Pop, as the movement’s most famous exponent Andy Warhol declared in 1963, is “about liking things”. The special things Andy loved to like appear front and center of the current retrospective at the Whitney Museum (“Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again”, until 31 March), the first organized by a US institution since 1989.
The art here is an unbridled celebration of mass consumption. Glorifying objects from Campbell’s soup cans, Brillo pad boxes, cans of tuna to dollar bills, these works constitute the artist’s deadpan view of high culture.
If Warhol was not the first American artist to exploit the glut of mass advertising imagery (Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg beat him to that gut punch) he quickly became its cool, non-judgmental avatar. He was the first artist to effectively embody a culture of promotion as such.
His silkscreen “paintings” were not just parodies of invention; the same repeating canvases incorporated the idea of the mass production of images of mass production in a voracious feedback loop. Warhol’s Franklin Mint approach captured his mercantile legacy in a nutshell. Starting in the early 1960s, his work didn’t just illustrate the triumph of commercialism over every other possible aspect of life—his swelling oeuvre and his tireless self-promotion became actual motors of this change.
No work in the current survey, which has been organized by Whitney Senior Curator Donna De Salvo, epitomizes Warhol’s embrace of the 20th century’s most enduring -ism, commercialism, more than Green Coca-Cola Bottles.
Created in 1962, the year the artist developed his silkscreen technique, the canvas represents, to paraphrase a line from William Carlos Williams, rows upon rows of “the pure products of America gone crazy”. At the Whitney, the image of a single Coca-Cola bottle repeats across a vertical canvas in unremitting sequence, seven high by sixteen across, above the company’s crimson logo. If the repetitive imagery and standardized format evoke the look of mechanical reproduction, the bottles’ black outlines retain fine art’s fundamental rejection of retail—they were hand stamped from a single carved woodblock onto green areas printed in a grid pattern.
The President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and you can drink Coke, too
According to the Whitney’s exhibition text, Warhol’s success as both a commercial illustrator and artist hinged on his ability to “sell the sizzle, not the steak”. Yet, in choosing to make the contours of a Coca-Cola bottle the subject of several paintings—another three canvases featuring Coke containers hang near Green Coca Cola Bottles—he celebrated the product’s iconic recognizability, its worldwide commercial appeal and its consumerist promise with unparalleled zeal. He said: “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” [The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (1975)]
If Warhol’s 1970s-era quote sounds like a Rotarian blithely equating consumerism with democracy, consider this: Andy’s aesthetic provocations proved fundamentally revolutionary for a Western imagination spellbound by shiny new Chryslers, Frigidaire refrigerators and the promise that a rising economic tide would lift all boats. It did not, but Warhol’s artistic legacy, as surveyed at the Whitney, endures—cool, green-eyed and fizzy as pop.