New York

Andy Warhol

Ronald Feldman

Collectively titled “Myths,” Andy Warhol’s latest series of paintings and prints is, with two exceptions, like a “knock, knock” joke with a yawning silence after “Who’s there?”. It also offers an insight into the success of his earlier portraits, which were always more about iconography than myth. Depicting figures like Mao or Marilyn or Elvis, Warhol’s genius lay in knowing how to make the leap from portrait to product. By accepting and elaborating on an extant, marketed image (a presold package), Warhol was free to traffic in cultural emblems. The wonder of it is that his emblems ultimately replaced their sources.

When his “Portraits of the ’70s” blew into the Whitney, the very familiarity of a “Warhol look” guaranteed the work’s reception as emblem rather than portraiture. Indeed, much of the caterwauling occasioned by that exhibition was fueled by the interpretation of it as a collective portrait of privilege, rather than as a series of individual personalities. Either way, the impact of the show was undeniable.

“Myths,” however, doesn’t come close to happening like “Portraits.” Because so many of the subjects in the series have such graphic consistency within popular culture, there is nothing much Warhol can do to interestingly represent them. Subjects like Mickey Mouse, Howdy Doody, Superman, and Mammy completely repel Warhol’s co-optation simply because, from inception, their essence was emblematic. Others—Uncle Sam and Santa Claus—resist because they’ve been so thoroughly invested in by a century or more of illustrators selling a concept that is, of its very nature (i.e., nationalism and national custom), larger than life. Filmic subjects—Greta Garbo (as Mata Hari) and Dracula (a Christopher Lee lookalike)—have simply been done better before.

Where Warhol makes the most sense in “Myths” is in his portrayal of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West and in a self-portrait as the Shadow. Both images exploit a larger-than-life persona with the kind of implied irony that has always been one of Warhol’s strong points. The Shadow is, in particular, Warhol’s most graceful self-advertisement in years. The appropriateness of merging himself with the omniscient cartoon character—while referencing one of his masterworks, the monumentally evasive Shadows of 1979—shows Warhol’s economic talent at its best.

Richard Flood