The Genius of Andy Warhol


In both artwork and notoriety, the greatest figure of contemporary art history is Andy Warhol. Celebrating his pioneering work and larger-than-life persona, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents Andy Warhol–From A to B and Back Again, the first major U.S. retrospective of the artist in 30 years.

The show’s title references Warhol’s 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to Band Back Again), a memoir of musings on cultural concepts of fame, love, beauty, class, and money. The exhibition itself offers a visual history of Warhol’s ideas and his work in more than 350 paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, films, videos, and photographs. Tracing chronologically across four decades, the show spans three floors of the museum to discover the artist’s full career.

Warhol’s life story began in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1928, where he was born as Andrew Warhola. The fourth child of Czechoslovak immigrants, the traditional nature and Catholic faith of his upbringing would be a continued touchstone throughout his life and art. As a child, he endured periods of illness from Sydenham’s chorea or St. Vitus’ Dance, which confined him to bed. He looked to drawing, listening to the radio, and collecting images of movie stars as creative outlets, which proved pivotal for his future artistic and personal development. In 1949, Warhol graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in pictorial design, and then moved to New York to pursue a career in commercial illustration. Working in advertising, he was immersed in a business-minded, technology-driven arena. Warhol also practiced contemporary fine art, interested in its vantage towards originality and authenticity. His understanding of these contrasting worlds gave him a unified view of art and industry. This duality was a thread that continued in the aesthetics and themes of his ongoing work.

The initial period of Warhol’s career and work in illustration serves as the launch point of the Whitney exhibition. Works including “Christine Jorgenson,” 1956 and “Untitled (Hand in Pocket),” c. 1956 show his innate gifts for sketch and design, providing a strong basis for his paintings. By the late ‘50s, Warhol had begun showing regularly in New York galleries and received recognition for his innovative artistic approach. From the early to mid-1960s, he worked with hand-painted and hand-drawn media to great acclaim as one of New York’s leading artists. Artworks including “Superman,” 1961 and “Green Coca-Cola Bottles,” 1962 are featured in this category of the showcase.

Warhol’s defining years from 1962-68 incorporated the silkscreen technique, which produced his iconic images of celebrities including Marilyn Monroe in “Marilyn Diptych,” 1962 and even his own image in “Self-Portrait,” 1964. One of Warhol’s greatest attributes was his astute sense of what was most culturally topical and significant, organizing his subjects around these themes. Never afraid to court controversy, Warhol touched on the death penalty debate in his piece “Big Electric Chair,” 1967–68, attending to then-timely conversations around death by electrocution. These works emphasize what is culturally important, while also questioning its accuracy. Warhol’s brilliance lies in the open-ended readings of his art—which is the original image and which are copies? Do multiple images mean greater significance? Is a large portrait an endorsement or a comment on cultural emphasis?

“Warhol produced images that are now so familiar, it’s easy to forget just how unsettling and even shocking they were when they debuted,” says Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s Deputy Director for International Initiatives and Senior Curator. “He pioneered the use of an industrial silkscreen process as a painterly brush to repeat images ‘identically,’ creating seemingly endless variations that call the very value of our cultural icons into question. His repetitions, distortions, camouflaging, incongruous color, and recycling of his own imagery anticipated the most profound effects and issues of our current digital age, when we no longer know which images to trust.”

While working in varied art mediums, Warhol also used avant-garde filmmaking as an extension of his creative expression. In 1964 he opened his New York studio, The Factory, as a creative hub and eclectic mixing place for intellectuals, celebrities, art patrons, and Bohemian creative personalities from New York City’s downtown scene. He referred to standout characters within this mélange as “superstars” and promoted them in his art and film work. “Warhol pushed to its absolute limit every medium in which he engaged, and his experiments with film were no exception,” DeSalvo says.

Between 1963 through 1968, he shot hundreds of movies in a range of styles and lengths including silent, sound, scripted, and improvised films. Alongside underground actors, Warhol’s select elite, Viva, Taylor Mead, Paul America, Edie Sedgwick, among others, starred in increasingly complex and technically experimental film productions. In 1965, Warhol even announced his retirement from painting to wholly pursue filmmaking. Though he later changed course, filmmaking undoubtedly proved central to his art. The Whitney exhibit will feature an entire floor devoted to Warhol’s most significant films, including Elvis at Ferus, 1963 and Empire, 1964 as well rarely-shown films like Jill and Freddy Dancing, 1963. Iconic screen tests of Ethel Scull, Edie Sedgwick, Ann Buchanan, Jack Smith, Rufus Collins, and Billy Name will also be screened. To give a genuine, immersive feel, the films will be shown on continuous loop in their original 16mm format.

Warhol was shot in a near-fatal assassination attempt by a fellow artist and associate in 1968. However, the shooting did little to deter his creative output, which became increasingly diverse and abstract in the years that followed. By 1969, he founded Interview magazine, managed and produced rock band The Velvet Underground, and created art across varied media. Warhol continued portraiture and after 1972, the artist employed a more conventional stylistic approach, yet his themes remained provocative. The exhibit features a suite of 75 portraits in Warhol’s intended “Portrait of Society” with depictions of New York’s transgender community, including “Ladies and Gentlemen (Wilhelmina Ross),” 1975. His diversified practices revealed an interest in breadth and collaboration, including joint efforts with artists Keith Haring and Jean­-Michel Basquiat.

By the late 1970s, Warhol expanded his endeavors to include cable television shows, Andy Warhol’s Fashion, Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, and Andy Warhol’s T.V. Warhol’s work in the 1980s focused on political issues including the Cold War and the rise of awareness about the AIDS crisis. One of Warhol’s final works, “Camouflage Last Supper,” 1986 offers a culminating view on history, artistry, mediation, and spirituality. In 1987, the artist died due to heart complications from a routine gallbladder surgery. His personal account of his own life, The Andy Warhol Diaries, was published posthumously in 1991.

Warhol’s life story proves as varied and fascinating as his art itself. As a dual cultural participant and observer, he honed in on what was socially esteemed, even appreciating those values, while his art and images called attention to the complexity and contradictions.

“An artist of his own time, Warhol is especially an artist for our time and I would argue, perhaps even for all time,” says Adam D. Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. “The themes that preoccupied Warhol–mass media, celebrity culture, entertainment and politics—these shape our lives even more directly than they did during his lifetime, making his work not only more prescient, but more relevant.” In who Warhol was, his artistic expressions and how he saw the world, his legacy is as important, and famous as ever.

Andy Warhol–From A to B and Back Again is now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art until March 31, 2019. Following its premiere, the exhibition will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.


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