Hong Kong

Andy Warhol

Gagosian Gallery

Late work is not always great work—a truism that scholarly opinion and auction prices generally bear out. Andy Warhol, who died in 1987 at the age of 58, never really got to his own late period, although we now regard his paintings of the ’80s as such by default. By that time his reputation was already tarnished by his production of art for schlocky galleries, and by a stream of arguably undiscriminating society portraits. Yet while the art establishment may have raised an eyebrow over Warhol’s “slumming” (don’t forget his appearance on The Love Boat), his genius was never really in doubt. His brilliance was particularly apparent in the paintings that set out to startle, offend, or even mystify the viewer. His interrogations of mass culture were spectacularly lurid and practically clairvoyant, but the undertow of death that tugged at so many of his subjects—from glamour girls to car wrecks to skulls—was the most personal aspect of his work.

Whereas Martin Kippenberger anticipated the time of his death and mined its approach as material for a dramatic series of self-portraits based on Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1819, death snuck up on Warhol and took us all by surprise. It was entirely coincidental that when he died he had recently completed a major body of work on the theme of the Last Supper, based on Leonardo’s masterpiece of 1498. Serendipitously, however, the paintings take on exponentially more power given that they are not only late works but also last works—and they are well up to the task of constituting a grand summation of Warhol’s art that remains open-ended and enigmatic, and mesmerizing, too.

“Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol” consisted of ninety paintings from the ’70s and ’80s, including four monumental canvases from the “Last Supper” series, the most spectacular of which is The Last Supper (Camouflage), 1986. Measuring more than twenty-five feet long, it presents a doubled reproduction of Leonardo’s painting of Christ and his disciples. Warhol veils the twin images with a deep jade green camouflage print. Think of Francis Picabia’s transparency paintings—the effect of Warhol’s cluttered palimpsest is much the same. So much fuss to distract the viewer; so much effort to expose a genuine obsession only to disguise it as blasphemy.

The camouflage filter was a favorite device of Warhol’s in 1986. In the Gagosian show, it was splashed across a large self-portrait and two portraits of Joseph Beuys, who, in many respects, emerges as Warhol’s doppelgänger in the years after their deaths—the former as so-called shaman, the latter as perpetual prankster. They share space with a carefully selected rogue’s gallery that includes a lovely transvestite, from the series “Ladies and Gentlemen,” 1975, and portraits of Mao and Lenin, the political dimensions of which correspond to the Cold War thematics that inform many of the paintings in the exhibition—most obviously one depicting a map of a Russian missile base.

In works such as The Statue of Liberty, 1986, politics functions at the level of camp. In Warhol’s cosmology, Mao and Lenin are celebrities like any others. The more enigmatic “Last Supper” paintings join forces with his decorously colored “Skull” series and the mysterious “Shadow” canvases, and move well beyond camp to take up the Big Subjects. There’s no sense of pastiche and not even the hint of a possibility that the questions of mortality that loom large in these works are contrived or couched in irony. The more we look at Warhol, the more we feel his gravitas.

Jan Avgikos