I have always believed that historical importance and financial value align over time. At any moment there are new fads and micro-markets (we can all point to artists who seem overvalued in relation to some of their peers) but it all comes out in the wash, eventually.
Take, for example, the market for the work of Andy Warhol. Despite his possibly unrivaled fame, for decades his greatest works sold for a tenth of those of equivalent quality by Jasper Johns. This can be explained in several ways, but I focus on just one here: Johns was an ideal of a great painter, while Warhol was the new—and not entirely welcome—reality. These artists can be seen as defining the two poles of Pop Art: that of mastery and that of mechanical reproduction (or, one artist whose work embodies the highest values of painting as we have always known it and another who forever redefined our very understanding of art).
It took decades for the market to see the brilliance (and, yes, also the great hand) of Warhol, whose art and reality so often threatened to unravel the systems within which art had historically been valued. The market did not catch up until 1998—11 years after the artist died—when Orange Marilyn (1964) sold for $17.3m.
Just because Warhol made paintings using silkscreens in a “Factory”; just because he made the most glib comments about art and work, and about money and success, it took the market a long time to understand that his paintings are paintings (and not as ubiquitous as their repetition might imply) and that Warhol was not only a great artist, but also a great maker.
There has been no greater artist since Andy Warhol than Andy Warhol. He changed what art is, who sees it, how we look at it (and at ourselves), and where it resides within culture. Andy redefined the very presence of fine art as well as how it functions commercially and societally. He fused this country’s greatest contribution to the history of art—popular culture—with fine art, forever repositioning both.
And so, articles focusing on the shaky state of the Warhol market have increasingly agitated me. Ironic, isn’t it, that the artist who redefined a work of art as a commodity within a system of commodities might potentially be downgraded by the very market he defined.
So thank heavens for the Whitney Museum’s Warhol retrospective, which opened this week (“Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back”, 12 November-31 March). This brilliant and incisive show, curated by the great and insightful Donna De Salvo, shows the breadth of Warhol’s genius. De Salvo presents us with her razor sharp selections, creating a precise path through Warhol’s work and allowing us to see and understand the importance of all of those brilliant moments—and how they added up to a lifetime of curiosity, invention and wisdom.
If you think you know Warhol, this exhibition makes clear that we are just beginning to understand how profound and relevant an artist he was, and continues to be. The work and the scope of its content, presence and viewpoints appears even more insightful today than it did 30 years ago, when he died, or 60 years ago when he first emerged as a fine artist.
The issues that were the obsessions of his life—politics, race, sexuality, desire, identity and mortality—are as central to the discourse of art and society today as they were to his work when he started to make it. While often camouflaged by irony, artifice, stardom and the unsettling arm of disconnection, Warhol’s work is more pertinent than ever. We should all take note.
There are so many wonderful experiences in this exhibition; I wanted to list a few.
Absent yet present
The show begins and ends with a “Camouflage” painting. The camouflage, which didn’t enter Warhol’s work until 1986, is a surrogate self-portrait of the artist; a way of being both present and unexposed—which was a leitmotif of Warhol’s life. As we come to learn through this retrospective, though, this was not simply a game of obfuscation played by Warhol, but more his keen understanding of the crisis of the self that defines human psychology in our times.
The first work you see upon entering the exhibition proper is Dance Diagram , [“The Lindy Tuck-In Turn-Man”] (1962), a painting displayed on the ground that “starts” one’s journey into Warhol’s world, by learning how to dance forward. It is a playful and rigorous work, reminding us that Warhol was more incisive about the formal content of art than he is given credit for.
The drawings! What a revelation! Here they are shown as we have never seen them before: not always through the rose-colored innocence of first love, as they are usually shown, but immersed in the endless cavalcade of life with grit, filth and unrequited desire.
We see not just the great shoe drawings or children’s books, the cake and clothing drawings we know so well, but also a man mainlining heroin displayed beside Amy Vanderbilt’s instructions on how to shuck oysters. We see a mother nursing a pet; a constipated woman; gloriously fetishized feet; femme-men; men loving each other. Some drawings seem to be celebrations of the unfinished. There are drawings of newspapers, and also the writing of the news—on controversial topics including politics, race and death. There is lots of sex. And then there are paintings of Dick Tracy and Superman which De Salvo so naturally connects to sexual desire in a way that is so evident but had until now been hidden in plain sight.
Riot of color
The show includes amazing paintings created as solo works, in pairs, or as part of a trio—as well as those on infinite roll. We are exposed to the moods of Warhol’s palette, from honey-colored race riots to electric chairs in purple and toxic, electrified green. The exhibition explodes with confrontational content beautifully portrayed, not a price tag lingering in the back of the mind.
Heads of state
Nixon and Mao (and McGovern).
Warhol’s 1975 paintings of drag queens, “Ladies and Gentlemen.” Never was a body of work so perfectly named, with dignity and decorum.
Sense of an ending
During the final dozen years of his life came Warhol’s great reinvention, during which he approached his subjects with more introspection and a greater sense of ennui: hammers and sickles, piss and death in the “Oxidation” series and skull paintings. During this time he painted society and the self; the here and the empty ever after.
There is, at the end of the exhibition, an enigmatic room about mortality, eternity and death containing a “Rorschach” painting at each end. Opposite one another on the remaining two walls are monumental works. One is of ever-repeating Mona Lisas in solarized white, fading into brushstrokes. The other is a camouflage pattern superimposed over a massive double Last Supper.
Having come of age as an artist when abstraction was at its height, Warhol once explained why he had turned instead to the graphic kind of representational painting that came to be known as Pop, and which was antithetical to the dynamic spirit of the individual of Abstraction Expressionism. He said—as much in confession as with irony—that he was not a good enough artist to paint like Franz Kline.
Yet in the final decade of his life, Warhol took on the mantle of his predecessors: the abstraction of Kline in his paintings of shadows; the gesture of Pollock with the so-called “Piss Paintings”; the cut-outs of Matisse in his camouflage canvasses, and in the haunting embrace of the tabula rasa that are the “Rorschach” works.
Each of these bodies of work is far from the supposed artifice that made Warhol famous. Indeed, they question the very essence of meaning, existence, life and death.
At the same time, Warhol had the last laugh—a brilliant and existential one—in coming to abstraction his way. Each of these seeming abstractions are rooted in imagery, that of photographs (shadows), received processes (oxidations) and forms (camouflage). They are anything but pure abstraction, and instead representations of abstraction, every one of them.