Mexico City

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe’s Lips, 1962, synthetic polymer, silk-screen ink, and pencil on canvas, 6' 10 3/4“ x 13' 7”.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe’s Lips, 1962, synthetic polymer, silk-screen ink, and pencil on canvas, 6' 10 3/4“ x 13' 7”.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe’s Lips, 1962, synthetic polymer, silk-screen ink, and pencil on canvas, 6' 10 3/4“ x 13' 7”.

Although “Andy Warhol: Dark Star” included a range of works from 1951 through 1978 installed on every floor of the museum, its great success was in shedding new light on the best-known phase of the Pop artist’s career, between 1961 and 1972. Instead of assuming Warhol’s paintings of that time to be interchangeable and of equal value, as others have done, curator Douglas Fogle stressed the variety of distinguishing decisions—aesthetic as well as thematic—that the artist made.

For example, Fogle opted to juxtapose Large Campbell’s Soup Can, 1964, a painting of a single pristine, solitary tin, with another sporting a ripped red-and-white label (Big Torn Campbell’s Soup Can [Pepper Pot],1962), and a third depicting cans of beef noodle soup in a grid (100 Cans, 1962). In the same vein, there was a smiling Jacqueline Kennedy, moments before JFK’s assassination, as well as a second canvas with a grieving first lady in her widow’s weeds, both titled Jackie, 1964. Three versions of Elizabeth Taylor were on view next to one another, and a trio of car crashes, each with a different monochromatic ground and the same image silk-screened on a different section of the canvas, were installed side by side.

From the get-go, it was clear that Warhol and his studio assistants, not a machine, had executed the exhibited works. Ironically, the early handpainted objects also on view—a vintage manual typewriter, a candlestick telephone—are now anachronisms. (A 1962 painting featuring a long-expired seven-cent red airmail stamp must be worth a pretty penny today.) The later silk-screened images printed off-register also evoked human error. In his choice of themes, Warhol was a traditionalist. After all, he specialized in portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, also sometimes turning out a history painting or two. It’s just that his versions of these canonical genres are somewhat unorthodox. Wondrously, his portrayals of movie stars can compete with Hollywood’s moving pictures. Indeed, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, one Warhol lifted from a publicity still for Henry Hathaway’s Niagara, is more enduring than the workmanlike 1953 film noir.

As for Warhol’s aesthetic decisions, they identify him as a man of his time. Check out his varied palette: He could have been a Color Field painter. In a period when scale was an issue, the dimensions of his canvases grew ever larger. And his propensity to work in series is something he shares with the proponents of “systemic painting” and Minimalism.

In the gallery displaying works on paper from the 1950s and early ’60s, there were revelations galore. Untitled (The Nation’s Nightmare), 1951, Communist Speaker of the 1950s, and other drawings pinpointed Ben Shahn as one of Warhol’s heroes. The older realist’s distinctive linear vocabulary was appropriated by Warhol during his phase as an acclaimed commercial artist—and he was also affected by Shahn’s social consciousness. The subjects of other works on paper foreshadowed related paintings. These included a front page of the New York Journal-American (ca. 1959), drawn ahead of canvases he made that were based on tabloid headlines from the New York Post (1962) and the Daily News (1967). A charming suite of seven illustrations for I. Miller’s footwear from the 1950s needed decades to grow into the more elaborate Diamond Dust Shoes, 1980.

The documentary material underscored how labor-intensive Warhol’s art could be. On display among old Life magazines and other memorabilia were small stencils used to add the names of different Campbell’s soups to the labels of silk-screened cans. This meant that, on a canvas featuring all the flavors, there were thirty-two chances to get paint outside the lines.Projected onto the four walls of a darkened room were various films from the Factory: Among them, black-and-white screen tests offered an intriguing counterpoint to the colorful portraits of movie stars installed elsewhere. And deadpan, iconic sculptures in the form of boxes—not only of Brillo pads, but also of Del Monte peach halves, Heinz ketchup, and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes—contrasted with the floating, pillow-like, silver balloon clouds that gallerygoers whimsically batted back and forth. For Warhol, artmaking was both the most serious thing in the world, and loads of fun.

Phyllis Tuchman