On a Saturday night date with a friend, we scheduled a visit to the Whitney. The Whitney, now called the Whitney American Museum of Art–which I found strange given that, usually, places want to make their name shorter and more palatable–is one of NY museums that you have to pay to get in. A hefty $25.
Long story short, it was worth it. We arrived specifically to examine the latest exhibition: Andy Warhol (1923-87) from A to B and Back Again: A Portrait of Society.
Everyone knows Andy Warhol for one reason or another. Most times he’s associated with the Campbell’s Soup Print series, other times simply for his prophetic line–which there is some reason to believe it may have falsely been attributed to him–that, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.“
Though it’s been since discounted that Warhol was the true inventor of “15 minutes of fame,” there’s no denying the authenticity behind his prints and portraits that made him the pioneer of pop art.
Pop art is synonymous with Warhol, and peers like Lichtenstein, for drawing on the events of the day–popular culture–to create art that strayed from tradition. They, of course, aren’t the first to stray from tradition, but they did it well.
For the sake of paying the Whitney $25 for 2 hours, let’s stay on track with Warhol.
The Campbell soup cans are the perfect example of pop art in both execution and legacy. It’s become so iconic, so recognizable, that the meaning behind Warhol’s entire creative trajectory has gotten boiled down to the research prowess of painting the varied flavors. It’s so much more than that.
*the following is in my own interpretation ONLY and should not be considered a report of the actual text I encountered unless otherwise stated*
Of course, the Campbells cans drew the majority of selfie-takers, even at 8pm on a Saturday night, but navigating the three floors-worth of Warhol work gave a much more complete view into the man himself.
Take, for instance, his print of Mona Lisa, duplicated and juxtaposed in black-and-white. This isn’t just a reproduction of the world’s most famous painting done by a “lesser” artist; this is a commentary of the time. This was a depiction of just how far influence, power, and infamy can go.
As the story goes–and I did get this from the little blurb printed on the wall–that the Mona Lisa made her maiden voyage to the US in 1963 at the behest of American Princess, Jackie Kennedy. This temporary displacement was and remains to be exceedingly rare for the Mona Lisa and, in replicating her portrait, Warhol was reminding us of the strength of the moment. It was the moment when the US had proven itself worthy among artistic and intellectual European peers.
The event in itself is, surprisingly, seldom recounted. The installation of Mona in the White House and later, during the same trip, at the Met, came to be shadowed by the assassination of JFK that followed mere months after its triumphant arrival. But in the light of today, and a recent retelling of the story of international friendship and the charms of Jackie O., it is resurfacing as a prideful tale of the moment America earned a place as part of the powers.
Warhol is able to dredge up this period in time with this simple concept of a print in a way that’s all together recognizable and refreshing.
There’s also the black and white print, not duplicated over and over like Mona or Marilyn, but instead printed once so you can truly consider the magnitude of the subject. This sea of people, printed in a nearly-incomprehensible mob of grey, awaiting the arrival of the Pope in St. Peters Square on Easter Sunday.
The photo, taken in 1955 and reprinted by Warhol in ’63, could be anything if you don’t know the truth of it. Looking from the lense of the 21st century, it could be war protestors or it could be concert-goers awaiting the Beatles. Instead, it’s a snapshot of a time when the leader of the Catholic Church was, in his own right, a rockstar.
But Warhol, in truth, earned much of his fame for working with real-life rockstars. The bottom floor of the museum in a singular room, as if an after-thought, presents all of his “commissioned portraits.” They are his works of art that were, well, work; portraits of all of the It-people of the time who admired the work of Warhol so much they wanted their faces stylized by his vision. So they paid him for it.
These were the work that he created in his signature fashion but, not out of artistic passion, rather out of a need for money. That’s, perhaps, why they’re secluded in a one-room corner of the museum. This wasn’t the work of his soul, it was the work of necessity.
Chatting with a museum attendant, I find a bit of irony in the whole display. He told me the day had been packed with those hoping to explore the Whitney’s Warhol-World, but also with protesters.
“They’re upset with one of our funders and where he gets his money. What are you gonna do? I hate money, too. All money is dirty, but we need it anyway.”
Something about this rang true in the hall of famous faces.
You’ll be able to find the mug of Truman Capote, Mick Jagger, Liza Minelli, someone who I thought is Michelle Pfeiffer but is really Debbie Harry, and even Warhol himself.
They’re simple, somewhat, in a way that most people might scoff and say: I could do that. They’re just prints, after all. But it’s not, and most couldn’t. Would you have the idea to use accompanying colors to paint each of Muhammed Ali’s haymaking fists into a different passionate hue, all while scraping his face in movement-mimicking stripes? Definitely not. And this is what Warhol was able to do. Capture the essence of a person’s soul through a simple rendition of their face. The originator of the “personality pic.”
I found plenty in the Warhol exhibition to finally help me grasp why Warhol earned his long-standing minute of fame. From the newspaper front pages dedicated to Madonna to the map of the USSR’s “intercontinental ballistic missiles,” all he did was take real life and put it into a cartoonish perspective. Repetition, and color, and simplicity all come together at the hands of this blonde legend, preserving the truth and hubris of American culture at its peak.
The Whitney’s Warhol exhibition is only set to run until March 31, 2019, after which, unlike Mona, all the pieces will move on to new destinations.