortly before the execution of the Rosenbergs, an unflattering portrait of Nixon. Warhol’s single largest body of work were his commissioned portraits (photographed with his Polaroid, then silk-screened), produced from 1968 to 1987. He was attracted to the rich and famous, and they to him. An entire room on the first floor is devoted to these portraits, which were a steady means of funding for his other projects. Warhol also photographed everyday scenes, friends, colleagues, queer culture, drag queens — constantly.

“A picture means I know where I was every minute,” he said. “That’s why I take pictures. It’s a visual diary.”

He probably would have loved curating his life for Instagram.

“Mao,” by Andy Warhol, 1972. Acrylic, silkscreen ink and graphite on linen, 14 ft. 8 1⁄2 in. x 11 ft. 4 1 ⁄2 in.

A darker side of Warhol emerges in his large images of a gun, a skull, a green devilish self-portrait against a black background. The giant 1978 “Oxidation Painting” is the result of people urinating on gold metallic paint.

The show’s finale consists of four massive paintings. In “Camouflage Last Supper” (1986, 7 feet by 25 feet), Jesus and his apostles are both hidden and revealed, like Warhol himself. Facing this Last Supper is a canvas covered with 63 barely perceptible images of the Mona Lisa, painted in hues of white. Two Rorschach paintings face each other on the other opposing walls.

This section is quieter, almost meditative. But don’t look too long, Warhol would have warned, or the work loses all of its meaning. And that meaning is yours to figure out.

“I’m the type who’d be happy not going anywhere, as long as I was sure I knew exactly what was happening at the places I wasn’t going to,” Warhol said. “I’m the type who’d like to sit home and watch every party that I’m invited to on a monitor in my bedroom.”

He also said he felt compelled to go out.

Well, Andy, I hope you’re somewhere watching the people gazing at your retrospective. With your compulsion to record and make everyday life into the subject of art, you’d appreciate the thousands of selfies and other photos being shot here.

I hope you’ve put aside comments about your work being vacuous and critics not liking it. I hope you’re smiling at the many millions of dollars your art has continued to fetch.

And I hope you heard these comments: A woman to her friend in the Whitney gift shop, “I’m not impressed by what is supposed to be a genius.” And one man to another near the giant Mao painting, “Warhol really was a genius!”

“Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St., on view through March 31. For more information, visit whitney.org .

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