“Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” open through the end of the year at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is a revelatory show, but not for the reasons the curators intended.
Judged in terms of what they set out to do, which was to demonstrate how Andy Warhol has transformed art in the half-century since he first made his mark (and the quarter-century since he died), it’s a failure, and a drab one at that.
The show juxtaposes 45 works by Warhol with 100 works by 60 other artists who were influenced by him in some way. But what’s striking about the mesh is how unimaginative and mediocre most of his successors are compared with the real thing. Or, to put it another way, the show underscores how brilliant Andy Warhol was compared with his so-called followers.
Viewed alongside other artists of his era in most museum collections, Warhol seems deadpan, ironic, a bit fey. But viewed alongside most of the artists arrayed around him at the Met show, his work hums, sometimes bursts, with intensity, passion, even (a phrase rarely associated with Warhol) emotional commitment.
Warhol emerged as a serious player in the art world in 1962, as one of several New York painters—most notably, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist—who rebelled against the Abstract Expressionists and sought to create a new kind of American art that incorporated the artifacts of everyday life, even popular culture. Warhol was the late-comer in the group and arguably the least talented as a craftsman; yet it’s Warhol who made the deepest impression, whose style and works—the silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s soup cans, Brillo boxes, and car crashes—are most widely recognized, even by people who know little else about art.
The critic-philosopher Arthur Danto goes so far as to call the era of the early ’60s and beyond “the age of Warhol,” because Warhol recognized—and expressed through his art—that modern Americans view and interpret reality not so much through direct experience as through commercial images (TV, tabloids, comic books, advertising) and celebrity.
A turning point in Warhol’s development occurred in 1961, when he painted a Coca-Cola bottle in two styles: the first, laced with the Abstract Expressionist drippings that were de rigueur in its day; the second, straight, no drippings. He went with the second, and thus was Warhol Art born: an art that simply declared, as Danto summarized, “Paint what we are” and whose breakthrough “was the insight into what we are,” namely, “the kind of people that are looking for the kind of happiness advertisements promise us that we can have, easily, and cheaply.”
Some critics, including the authors of the Met show’s catalogue, depict Warhol as a “dark social critic” of American life, but this is off the mark. Before Warhol became a rich and famous artist, he was a rich and famous graphic designer; his ad campaign for I. Miller shoes won a coveted industry prize. Even after he became a much-lauded museum artist, he kept doing commercial work, too, most notably for record-album covers. One hallmark of his art, in fact, is its obliteration of the boundaries between high and low, culture and commerce, art and life.
And everything about Warhol’s life and art suggests that he loved the American artifacts that he transformed into icons. There’s an eye-opening moment in Ric Burns’ 2006 PBS documentary Andy Warhol when the camera pans across the gold-and-glitter interior of the church where Warhol worshipped as a sickly boy in Pittsburgh—then cuts to a shot of Warhol’s famous gold silkscreen painting of Marilyn Monroe.