“Le Grand Monde d’Andy Warhol”

With an ingenuous but almost untranslatable title, “Le Grand Monde d’Andy Warhol” expands on two floors of the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris. (Translated by the museum as “Warhol’s Wide World,” the English title fails to capture the double entendre of “high society” that the phrase “grand monde” entails.) Comprising more than four hundred paintings, photographs, Polaroids, films, and other documents, this vast exhibition brings together the largest number of Warhol portraits ever shown. Portraits of living subjects, almost always commissioned, are seen in the wider context of three other genres: posthumous portraits of figures from the world of cinema (e.g., the “Marilyn” series of 1962, Judy Garland, ca. 1979, or Hitchcock, 1983); portraits of celebrities executed from media sources (e.g., Jackie, 1964, Four Marlons, 1966, or the seldom seen Brigitte Bardot diptych, 1974, derived from a Richard Avedon photograph); and portraits of iconic historical or religious figures, such as Mao, 1973 (of which Warhol produced almost innumerable versions) and the monumental Last Supper (Christ 112 Times), Yellow, 1986, which closes the exhibition.

Curated by Alain Cueff in collaboration with Emilia Philippot, the exhibition concentrates on the first category, portraits of the living—mostly executed after Polaroids taken by Warhol himself facing his sitter at often dauntingly close range. These photo sessions could take hours, sometimes days. Starting with Ethel Scull 36 Times, 1963, and ending with the rather touching triple portrait of Sean Lennon, 1985–86, the show provides a rare opportunity to look in-depth and afresh at this unfathomable aspect of Warhol’s activities. Notoriously executed for money (at prices of $25,000 each or $40,000 for a pair, from the ’70s on) and largely ignored by the art-historical world, they constitute, according to Cueff, an indispensable component of and key to understanding Warhol’s “wide world.” The professional milieux of the sitters fall into broad categories, from the entertainment business to the worlds of industry and art, the last of which bound the subjects to the artist and, ultimately, to one another. We encounter Dennis Hopper and Jane Fonda, Yves Saint Laurent and Ernesto Esposito, Nelson Rockefeller and Giovanni Agnelli, Mick Jagger and Debbie Harry, dealers Irving Blum and Arne Glimcher, David Hockney and Georgia O’Keeffe, among many, many others.

With this panorama of personalities, the exhibition offers a wider and more extensive representation of Warhol’s activities as a portrait maker than previous shows devoted to the topic, most notably at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1979 and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, twenty years later. Yet the greatness of the curatorial conception lies not just in this scope but in the presentation of related documents and the emphasis on the layered process of fabrication behind the paintings—from the initial photo sessions, through every cropping and editorial decision, down to the final results. (For this reason alone, the section on Debbie Harry is not to be missed). Concurrently with this show, Flammarion published Cueff’s study Warhol à son image (Warhol in His Image). This important companion to the exhibition unpacks the intense analogies between Warhol’s engagement with these iconic images and the very definition of the icon in the catholic Byzantine tradition to which Warhol belonged. Saint John Chrysostom, a famous church father of the fourth century (and the namesake of Warhol’s church in Pittsburgh), gives a description of the Byzantine icon that reads almost like a word-for-word technical description of a portrait painting by Warhol. Likewise, the texts of the Second Council of Nicaea of 787, which restored the powers of icons within the liturgy, powerfully resonate with Warhol’s interests. Serendipitous occurrences? A mark of Andy’s sustained devotion to his religious roots? Set between the visible and the invisible (see Philip Johnson, 1972), Warhol’s portraits conjure up the dichotomous and irreconcilable conditions intrinsic to an icon: A sign silk-screened by Warhol, often littered with quivering marks of paint and agitated lines pulsating with nerve, suggests a face and points to an impossible presence, or, to speak like Heidegger, to a coming-into-presence that is forever delayed.

Joachim Pissarro