New York

View of “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” 2018–19. Photo: Ron Amstutz. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

View of “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” 2018–19. Photo: Ron Amstutz. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Andy Warhol

View of “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” 2018–19. Photo: Ron Amstutz. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

I’M PROBABLY THE WRONG PERSON TO ASK. As a forever Warhol devotee, I feel proprietary, cranky, when it comes to other people’s Andys. I will out myself up front: Half of me was ready for this show to fall flat. The other, better half was bracing to be blown away, to be overawed once more by the breadth and depth and prescience of the man who, in the years since I first began seriously consuming contemporary art, ascended from the washed-up Pop star many wrote him off as in the late 1970s to all but inarguably the most significant artist of the second half of the twentieth century. Alas, neither me was vindicated. This big, but not big enough, retrospective, the first in New York in some thirty years, was far from an outright bust. Still, as a definitive reckoning, it disappointed, failing to nail the artist’s toxic exorbitance.

Titled, somewhat randomly to my mind, “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” in a nod to the subtitle of his 1975 book of autobiographical reflections, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, the exhibition opened with a surefire gambit: Donna De Salvo, the lead curator (assisted by Christie Mitchell and Mark Loiacono), opted for a gallery of high-Pop masterpieces, all but one (a big stack of the Brillo Boxes) produced in that watershed year of 1962. The effect was predictably stunning.

For her next move, De Salvo, a seasoned Warholian, took a quick step backward, chronologically speaking. Précising her 1989 archaeological gem for the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, “‘Success Is a Job in New York . . .’: The Early Art and Business of Andy Warhol,” the second gallery ably set out the prehistory of Warhol’s Pop-art triumph, covering the period between the late ’40s and the early ’60s, during which the fledgling New Yorker made a considerable career for himself (and enough money to purchase a Manhattan town house) with his stylish, and bankable, ad artistry.

Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola [2], 1961, casein and wax crayon on linen, 69 1/2 × 52 1⁄4".

Then came his Pop-art breakthrough, looking, as expected, mostly handsome in De Salvo’s hang. Warhol’s eureka moment would crystallize around a pair of painted Coke bottles, one with a residue of Abstract Expressionist brushwork, the other without. The no-hand version won, of course, shortly begetting the soup cans in serial (thirty-two panels in all, one for each Campbell’s flavor—chicken noodle, bean and bacon, pepper pot), followed by the Marilyns, and the Elvises, and the Lizes, and, well, the rest is art history.

Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola [3], 1962, casein on canvas, 69 3⁄8 × 54".

The story of the shy boy with the poor skin who conquered first the New York fashion game and then, improbably, the higher-stakes racket of art cannot but enthrall. It is one of the great tales of artistic self—determination of the past century—or of any century (even if, as lore would have it, his key gestures were whispered in his ear by a clutch of savvy consorts). De Salvo illuminated these earliest chapters with aplomb, teasing out the maestro’s narrative with the exacting loans one would expect of the connoisseur. Then why was I working so hard to convince myself that the Warhol magic was happening?

Although the worst of Warhol got grazed here, De Salvo kept much of the great late shit show in the box.

A pair of Marilyns. A single Liz. Even as I surrendered to the wallop of the “Race Riots” and the “Death and Disaster” series—this gallery the exhibition’s dazzling high point—something was not quite adding up. De Salvo’s impulse to prune the great serials to as few as one or two representative canvases might be excused as a practical expedient—but then I would need to note that the Whitney shot itself in the foot by failing to turn over its full plant to an artist whose work demands it. Such a bold course would have made the show the occasion it wanted to be. And yet my sense is that the curator’s honing instinct was compelled by more than just real-estate restrictions. Indeed, in Andyland, where the printed painting threatens to make a tidy mockery of fine-grained discriminations between one Chairman Mao and another, De Salvo’s cut bespoke an attitude—a position, even—regarding the nature of Warhol’s contribution that ultimately hobbled the proceedings.

Two moves made Warhol Warhol. First, the arty ad man reimagined himself as an “artless” fine artist, this via a writ-large act of de-skilling (symbolic de-skilling, that is. His graphic chops were, in reality, immaculate). If his faux-naïf manner supplied his commercial work with a modish edge, Pop was birthed when, to invert the formula, he imported the mechanical language of commerce into the realm of high art. Warhol’s second, ineluctable move—and this one would decisively up the ante of the first—involved a separate if related transposition. No longer content to merely appropriate the look and language of commerce, the Pop artist notoriously decreed that art itself was business, and business art—“the best art,” as per his celebrated sound bite.

Warhol’s conceit proved to be more than a rhetorical flourish, enabling an entire network of cross-pollinating initiatives. Intent, it would seem, on performing our mediatized condition rather than merely illustrating it, he not only founded and published Interview magazine, his very own gossip rag, in 1969, he also colonized the belly-of-the-beast medium that was television, producing (with Vincent Fremont and Don Munroe) the cable-TV shows Fashion (1979–80), Andy Warhol’s TV (1980–83), and Fifteen Minutes (1985–87). He also made a cameo appearance on the megapopular ’70s and ’80s series The Love Boat, and put his ravaged body on the line as a celebrity model in advertisements for such products as Sony Beta tapes, Vidal Sassoon shampoo, and Braniff International Airways; he even made a posthumous appearance in a prime-time 2019 Super Bowl spot for Burger King, hashtagged #EatLikeAndy. (In a delightful, and perfectly Warholian, act of social revenge, this most physically uncomfortable of beings appeared in the look book of the Zoli modeling agency, cheek by jowl with the plucked and tousled pretty boys of the moment.) Last but not least, Andy hawked his signature as a celebrity portraitist for hire, the social and moneymaking fulcrum of his entire late career. I am referring, of course, to the period following his 1968 near assassination by Valerie Solanas, when, though the Factory had moved downtown, the artist’s social stage migrated up, and his players, the demimondaines we know from Factory films, were replaced by the café society that cavorts through the pages of his late trilogy of books, Andy Warhol’s Exposures (1979), America (1985), and Andy Warhol’s Party Book (1988). This is the Andy De Salvo shortchanges.

Up with the art! Out with the mercantile and social charades! It sounds good on paper—and De Salvo’s program undoubtedly played as well to the dress circle as it did to the peanut gallery, thanks precisely to the fact that the machine Warhol burlesqued still yearns for that value-adding capital-A Art that the Whitney privileges. Andy would have been thrilled by his museal transfiguration. He fretted about his own diminished stock as an artist for much of his career, ruefully quipping at the debut of his “Shadows,” 1978–79: “The reviews will be bad—my reviews always are. But the reviews of the party will be terrific.” But here’s the problem with the curator’s corrective: When Warhol the printer of money is repressed in favor of Warhol the maker of masterpieces—when the ecstatic capitalism that is not only his subject matter but also the motor of his entire polyvalent performance is wished away—then the reason the artist cuts such a monster swath through the culture of the latter half of the century unravels.

If “printer of money” sounds like a low blow (and typically it has been meant as one), the put-down neatly makes the all-important connection between the sellout impresario’s late-phase business art (which De Salvo is happy to do without) and the Pop artist’s initial stroke of genius (i.e., seriality). Warhol’s impulses were flip sides of the same Pop coin, and De Salvo’s masterpieces-over-multiples hard prune undercuts this duality from both sides.

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, Paramount, 1984–85, acrylic on canvas, 76 × 105".

The most decisive developments, both curatorially and critically, in Warhol scholarship since Kynaston McShine’s 1989 Museum of Modern Art retrospective have aimed at recuperating the long-demonized late work, proposing a more holistic Warhol. What had been dismissed as Warhol at his worst was, with a small adjustment to the viewfinder, reclaimed as Warhol at his best—“best” understood as precisely those moments of plastic and performed intensity where his predicament as a tool of capitalism festers most garishly. I will cite, with respect to this gradual sea change, only Wayne Koestenbaum’s slim and marvelous 2001 biography of the artist, in the shadow of which like-minded efforts have largely paled. In its pages, the multichannel desiring machine that is Andy is shown to be the connective tissue that bonds the early film experiments, beloved by the critical Left, to the high Pop standards, canonized by the art-historical and market main-stream, and finally to the sold-out late phase loathed by both. From this perspective, the artist’s exploits as the ringmaster of the Silver Factory and his later antics as a Pied Piper of the moneyed demifamous are kindred initiatives, social experiments as much as plastic ones, whether his mise-en-scène is a bathtub full of exhibitionists or (pace Warhol antagonist, the late critic Robert Hughes) the caviar trough at the Iranian embassy. I do not mean to suggest that De Salvo failed to absorb these revisions. Her exhibition showcased a good deal of late work, including such open wounds as his paintings with Jean-Michel Basquiat, the import of which she well appreciates; in her catalogue essay, De Salvo reaches for just the right quote from Warhol henchman and biographer Bob Colacello, who shrewdly observed that while Warhol’s silk-screened contributions to the joint artistic effort may seem anemic next to the younger artist’s hieroglyphic layerings, in the final analysis, it is the social dynamic embodied in the collaboration that is the Warholian point and, indeed, the locus of artistic interest. However deplorable, these canvases force us to confront the younger artist’s agon, his ambition, and the older artist’s desperation, his vampiric attempt to rejuvenate his reputation, bartering prestige with the Next Big Thing—in short, his singular ability to tap the suppurating symptom and make it perform as art, even when he believed himself to be foundering. I, for one, was thrilled to revisit them.

Andy Warhol, Sixty-Three White Mona Lisas, 1979, acrylic and silk screen on canvas, 6' 8“ × 35' 5 1⁄2”. From the series “Reversals,” 1978–79.

Although the worst of Warhol was grazed here, De Salvo kept much of the great late shit show in the box. Absent were the all-important “Retrospectives,” 1979, those masterstrokes of self-cannibalism, in which the artist pastiched his most iconic images into what initially seem like bankrupt composites, though the related “Reversals,” 1978–79, did receive play via the stunning Sixty-Three White Mona Lisas, 1979. As for the TV work, it was consigned to a few lame study monitors on the afterthought third floor. I longed for a curatorial tactic that might capture the prolix insanity of the artist’s televisual archive—it would not have required much more than a single dedicated television gallery—something along the lines of the simultaneously running monitors in Eva Meyer-Hermann’s memorable 2007 exhibition “Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms,” which originated at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam—a curatorial landmark, like Koestenbaum’s writerly one, in the reclamation of the sublime sellout that De Salvo’s show disciplines. Equally missed was a strategy that might have captured the magpie lunacy (and poetry) of the time capsules, reduced here to the contents of a single carton arrayed in a hallway vitrine. I wished for this and perhaps an additional painting series—or several—to be given the full-room treatment she accorded the celebrity portraits in her gallery-lobby nod to David Whitney’s 1979 survey for this same institution. Maybe I was being greedy, as my prescription would, by my own calculations, have required the entire museum—which, not to rub it in, brings me back to my opening gripe.

Andy Warhol, Male Genitals, ca. 1950s, ballpoint pen on paper,  17 × 14".

I will hazard that there has never been, and certainly not since the MoMA retrospective, a moment less hospitable to the Warholian enterprise—to his defining deadpan, to the toxic exigencies he enacted, to the raw symptom he remains—than our LGBTQIA, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo present. De Salvo’s Warhol, among other things, is a Warhol of and for the revolution, on the front lines of which, at least relative to the museum’s institutional peers, the Whitney has laudably positioned itself. So a PC Warhol then? You’ve got to love the curators for trying! What does this mean in real terms? First, the Whitney Warhol is an out Warhol, outer than ever! Not that the orientation underlying his putative asexuality was ever especially in doubt: Andy was as queer as a three-dollar bill, end of story. But his homoerotic drive, which must be understood as a primary, if not the primary, motor of the Warholian desiring machine, was more fully on offer here than in any previous museum survey I can recall. There were penises everywhere in the early illustrations—one tied with a bow!—and I hope you didn’t miss the leave-your-mom-at-home dirty bits, such as his flyer for the notorious New York dive the Toilet. On the tamer side was his 1967 White Painting [Torso], but the “Sex Parts,” 1978, never shown publicly during the artist’s lifetime, were also given their due. And, of course, there were the films, formally and conceptually remarkable, and, yes, as out, loud, and proud as they always were: Sleep (1963), Kiss (1963), Blow Job (1964), and My Hustler (1965) . . .

The political climate was also undoubtedly the reason the Trump Tower commission did not get big play. (I’m kidding. The thrifty billionaire didn’t care for Warhol’s interpretation of his monument to self and pulled the plug on the artist, which I guess makes it a failed work of business art?) I summon this tidbit only to make the point (lest we lose sight of it) that not all of the artist’s business associates were exactly enlightened liberals.

Finally (you saw this one coming), “Ladies and Gentlemen,” 1975, portraits of trans women of color (not to my mind Warhol’s strongest works), are present and accounted for, though, ironically, the politics of the project are predictably murky. Read artist Glenn Ligon’s inspired catalogue essay, and save me the trouble of explaining why the curators placed unreasonable demands on themselves in attempting to shore up the Popist’s leftist credentials, a predicament Ligon addresses by reclaiming the body and biography of trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, a model for the series, who, in Warhol’s hands, is an anonymous foil blocked over in abstract swaths of color, a cipher of sexual and racial otherness in his high-low glamour game.

The “Race Riots” (with the “Death and Disasters,” the epicenter of this show) require no special pleading. They are among the artist’s most powerful works, and in his catalogue essay, Okwui Enwezor (here he follows art historian Anne Wagner and, to a lesser extent, Thomas Crow), attributes to these iconic printings a strong measure of political and critical agency. Warhol is, after all, a liberal, as well as a libertine (the latter against a strong current of Catholic guilt), and Enwezor’s claims on behalf of these series do not ring entirely hollow. When it comes to these paintings—exceptional in the artist’s oeuvre—I would even say he is more right than wrong. And yet, I feel the writer overplays his hand; there remains an element of wishful thinking in his will to makeover the famously dispassionate witness into an activist. Let’s face it: While the harrowing Mustard Race Riot, 1963, is a history painting for our times, one that testifies to the fraught race relations in this country, what makes this work a Warhol has as much to do with a) the fact that he served the image up in a pick-your-favorite array of colors, albeit somewhat astringent ones, and b) that he doubled the fact that he did so with his flippant title: “mustard,” as in gas, but also as in the decorator color and kitchen condiment. My point is that if Warhol’s art helped usher into collective cultural consciousness the ever-exacerbated tyranny of the mass media under which we live, then this painting inevitably asks just what the pace and scale and ways in which images circulate today might mean for a notion like history painting, or for that matter, history itself!

My final bone to pick is that, while the punches this show pulled may have been, in part, the by-product of legitimate political pressures—initiatives that are more important than this or any single take on the contribution of an artist who is, after all, not exactly wanting for exposure—they remain punches pulled. At the risk of being too glib by half, performed money-grubbing probably doesn’t play overly well with the WAGE contingent, and yet policing this aspect of Warhol’s art obstructs our seeing the artist for what he is, obscuring the way that his work works. It comes back to this: Warhol is an artist of the network, of the performed system, just as much as he is a maker of objects, and this regardless of how poisonous the machinations of said system might be. Indeed, it is in this respect that his art, and particularly the question of how his “paintings” function as such, has paid, in my estimation, the greatest dividends when it comes to those who have succeeded him. As paintings and ciphers of painting, both tokens of painting and performers of painting’s capital, his canvases—their doubleness, in this sense—are at once key to the larger ecology of his project and central to its contemporary reverberations. This two-faced relationship to painting, as the coin of the realm in his art, an art that nonetheless exists substantially outside painting’s frame, can be seen in the work of Jutta Koether and Richard Prince, Reena Spaulings and Jeff Koons and David Hammons, never mind the fresh wound that is Alex Israel.

Standing before an all-time-favorite painting of mine, Gold Marilyn, 1962, the signal tondo that merges the icons of Warhol’s Byzantine Catholic childhood with the then newly deceased film goddess, Louise Lawler’s durable provocation echoed in my brain: “Does Andy Warhol Make You Cry?” Of course he does. Isn’t that the point? Did the Whitney Warhol make me cry? Yes, but not as hard as he should have. 

Jack Bankowsky is a critic, a curator, and Artforum’s Editor at Large.