If you weren’t around for the posthumous Andy Warhol retrospective at MoMA in 1989, and you haven’t studied postwar art, your knowledge about the Pop icon likely centers on soup cans and Marilyns. The Warhol retrospective at the Whitney Museum (until March 31, 2019) fleshes out his life and career. Several hundred paintings, drawings, photographs, films, sculptures, and bits of ephemera chronicle his youth in Pittsburgh, his success designing fashion ads in New York, his transition to gallery artist and art-factory manager, his role as ringleader of a motley entourage, and his reputation as a gay cynosure at the juncture of bohemia and high society.
As expected, critics have greeted the show with awed adulation, eliding the fact that Warhol was an artist once reviled as a commercial sell-out. Today, no one questions the value of his holding up an uncritical mirror to American culture. His adoration of celebrity, wealth, the mass media and consumer culture are normal in our era of superficiality and decadence. His adoption of mechanical means of reproduction to create “high” art, and his chromatic modification and multiplication of images made by others, have become common methods among subsequent generations of artists. (The exhibition includes relatively few versions of the same compositions, giving the false impression that Warhol rarely repeated himself.) And his foisting on his audience the unedited minutiae of his life — including slackly directed films of activities in the factory — anticipates Facebook and Instagram postings, reality shows, and the mediocre performance art to which the selfie generation has grown accustomed.
That he adumbrated these trends is indisputable, but their value can still be debated. Critics today, smitten by his fame and influence, are reluctant to admit the possibility that Warhol was a shallow surfer of the mass media and insecure narcissist ever in search of the limelight. They cast him as a socially conscious philosopher of culture, an LGBT and civil rights activist, and a herald of American culture going off the rails. The Whitney exhibition is not only a generational introduction to Warhol, but an opportunity to reconsider the celebrated cypher whom Truman Capote described as “a sphinx without a secret.” For more on the man behind the legend, read the profile that I published in Black Card Magazine in 2012, “Who Was Andy Warhol?”