Rearranging Warhol’s Legacy


The museum used to mix works from various periods in an attractive scattershot, but now all seven of its floors have been reconceived as an orderly survey of just about everything that Warhol got up to, from the 1950s as a leading commercial artist to his work as an impresario with the Velvet Underground in the later €™60s, to his landmark films, €” and the first video art, right through to his place deep within MTV culture in the 1980s. Where other artists of his generation, such as Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, used pop culture to feed their high art, Warhol plunged right in and became part of that culture.

“€œIt really is a new Warhol; it’€™s much more about him,” Mr. Shiner said, noting especially the trove of archival documents and early art, much of it on loan from local relatives.

Forget Elizabeth Taylor and Brillo boxes and even Edie Sedgwick. To understand the true greatness of Andy Warhol (1928-87), we may want to start with two early images by and of him. The rethought galleries now feature a little-known student painting from 1948 in which Warhol uses the latest in expressionist brushwork to portray himself, nude, with a finger stuck up his nose, pushing past the limits of good taste and fine art even while still in college. Near that artwork hangs a rare family snapshot that includes a baby-bonneted Andy, maybe 2 years old, also with his finger in his nose. Could there be any other artist whose art so closely tracks his life?

We can make do knowing little about Giotto or Vermeer; we can manage without the details of Monet’s life. But Warhol, by being who he was, as much as by making what he made, put himself “€œat the very heart of what we know as art in the 20th century,”€ Mr. Shiner said. That art had often tried to bridge the gap between art and life; when Warhol came along, he backfilled the chasm. Figures such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons have waltzed across after him.

Last year, a record 120,000 people visited the museum, helping boost its revenue. The budget for the anniversary rehang was $500,000, less than some museums spend on one show. A new lobby is lined in silver foil to echo Warhol’€™s 1964 Factory on East 47th Street in Manhattan, and comes complete with a bar meant to get visitors hanging out and to make the important art-historical point that Warhol was as notable as a catalyst for new ways to hang out as he was a maker of precious objects.

The museum is asking a lot, however, if it wants us to imagine that what goes on in its lobby could have much of a link to Warhol’s wild times. The fun that went on in his studio was so serious, it could almost be fatal.

Later, in America’€™s disco days, Warhol’s mere presence at Studio 54, as much as the portraits he did of his pals there, were what made him matter to our culture, as revealed in a show about Warhol and his designer friend Halston now filling special-exhibition spaces on the new second floor. (Future exhibitions there will dwell on how contemporary artists were influenced by or even reacted against Warhol.)

The idea of a “post-object” Warhol, ”we might now think of him as the godfather of such “€œrelational” artists as Rirkrit Tiravanija, was a big part of how he came across in his own day. The rehang includes a 1969 issue of “€œEsquire” in which Warhol explains that his next work will be to rent out his followers to all comers, turning himself into a kind of art-world pimp.

Recent scholarship has also latched onto this idea of Warhol as performer. “There’€™s this conception of Andy Warhol’€™s most important artwork as his construction of the self, as it changed over the years,”€ said Nicholas Chambers, curator of art at the museum. Many of the new galleries where he’€™s hanging Warhol’€™s well-known canvases also include photos that show Warhol constructing a forever-new “self”€ that ranged from tie-wearing upstart to leather-clad undergrounder to preppy social climber and disco king.

The one Warhol persona that is slighted in the new installation is his presence as one of the first notably gay artists to reach mass attention. The museum is open about Warhol’€™s homosexuality, displaying his “€œStudies for a Boy Book,”€ a series of pre-Pop drawings from the 1950s, and mentioning boyfriends in wall text. But it never digs into how important he was for the history of gay culture, and how vital his gayness was for his art.

Yet there’s a risk that too much attention paid to who Warhol was could distract from the art he made, according to Christopher Bedford, the director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, who recently presented a show on Warhol’s use of photography. Warhol’s ideas about art may have expanded to include aspects of his life, but they are still ideas about art; Mr. Bedford said he felt that the museum has to be careful not to present Warhol as just another “fascinating social figure.”€

You can sense the museum trying to strike this delicate balance in its rehang. If anything, however, recent stratospheric auction prices have focused public attention away from Warhol the man and onto his handmade, salable “€œmasterpieces”€: The catalog for Christie’€™s latest contemporary art auction in New York featured a “White Marilyn”€ from 1962 on its cover, as oligarch bait.

Mr. Shiner, the museum’s director, doesn’t deny the instant appeal of the paintings. Touring through the collection, he stopped to admire an immense 1963 silk-screened canvas of Elvis Presley called “€œElvis 11 Times,” now given its own wall. Warhol wrote that he liked the silk-screen technique for its “€œassembly-line”€ effect, “€œthe way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple,€” quick, and chancey.”€

Mr. Shiner emphasized that it’€™s easier to recognize the radical flair of Warhol’€™s classic pieces when they are seen near his more challenging work in moving pictures, as they are in the new installation. “Film is equal in his oeuvre to the paintings,€ Mr. Shiner said.

Next year will mark five decades since Warhol became the first artist to make video art. (His landmark piece, Outer and Inner Space,€ featured Edie Sedgwick on film, keeping company with a second image of herself on video, and it beat Nam June Paik’s first video work by several weeks.) One of the rehang’s highlights is a fourth-floor media gallery where, for the first time, the public is offered on-demand, uncut access to about 130 of Warhol’s films, videos and TV programs, mostly unfindable until now. “€œMovies, movies and more movies,”€ Warhol later recalled. “We were shooting so many, we never even bothered to give titles to a lot of them.”

Greg Pierce, a curator of film and video at the museum, is presenting one piece barely known even to experts: Warhol’€™s 1971 video called “€œWater.”€ It was made for an exhibition organized by Yoko Ono, and offers a 33-minute close-up on the tank of the water cooler in Warhol’€™s Union Square studio, as he and his irregulars stand around nattering and drinking from it. (The audio is punctuated with the “glug-glug”€ of the cooler being used). The video takes off from Warhol’€™s earlier “durational”€ films, works that had him pointing a static movie camera at such things as the Empire State Building,€” and blends them with his budding 1970s “performance”€ as the world’€™s cattiest gossip and partygoer.

John W. Smith, now the director of the art museum at the Rhode Island School of Design, was at the Warhol museum from 1994 to 2006 as an archivist and then assistant director. He said one of the most provocative moves for any one-artist museum would be to acknowledge the weak works as a vital part of the story. He added, “I know the storerooms at the Warhol Museum, and there’€™s a lot of work that the market has tried to tell us is important but frankly, I doubt it.”€ He cited Warhol’s “€œToy”€ paintings, from the 1980s, as pieces that might be displayed as examples of second-rate work.

The new installation does not show much sign of trumpeting any works as also-rans.

But Mr. Smith also notes the opposite happening, with works once considered minor now being universally recognized as great. He mentions the Warhol archives as such a case. Down on the museum’€™s third floor, those archives are going on display behind glass walls. Warhol had the habit of filling cardboard boxes with all the mail, mementos and leftovers from his daily life, including such things as wedding cake, a banana-shaped harmonica and naughty pictures. He called the results “Time Capsules,”€ and all 610 of them are now visible; at any given time, the contents of one will be spread out in vitrines.

The museum has unpacked Capsule No. 109, whose hundreds of artifacts include a poster printed from a bootleg photo of a naked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (in good humor, she inscribed it “For Andy,€” with enduring affection,€” Jackie,” Montauk€) and an autographed (but never opened) copy of Lou Reed’s “€œConey Island Baby.” (In an obscure interview conducted in the studio in 1985, apparently with Warhol looking on, one assistant talked about the capsules: “He wants to sell them as a unit. I tried to make them really good. Each one has a T-shirt, a good art book, Godiva chocolates,€” things like that.”)

Matt Wrbican, chief archivist and a walking hard-drive of Warholian facts, said there are over 500,000 items in his care, with many only now being put on display. Even the couple of hours I spent in the archives last year instantly delivered fresh information;€” the fact, for instance, that after being shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968, Warhol, either down at the heels or simply cheap, had hoped to trade paintings for his doctors’ services. At today’€™s auction prices, that would have made it the most profitable medicine ever practiced.

“€œHe always kept everything,”€ recalled the illustrator James Warhola, a nephew who stayed with Warhol for several weeks in the 1970s and witnessed his manic collecting. “His whole life’€™s work was made to order for a museum.”€

Gopnik, Blake. “Rearranging Warhol’s Legacy.” NY Times. 15 May 2014.


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I Love Warhol

I Love Warhol