Why Andy Warhol Remains the Artist of Our Times

Or why we're all Warholics now.

When you hear word of a new Warhol exhibit, it’s fair to groan a little. It’s justifiable to have the response that the Pop master is totally overexposed and wonder why the institution mounting it can’t probe a little deeper into art history and find someone else to lionize for a change. Then you go to “Andy Warhol: From A to Be and Back Again” — at SFMOMA through Sept. 2 — and realize that we inhabit only the latest phase of the revelation of Warhol’s brilliant analytic powers. You realize how his influence extended not only to subsequent artists but transformed the way that patrons appreciate art — and, maybe, even came to dictate how possessors of smartphones comprehend the world.

Simply put, Warhol prefigured 21st-century mechanisms of identity, a concept that’s intrinsically connected to the American idea of individualism and a particularly Californian notion of self-reinvention. His work is almost like a prophecy that reveals itself parchment by parchment over decades, except there is no caste of high priests to vouchsafe its sanctity. Warhol’s multi-genre prescience is an entirely self-sustaining cultural force, nurtured by Instagram algorithms and our own vanity. Although his career had ups and downs — for a while, in the ’70s, he was widely considered to be washed-up — Andy Warhol is fundamentally inexhaustible.

A lot of the artifacts on display — the Elvises, the Jackies — have a sort of double-decker tour bus component built into them. (“Look, kids, there’s Chairman Mao!”) But behind Warhol’s obsession with pop culture as pure surface, there is darkness. Ours is an era of shameless exhibitionism and amoral voyeurism. The crown is a presidency that’s arguably one long performance art piece of the destruction of democracy, all of it espoused by an inveterate TV-watcher with hair faker than any of Warhol’s wigs. In light of that, how much does Warhol assuage our social-media-warped consciences with remarks like “Art is whatever you can get away with”? That utterance had a frisson of sexy New York hubris at the time, but now it has enormous, global consequences. We have barely a decade to stop getting away with climate change denialism and single-use plastics before the whole damn thing implodes. We are cruising toward a terrifying singularity that Warhol might have silkscreened as Orange Ecological Catastrophe 7.7 Billion Times.

And “From A to Be and Back Again” doesn’t shy away from death and destruction — specifically the “Death and Disaster” series of the late 1960s — or from topics like candid homoeroticism, still taboo at the time Warhol broached them. A few floors down from the galleries full of Brillo boxes and Debbie Harry, there are some unusually personal works depicting Warhol’s friends and lovers in the 1950s. They’re tender, an early glimpse behind the mask before he bolted it down as tightly as Darth Vader’s, and while it’s easy to compare them with 1980s portraits of Marsha P. Johnson because the subject matter is LGBTQ in nature, they’re fundamentally unalike.

You’ll find very little about Valerie Solanas, the troubled radical and would-be assassin whose 1968 attempt on Warhol’s life clearly haunted him and may have caused complications that led to his death after allegedly routine gall-bladder surgery in 1987. (Oddly, Solanas died barely half a mile from SFMOMA, in the same Tenderloin hotel where Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff announced a $6 million grant for supportive housing last year.) 

But behind all this darkness is money. Only Karl Marx had keener insights into the way capitalism exalts and perverts money to create modern subjectivity. (The “A” and “B” of the retrospective’s title are art and business, which Warhol regarded as almost mystically interchangeable.) The hyper-macho Abstract Expressionists of the New York school feigned disdain for filthy lucre, and then along came this fey, unclassifiable oddity who they didn’t especially like and who was about to sweep them from center stage. The romance of the starving artist endures, but it doesn’t have quite the pride of place it did in 1959, for which Warhol deserves much of the credit and/or blame.

Probably the single most important piece in “From A to Be and Back Again” is Ethel Scull 36 Times. It’s a large-scale, 1963 composite portrait of a socialite wife of a taxicab mogul whom Warhol wooed into becoming his subject by pumping $300 in quarters into a Times Square photo booth. The 36 individual pieces are all garishly colored, with Scull mugging for the lens or retaining her mystique behind a pair of sunglasses, and the overall work has a noticeable warm side (the left) and a cool side (the right). It’s joyful, even riotous. You can see her losing her inhibitions and really letting go. She is, you might say, feeling herself.

Felt cute, might enter the annals of humankind later.

Why is this so much more important than all the Marilyns and Elizabeth Taylors? It’s because it seems to prefigure the present technological moment, 56 years later. If you hold your camera up to photograph Ethel Scull 36 Times, the auto-focus recognizes some of the faces and highlights them in thin yellow boxes, as if to provide you with a menu of options for what to center on. Consider that in light of Warhol’s remark that he felt detached from the world, unable to differentiate the act of observing reality from watching television. And if everyone is to be world-famous for 15 minutes, it’s because everyone is a photographer with the potential for a worldwide platform. This is something many thousands of people will let their friends and followers know after they post a picture of a picture made of pictures of Ethel Scull, or the oversized self-portrait of Andy that’s as emerald-green as the album art for Belle and Sebastian’s The Boy with the Arab Strap

Also, the name Ethel Scull is punk as shit. You just know that 15 years later, some D-list punk renamed herself “Ethel Skull” in a vain attempt to get on Warhol’s radar, and probably died alone with a needle in her arm in some squat on Avenue C.

Vote McGovern, 1972 (Peter Lawrence Kane)

What do we make of the proposition that Pittsburgh-native-turned-New-Yorker Andy Warhol gave us social media and fellow outsider-turned-Manhattanite Donald J. Trump became its ultimate master? In truth, Trump dominates Twitter while ignoring Facebook and Instagram, but our attention is his currency. Not since circa-1983 Michael Jackson has Planet Earth been so united by a single topic of conversation.

The U.S. has a leader with cartoonish hair, and in Boris Johnson, the U.K. may be about to get one, too. The brazenly, transparently ridiculous fools are still winning. And I was never as persuaded that Trump is certain to be elected to a second term as when I happened upon Vote McGovern. Look at that blue-green horror, a campaign image — by an entity called C.R.E.E.P., no less — repurposed to make Richard Nixon into an alien used-car salesman, or The Creature from Yorba Linda. What you’re really looking at isn’t the denigration of a corrupt president, but the impotent disgust of the cosmopolitan liberal, helpless to stop the election of 1972 from becoming a 520-49 Electoral College rout. When Warhol put lipstick on Mao, it was transgressive and funny, but in Nixon you sense that ultimate rarity in his work: anger.

Even the consummate observer felt stirred to action from time to time. But that tension is nothing compared to the tension between valuelessness and pricelessness, something not even the rapacious Jeff Koons can top. It’s a little like Ned Beatty’s “Primal Forces of Nature” rant in Network about how the “subatomic and galactic structure of things today” has globalized capital, not nations or peoples, at its center. I asked a curator what the museum does if a kid were to burst one of the floating metallic pillows in Silver Clouds — answer: “We have more” — compared to the aggregate insurable value that would be paid out in the event an asteroid obliterated SFMOMA. There’s no real reply to that, because it’s not even a comprehensible question, bending the very concept of money the way black holes bend space-time. But when Pop goes “pop,” they’re fine.

Weirdly, the stratospheric prices that (almost always Western) artworks command at auction began in earnest circa 1987, the year of Warhol’s death. No fewer than seven of Warhol’s pieces have sold for $70 million or more, placing him alongside Picasso and Van Gogh. And “priceless” ain’t what it used to be. It’s apparently now possible to put a dollar amount on a once nearly-valueless and not especially fantastic Leonardo da Vinci painting, Salvator Mundi, which sold for $450 million to a Saudi prince and promptly disappeared. There’s still an aura of how-dare-you-even-ask when it comes to attaching a price tag to the Mona Lisa, but the sheer crassness of that sordid episode would not have been possible without Warhol.

A church-going Byzantine Catholic who lived with his mother until her death, an openly gay man who offhandedly claimed to be a virgin until late in life, a hoarder who managed a to sustain a highly prodigious output, a rigorous formalist entranced with depersonalized automation, Warhol was a sum of fascinating contradictions. Maybe the oddest thing about him is how un-telegenic he really was. On screen, he’s an expressionless mumbler and a straight-up bore, watchable only because he’s such a weirdo. For the commentary on New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” you can barely make out a word he says even if that gallery at SFMOMA is empty. If he had somehow made it onto television today, he would have been expunged from history like Brian Dunkleman, the comic who was disappeared from American Idol after Season 1. That music video happens to be part of something with the fairly insipid title Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes. Its running time is approximately 30 minutes in length, but Andy Warhol doesn’t overstay his welcome. He hasn’t yet, in fact. We are all Warholics now.

Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again, through Sept. 2, at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., sfmoma.org/exhibition/andy-warhol-from-a-to-b-and-back-again/

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