More than three decades after his death, Andy Warhol still commands the art world’s attention. And he still commands the attention of new generations of people — art-goers or not — who become familiar with his best-known works (top of the list: portraits of soup cans) and his best-known utterances, including one he was reported to have said in the 1960s: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
Here’s a new saying that came to mind after seeing SFMOMA’s new Warhol retrospective: “We’re all Warhol now.” We’re all Warhol now because we’re all on social media trying to — as Warhol did throughout his life — document everything we consider fabulous, including ourselves. We’re all Warhol now because we’re all trying to reinvent ourselves — as Warhol did throughout his life — publicly, through new career stages. And we’re all Warhol now because we’re all borrowing from pop culture to stake out our identity and advertise that identity to those who’ll listen.
But let’s be honest: There will never be another Warhol. Someone who, besides borrowing from pop culture, reinvented that culture. Someone who was both an acclaimed portraitist and an acclaimed self-portraitist. And someone who became the same type of wealthy, internationally known celebrity that he idolized in his artwork. Warhol became Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. And just like Elvis and Marilyn, he died too soon (at age 58) after experiencing a series of physical setbacks. But Warhol left behind a staggering volume of artwork — paintings, Polaroids, drawings, silk screen prints, films, you name it — that gave curators of “Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again” a chance to highlight every important phase of Warhol’s life. And with the benefit of time, organizers say it’s possible to re-contextualize Warhol for the internet age. Call it yet another Warhol reincarnation.
“It’s impossible to overstate Warhol’s relevance today, and his prescient understanding of the power of images in popular culture,” Neal Benezra, SFMOMA’s director, said at the exhibit’s press preview. “Warhol played an extraordinary role in imagining an image-driven world — and obviously, that’s the world we live in today. I dare say social media might not be possible without Andy Warhol.”
Whether Warhol deserves that designation, or whether Mark Zuckerberg ever saw a single Warhol painting firsthand before starting Facebook, is beside the point since Warhol can be rightfully credited for countless achievements. He changed the art world over and over, not just with his pop art but his brand of celebrity, his love of spectacle — centered for years at his artist’s space called The Factory — and his unabashed, unapologetic embrace of making money. (In 1974, he proclaimed that “being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.”) Warhol was a star-maker who influenced generations of other artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Koons. Warhol was also a taste-maker who inspired musicians in his orbit, including David Bowie and Lou Reed, whose Velvet Underground group hit its peak with Warhol’s producing and Warhol’s idea to add the sexy German singer named Nico. The group’s eponymous release with Warhol’s banana art on the cover “only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band,” Brian Eno said in 1982 of the influential album, which Rolling Stone ranked in 2012 as the 13th greatest album of all time, just behind Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Presley’s The Sun Sessions.
Warhol’s hold on the Velvet Underground gets part of its own gallery in “Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again,” and we see film of the band performing its greatest hits on stage, and see how Warhol arranged them to play with imagery and flashing lights — a precursor to video-themed concerts that would germinate around the world in later years. When he worked with the Velvet Underground in the mid-1960s, Warhol had professed to leaving painting behind for filmmaking, and “Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again” gives us glimpses into those movies, which, not surprisingly, subverted traditional cinema by eliminating narratives for almost static shots that showed “people being themselves.”
So at SFMOMA, we see excerpts of “screen tests” that Warhol took of friends keeping as still as they could. Unlike his portraits and silk screens of Mao, Monroe, Muhammad Ali, and other cultural figures who have an instant recognizability, these films from the mid-1960s require a level of appreciation and patience that push them into a different art realm. They’re not pop art. There’s nothing “pop culture” about them; never was, never will be. If nothing else, they reveal a side of Warhol that was seemingly paradoxical: Warhol as a semi-private provocateur, uncaring whether the public could instantly identify his work — or identify with it.
Just as seemingly paradoxical was Warhol’s death-oriented art from the 1960s, which features acrylic screen prints of electric chairs and the like, and became known as his “Death and Disaster” series. These works didn’t celebrate pop stars or commodities. They weren’t, as one gallery is labeled, “Classic Pop.” Rather, they were unnerving to look at. They still are. Even Warhol’s silkscreen prints of Jackie Kennedy, like 1964’s Nine Jackies, incorporate the former first lady’s fearful face in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. But as Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, says on the exhibit’s audio tour, these works highlighted “Warhol’s alertness to the underbelly of contemporary life. Not the glamorous part. Just around the corner at any point lurks possible death, possible disaster.”
As it happens, Warhol experienced near-death in 1968 when Valerie Solanas, a disgruntled acquaintance who was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, shot him at The Factory. “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again” briefly revisits that period with a copy of a New York Daily News front page headlining the incident. The experience motivated Warhol to keep making art about death, including works with skulls that are on display at SFMOMA, but he also pursued art that more deeply connected with his early, most famous pop art — making a series of silkscreen paintings of Chinese leader Mao Zedong in the early 1970s that are among the exhibit’s absolute highlights. The biggest one, which gives Mao eye shadow, lipstick, and flush cheeks, takes up almost an entire wall. In the same gallery, done in a similar colorful style: Warhol’s 1972 anti-Nixon poster called Vote McGovern, which shows the Republican president as a kind of demon figure. The work is an eerie, prescient look at the impeached politician.
Also a bit eerie but utterly compelling: Warhol’s later abstract works like Oxidation Painting from 1978, a copper-and-green piece that Warhol made by urinating on a canvas that had acrylic paint with metallic pigment. The urine would mix with the paint and create odd colors and shapes: blotches, circles, shadows, and the like. Warhol did the pissing himself, or had assistants and guests empty their bladders on his oxidation paintings. Warhol would also use semen, according to “Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again,” which is Warhol’s first major retrospective since 1989. Warhol also made semen-less and urine-less abstract paintings like 1978’s Shadow — a paint-and-silkscreen work that is another surprising revelation in an exhibit full of them.
Warhol went through so many art phases that, like Picasso and other celebrated artists, he can be appreciated through any one, including his earliest sketches and commissions, which take up a gallery on the second floor that’s separate from the fourth-floor galleries containing most of the exhibit, and the fifth-floor galleries that also have important art. But why limit your understanding of an artist who was constantly reinventing himself? “Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again,” which first debuted at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, is an artistic autopsy of a seminal figure who was complex, contradictory, and exciting to be around. But Warhol was like everyone else in important regards: He could be incredibly insecure, even shy.
Just ask Donna De Salvo, Whitney’s Deputy Director for International Initiatives and Senior Curator, who curated the exhibit and told SF Weekly and another publication at SFMOMA’s preview that meeting Warhol twice in the fall of 1986 — one year before his death — was like meeting a “myth.”
“It takes a little time to recognize them as a person,” De Salvo said, sitting on a bench in SFMOMA’ fifth-floor galleries, surrounded by Warhol’s collection of commissioned portraits, which ranged from Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Iran’s then-leader, Reza Pahlavi. “I realized that the best thing I could do was not fill in the silences, [unlike] what I did the first time. There was this awkward silence because he didn’t say anything. The tendency is to then fill it yourself. I learned the second time to just sit there, and eventually he spoke. You have an image of someone having all the answers, and then you realize they don’t have the answers, either.”
No, they don’t — not always. That was the real Andy Warhol.
“Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again” through Sept. 2 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., S.F. $31-$37, 415-357-4000 or sfmoma.org.