Ideally, the exhibition Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, at the Metropolitan Museum, should lead not into the fated gift shop but onto the street. Out here, like it or not, we are all Warholians, immersed in a common chaos of signs, gadgets, and sensations, and somehow detached from it, too. The Met show tracks Andy Warholâs influence on contemporary art, which began in his year of miracles, 1962, and, if anything, accelerated after his death, in 1987. The sixty artists are well chosen but, in truth, too few. For or against, what artist of the past half century hasnât reacted to Warholâs reduction of artâs once sacred aura to a cult of the obvious? Come to that, limiting the show to include only museum-certified art, though necessary for its purpose, feels parochial. The conflations that Warhol visited upon artâchiefly, between painting and photography, and between handmade and mechanical productionâwere like little technical threads that, when tugged, unravelled any received sense of what artists are and do. At the Met, you see his innovations play out, with notable power, in works by such major figures as Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Koons. But when you consider the historical collapses that Warhol heraldedâof Ã©lite culture into mass culture, of creativity into commerce, and, with a metaphysical shudder, of reality into appearances of realityâeven the strongest subsequent spawn of the art world seems a mite precious.
Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh in 1928. He grew up cosseted by his working-class Slovakian Catholic family and enraptured by American cultural trifles, from paper dolls to movie magazines. After graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, in 1949, he moved to New York with some fellow-students and became a hugely successful advertising and fashion illustrator, with a piquant style of blotted-ink drawing. His seriously fey personalityââswish,â in the slur of the dayâappalled many people, including cautious gays, in the cityâs booming art scene, which he studied as a novitiate does a catechism. Undeterred, in 1959 Warhol sensed a populist cultural revolution afootâanticipated, but only just, in works by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johnsâand undertook to embody it. He triumphed by adapting the formal syntax of Abstract Expressionist painting as a chassis for vernacular imagery, first with burlesques of spontaneous drawing and brushwork, and then, definitively, in 1962, with a medium that was at once impersonal and susceptible to infinite visual nuance: silk screen, done cunningly fast and loose. Were Warholâs choices of subject matterâsoup cans, Marilyn, car crashes, Jackie in mourning, a cruddy little photograph of flowersâinevitable? Thatâs moot. They became so, once he had hit on them, and so they will always be. Warholâs steady expansion of his enterprise into filmmaking, the social laboratory of his Factory, and assorted commercial endeavors is often credited with breaching certain boundaries between art and life. But the walls that he seemed to walk through proved simply, shockingly, no longer to exist. Maybe they never did.
Warhol was so clairvoyant an artist that he scarcely needed to be a great one, but he was that, too. The Met show, which presents some forty-five works by him and about a hundred by other artists, opens with two six-foot-square versions of his self-portrait, fingers raised to his lips, from 1967. One of them gravitates toward glowering reds, set off by a sudden yellow, and the other toward blackish blue, with blood orange, ochre, and aqua. Warholâs eye for improbable chromatic harmonies cannot be overrated. He once said that he wanted to be Matisse. He may have meant only that he wanted that kind of fame, but his potently symbolizing way with colorsâwhich, like scents, are a royal road from the outside world to our emotionsâmerits comparison to Matisseâs, in a spectrum of hues that postdate the Frenchmanâs palette. The Day-Glo pink and chartreuse of Warholâs Elsie the Cow wallpaper (1966) epitomized the sizzle of an era when optical and aural sensation afforded a generationâand afflicted it withâinarticulate ecstasy: stupid in one sense, divine in another. (Typical stoned laughter of the time saluted the absurdity of trying to communicate what appeared to be self-evident cosmic truths.) My breath still catches when I behold that bovine Hallelujah Chorus, which is augmented at the Met, as it was at the Leo Castelli gallery, in 1966, by a childlike bliss of drifting Mylar balloons.
The most commanding artist in âRegarding Warholâ being Warhol, the sixty others may be rated by their relative cognizance of what theyâre up against. But thatâs not the approach of the curators, Mark Rosenthal and Marla Prather. They organized the showâto exhilarating effect, at least visuallyâin five sections, with tidy academic titles: âDaily News: From Banality to Disaster,â âPortraiture: Celebrity and Power,â âQueer Studies: Shifting Identities,â âConsuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality,â and âNo Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle.â Iâm not about to negotiate categories that blanket sharp differences in quality and temperament. Nor will I indulge in the many possible quibbles about the selection of artists, beyond noting an East Coast bias that downplays the important counterweight to Warhol of the Californians Edward Ruscha, whose inclusion is perfunctory, and the absent Mike Kelley. (But hereâs a pet peeve: the current practice of screening Warholâs films as DVDs is like hanging reproductions of paintings. The medium matters.) The most exciting aspect of the show is a chance to gauge how originally and substantially individual artists stand in relation to both social history and art history. If you go, take someone to argue with. The gold standard of Warhol exposes every inflated value in other currencies.
Cindy Sherman fares best. Her self-employing pictures resolve the tension in Warholâs work between painting and photography by making photographs that are as fully intentional as paintings: what you see is what she means. Socially, she brings Warholâs fantasia of celebrity to the inner lives of characters who, however extravagant their yearnings, couldnât be famous even for fifteen seconds, because theyâre fictional. (The show succumbs to its thematic mania by featuring a rare stumble by Sherman into camp, from 1982: impersonating Marilyn Monroe.) Of the painters, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke most astutely register Warholâs plunging of art into the torrent of industrial image-making, by investing frankly vulgar and banal subjects with the afterglow of decrepit European traditions. Richterâs âAdministrative Buildingâ (1964), a dull gray edifice seen in a drive-by blur, is so aggressively boring that it electrifies. In sculpture, Jeff Koons updates Warholâs class content of fame and money by mostly combing out the fame. His majestic baubles are carefully empty-minded monuments of and to the global impunity of sheer wealth. To dismiss them, youâd need to get into a time machine and redirect the course of present history.
Throughout the show, Warholâs way proves its utility as a versatile message machine, often for political concerns. Themes of black, gay, and female identity are easily plugged into his all-regarding pictorial and cosmopolitan social circuitry, more because of than despite his own indifference to politics. To understand why, in 1972, he launched a series of portraits of Mao Zedong, you need to know only that he told a dealer he had read in Life magazine that Mao was the most famous person in the world. (The fact that he was also the bloodiest wasnât a consideration.) Celebrity for its own sake intoxicates a lot of people, of course. But Warhol went beyond fawning over stars to show the elixir brewed by the mere act of aiming a film camera at random visitors to the Factory. Self-erasing attentiveness was his cynosureâa state of mind and of being that comes and goes, for most of us, but ran on, for him, with nary a hitch. This might seem to place him somewhere other than planet Earth. I think that Warholâs ghostly omniscience was an effect of two factors. The first was his leap from the bottom straight to the top of American society, which shielded him from middle-class experience and values. The second was genius.