Warhol @ The Whitney

March 2, 2019

While the Whitney’s much-anticipated Andy Warhol show, From A to B and Back Again, features canonical works from the much-heralded maestro of pop art it lacks an overarching narrative and this results in an unfocused presentation that does little to add to an understanding of Warhol within the context of post-war art or today’s image culture.  Notwithstanding, it does feature certain gems and it reveals some less-known insight into Warhol’s archives.

This exhibition, which marks the first Warhol retrospective organized in the U.S. since the 1980s, positions itself as “reconsider[ing] the work of one of the most inventive, influential, and important American artists.”       

Some may say that the here-there nature of the show stems from Warhol’s oeuvre itself, which can be, at times, rambling, non-linear, with many tangents and digressions.  This point has merit. However, the curatorial opportunity here would have been to present Warhol in a way that consciously connects with today’s Instagram fueled culture of celebrity myth-making via images, presenting Warhol in a new, innovative light.

Arguably, the room with the most compelling narrative was the portrait gallery on the museum’s first floor.  Images of Debbie Harry in a flash yellow, Michael Chow in black and diamond dust and Aretha Franklin outlined in warm toned sketch lines, are presented together in a rainbow grid, revealing an impressive window into the rich, famous and glamorous of the time: all from Warhol’s lens.  A “portrait of society” brings to light much about the culture of celebrity celebration in a subtle and celebratory manner.

The main gallery presents a smattering of genres.  Starting with Warhol’s early works and drawings, and then moving into his trademark silk-screen prints, the show attempts to trace Warhol’s evolution as an artist.  Inarguably, the exhibition features some deep cuts – including portraits of New York drag queens, diamond dust shadows and an intoxicating all-white multi-Mona Lisa.  A towering Mao, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, accompanied by drawings and original reference materials, stands out as a highlight.

Yet, the astute viewer can’t help but be left with an aftertaste of “so what?”.  Much of Warhol’s imagery has been distributed into our society to the point of saturation.  What’s lacking here is something new. Warhol’s influence on society is pervasive and multi-faceted, not only in terms of our image culture but more so in how we perceive and worship those images as icons.  Moreover, Warhol’s complicated sexuality, inner purpose and drive, are all but ignored.

For the average viewer who wants to appreciate a Warhol Marilyn or Mao, the show will suffice and appease, especially the Instagram-hungry audiences of New York.  But for the viewer who wants a deeper understanding of Warhol and the meaning of his art today, the exhibit will seem more like just another a copy than an original.   

Images via New York Times