New York

Andy Warhol

Vrej Baghoomian Gallery; Robert Miller Gallery

The current glut of media attention for Andy Warhol and his work would probably turn off most viewers if it were directed toward any other artist. But Warhol’s art can be viewed in small doses or in large quantities and still prove inexhaustibly interesting. The simultaneity of these shows—drawings at the Robert Miller Gallery, work in various media at the Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, paintings at Gagosian Gallery, as well as film screenings at the Whitney Museum—forms a wide-ranging survey demonstrating Warhol’s versatility.

The most illuminating exhibition is the collection of paintings, drawings, and photographs at Vrej Baghoomian, organized by former Warhol assistant and photo archivist Gerard Malanga. Several of the paintings here reflect the best aspects of Warhol’s work of the ’60s by transcending the more trivial concerns of Pop art. These include 12 Jackies, 1965, Christmas Marilyn, 1962, a stunning Yellow Electric Chair, 1964—all pieces that share a strong sense of mortality made even more chilling by our knowledge of Warhol’s own untimely death. These works resonate with potency; by comparison, later works such as the kitschy Vote McGovern, 1972, and Four Multicolored Marilyns, 1979–86, show Warhol blithely tracing his own well-established steps. In Malanga’s installation, photographs of an optimistic young Warhol, surrounded by his friends and associates, radiate like a starburst away from the central image—a blowup of the famous New York Post cover with the headline “Andy Warhol Fights for Life.” The installation suggests that the Warhol of the ’60s metaphorically died after being shot by Valerie Solanis, an event that provided a crucial ending point for the persona and career of the Warhol that Malanga knew.

Malanga’s own input as a photographer and collaborator is demonstrated in the rarely seen “Screen Tests” series, 1965–66. This set of enlarged, aged, gritty black-and-white portraits comes from a project that Warhol and Malanga undertook in which they photographed everyone who entered the Factory on East 47th Street that year. Here was the germination of Warhol’s idea that anyone could be a star, but also that everyone was, in effect, equal, and depicted as such by the unbiased gaze of the camera. Several underground media figures—Lou Reed, Nico, Edie Sedgwick, Sally Kirkland—are shown transfixed in a permanent, objectified state of youth and attractiveness. Warhol’s use of photography as a cryptic vehicle whereby one could defy mortality governed all of his later works, in which celebrities and friends were frozen as perpetually beautiful objects of adoration.

Warhol’s development of drawing skills paralleled his use of photography as a means of simultaneously neutralizing and equalizing human identities. The show of mostly never-before-seen drawings at Robert Miller Gallery demonstrates Warhol’s exquisite, facile draftsmanship, which lent itself well to the development of an appealing commercial sensibility. As early as the ’50s, in his series of gold-leaf drawings, Warhol favored a sparseness of composition in which the negative white space was as essential as the imagery. The paring down of visual information is carried on in the drawings that accompany some of his famous silkscreens of the ’70s. These uniform-sized, black-on-white skeletal images of contemporary idols and icons (Donald Duck, Ingrid Bergman, Zenith TV, Cabbage Patch dolls, and Grace Kelly) suggest an inherent equality between the banal and the extraordinary. In many ways, Warhol’s art became a leveling device that reinforced a commonality of experience beyond class distinctions and categories.

Jude Schwendenwien