No artist has contributed to the collapse of boundaries between high and low culture as much as Andy Warhol did. Having omnivorous curiosity and willingness to experiment with non-traditional art-making techniques, he had created an enormous body of work that spanned every available medium, at the same time elevating his own persona to the level of a popular icon. Understanding America’s contradictory impulses and the growing power of images in contemporary life, he embraced avant-garde logic, the mass media and consumerism to create original art that profoundly influenced how we see and think about the world now. More than 30 years after his death, Warhol remains ever-present and instantly recognizable, continuing to permeate popular culture.  

“Warhol produced images that are now so familiar, it’s easy to forget just how unsettling and even shocking they were when they debuted,” explains Donna De Salvo, the Senior Curator and Deputy Director for International Initiatives at the Whitney, whose 2019 exhibition marked the first Warhol retrospective organized by the U.S. museum since 1989. Having worked with the artist on two shows at the Dia Art Foundation in the 1980s, De Salvo is a Warhol authority and one of the last curators who actually had a direct connection to the artist in his lifetime. With this landmark exhibition, the curator aims to challenge perception and prove that there remains far more to Warhol and his work than is commonly known.

Shining a New Light on Warhol’s Practice

The Whitney exhibit, titled Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again, featured more than 350 works of art, many assembled together for the first time, uniting all aspects, media and periods of Warhol’s 40-year career. Employing a chronological and thematic methodology and positioning the artist’s career as a continuum, it featured everything from his beginnings as a commercial illustrator in the 1950s, to his iconic Pop masterpieces of the early 1960s, to the experimental work in film and other mediums from the 1960s and ’70s, to his innovative use of readymade abstraction and the painterly sublime in the 1980s. The title of the exhibition itself is drawn from Warhol’s 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), a unique memoir that brought together his thoughts on some of the key themes that permeated his work, such as fame, love, beauty, class and money.

After making its premiere at the Whitney, the exhibit moved on to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, wrapping up its tour earlier this year. 

As De Salvo explains, this comprehensive survey that builds on a wealth of new materials, research and scholarship will make it clear that “Warhol was not just a 20th-century titan but a seer of the 21st century as well.”

A Closeted Queer Catholic Boy from Pittsburgh Becomes a Charismatic Magnet for Bohemian Upper Class New York

Born as Andrew Warhola, the artist emerged from the poverty and obscurity of an Eastern European immigrant family in Pittsburgh to become a charismatic icon of high circles of New York. Upon his arrival in Manhattan in 1949 where he came to pursue the world of art, he began working on Madison Avenue, soon becoming one of New York’s most popular advertising artists. Designing everything from shoe advertisements and Christmas cards to record covers, his sketches blurred the thin line between commercial design and fine art. Featuring a range of commercial art created in this period, the exhibition will provide insight into the would-be artist before he became Warhol and show how this body of work laid the groundwork for many of the themes and aesthetic devices that he would develop over the course of his career.

In early 1960s, Warhol moved from commercial art into the equally competitive world of fine art. Bringing subjects from popular culture into the exclusive salons of high art, he spearheaded the emergence and development of the Pop Art movement. The defining moment was his discovery of the photo silkscreen process, which allowed him to produce seemingly endless variations that question our faith in images and the value of cultural icons.

Embarking on a period of intense activity and innovation, Warhol created some of the best-known series between 1962 and 1968, which showed his remarkably keen sense of the topical and established and cemented his reputation as a Pop artist.These include Coca-Cola silkscreens and Campbell’s Soup Cans from 1962, Death and Disaster paintings from 1963 and Flowers paintings from 1964, but also portraits of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis and Marlon Brando. Over the course of his career, the artist created hundreds of portraits of both celebrities and people who surrounded him, and 75 of them will now be brought together in an Instagram-like grid on the gallery walls in an attempt to realize the artist’s vision of displaying them together as one monumental Portrait of Society.

In dialogue with paintings produced during the 1960s, the exhibition will also feature a group of seminal films curated by Claire K. Henry, assistant curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project. At first an extension of his practice which visually captured portraits of friends, intimate encounters and scenes from his daily life, Warhol’s films became more complex and experimental over time, featuring a rotating cast of both underground actors and Factory superstars such as Paul America or Edie Sedgwick.

The Artist’s Career as a Continuum

Critics have traditionally seen Warhol’s career as going into decline after he was shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968. For this reason, works from the 1970s and 1980s remain far less known. However, the exhibition aims to demonstrate that the artist didn’t slow down after this assassination attempt nearly took his life, but entered into a period of intense experimentation that expanded upon his previous work. Warhol’s late ventures make up an important part of his legacy as they prefigure the diverse interests, activities and interventions that occupy artists today.

By 1969, Warhol founded Interview, a magazine dedicated to celebrities that was in production until May this year, and beginning in 1972, his interest was reignited in producing work across all media, including painting, drawing, photography, printmaking, sculpture, video and performance. The exhibition will highlight the artist’s cross-media approach and address many of the consistent themes of his work, such as sex, death, politics, identity and the tensions created by the combination of painting and photography. Among exhibition highlights of this period are examples from the Hammer and Sickle series, the Skulls and expansive Ladies and Gentlemen paintings, but also a sculptural stack of clear perspex boxes containing rolls of brightly colored mylar film, which have never been exhibited.

The exhibition will also re-evaluate a body of work created in the 1980s, positioning it not as a departure, but as the final step in his artistic evolution. In this period, Warhol began revisiting the major subjects of his 1960s work, including Marilyn, Mona Lisa, cows, flowers, soup cans, commercial packaging and his own self-portrait, often employing his famous silkscreen process that first launched him to stardom.Collectively known as the Reversals and Retrospective series, these works are almost never exhibited alongside their 1960s counterparts. By doing exactly so, the exhibition at Whitney will provide an opportunity for considering these works within the scope of Warhol’s larger oeuvre.

Throughout his entire career, Warhol maintained consistent responsiveness to current events and culture, which he manifested in the 1980s works addressing the politics of the Cold War and the rapidly escalating AIDS crisis, now brought together for the show. The exhibition will also present a range of collaborations with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, which contributed to Warhol regaining his critical notoriety in the last decade of his practice, as well as late works tackling religious subjects, which represent a profound culmination of themes such as authorship and historicity, abstraction and figuration, immediacy and meditation, spirituality and the sublime.

The Indelible Impact and Legacy

Modern art history is full of vanguard artists whose impact fades over time, but Warhol’s legacy continues to grow only more potent and lasting, continuing to inspire new generations of artists and audiences with each passing year. Through his carefully cultivated persona and perspicacious understanding of what De Salvo describes as “America’s defining twin desires for innovation and conformity, public visibility and absolute privacy,” he introduced a fascinating new form of artistic expression that combined fine art mediums with highly commercialized components and helped expand the role of the artist in society. His repetitions, distortions, camouflaging, incongruous color and recycling of his own imagery anticipated the most profound effects and issues of our current digital age.

Through this comprehensive and surgical selection at Whitney, informed by De Salvo’s expertise, the audience will have a unique opportunity to experience and reconsider the artistic genius and fearless experimentation of one of the most inventive, influential and important American artists, but also comprehend his perennial relevance in today’s age of digital technology and social media.

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