Behind the surface

Andy Warhol, "Brillo Boxes," 1969, Silkscreen ink on wood, fifty parts 20 x 20 x 17 in. each. Credit: Adel Gorgy

Warhol at the Whitney

By Mary Gregory

Andy Warhol, when he wasn’t painting, drawing, making films or recordings, or writing books, had a habit of scooping whatever artistic, mental detritus had accumulated on his workspace into a big cardboard box, sealing and dating it. One of these Warhol “time capsules” opens the Whitney’s sweeping retrospective “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again.” Including, among other things, a Lou Reed album, a postcard of a Duchamp, and an announcement for a poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village starring William S. Burroughs and John Giorno, it’s a revealing glimpse into a mind and a moment. There are countless such windows into the artist’s inspiration, work, influences and creative process throughout the thoughtful, eye-catching exhibition.

Warhol once claimed, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” And yet, deputy director and senior curator Donna De Salvo, along with Christie Mitchell and Mark Loiacono, find plenty of depths to plumb. De Salvo’s presentation is guided by a deep knowledge of Warhol’s life. She met and worked with the artist when she was a young curator, and she’s mounted several major exhibitions of his work at different venues. Key points she focuses on here, through exhibition texts and selections of works, are Warhol’s life as a gay, Roman Catholic man, the son of working class immigrants and his role as both a keen observer of and participant in post-war American society.

The exhibition fills the entire fifth floor and other areas of the museum with some 350 works. It’s a monumental show and a powerhouse. There are rarely seen early paintings and drawings, commercial commissions (shoes he painted for the I. Miller company), intimate erotic sketches, iconic silkscreen prints, late works including superb collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, along with films, books, time capsules and historic documents. They present a portrait of the artist, and pose complex questions about his life and work.

We’re all familiar with the surface of Warhol. Here are some thoughts to consider if you want to scratch deeper.

Was Warhol more a product of or producer of American culture? His influence is unfathomable. His prescience on subjects like social media, fame and self-branding seems astounding. But was he seeing or doing more than capturing and commenting on something everyone was feeling? With small screens in practically every home in the ‘60s, wasn’t everyone enamored of Marilyn and Liz and Jackie? Was he the only one placing everyday objects like Coca-Cola and Brillo on pedestals? TV commercials from that time did nothing less, and did it constantly. De Salvo commented that Warhol felt that Coke was a uniquely democratic substance. Whether you were royalty or the lowest paid laborer, everyone got the same Coca-Cola when they opened the bottle.

A silkscreen print of rows and rows S&H Green Stamps won’t be familiar unless you’re of a certain age. All kinds of products offered these little stamps as a bonus. You collected them, pasted them in a book, and down the road earned a decent reward — a kitchen appliance or kids’ toys were typical. One image from many stamps brings to mind “E pluribus unum.” Thrift, diligence, work, hope for reward and so many of us doing the same thing — what could better capture the American spirit of those days? But, how much of that thought originated in Warhol, and how much in my own mind? That’s always one of art’s big questions.

What’s to be inferred by the scale of Warhol’s works? A small, garish portrait of former president Nixon titled “Vote McGovern” next to a towering chairman Mao makes one statement. The contrast between notebook-sized delicate pencil sketches of friends and lovers and a larger-than-life Liz Taylor painted in flat colors makes another.

Are Warhol’s paintings really about surface? A series of Jackie Kennedy portraits captures her hope and happiness one the top row, her abject sorrow in the middle row and a forever changed persona on the bottom. Is that a portrayal of a wife transformed by death, or one of the country as a whole?

Warhol wasn’t the first to blur the lines between advertising and art. Remember Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec? Warhol wasn’t the only Pop artist to elevate consumerism to gallery walls. Roy Lichtenstein, a draftsman in the army, and James Rosenquist, a former sign painter, turned commercial tropes into art. Bring up those names and you may meet blank stares. Warhol is one of the most recognized artists in the world. Did he remake what art could be? Or did he cannily give people what they truly desire — fame, glamour, sex, wealth and power? Or both?

For me, I haven’t arrived at answers; I’m still thinking. That’s why this is such a worthwhile show.