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Campbell’s Soup: Warholian Banality at Met’s Misconceived “Regarding Warhol”

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Andy Warhol regards Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell at “Regarding Warhol”
All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Arriving with high anticipation, I have rarely felt as big a letdown at a major exhibition as I did at Monday’s press preview for the Metropolitan Museum’s Regarding Warhol: Sixty Aritsts, Fifty Years, opening next Tuesday to what is likely to be an admiring public (to Dec. 31).

It began with a promising concept but didn’t come close to fulfilling the stated mission—to explore the “full nature and extent” of Andy Warhol’s “influence on contemporary art” (in the words of the press release). Lumping together diverse artists who tackled Warholian subjects (such as celebrity, death, print media, homosexuality), this scattershot show fell far short of the high intellectual standards that were perhaps the greatest legacy of the museum’s previous director, Philippe de Montebello. It lacked the interpretive depth needed to give us fresh, substantive insights into why Warhol was the exception to his own 15-minute rule and continued to matter as a model or a foil to subsequent artists.

The last paragraph of the wall text introducing the section on “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power” exemplifies the problem. (My own asides are in brackets.)

Power and fame in their countless manifestations have held a strong appeal for many artists beyond Warhol [not to mention before Warhol]. The artists in this section, nearly all of whom depend on the photograph in some way, build on the Warholian model [in what ways?] and replenish the art of portraiture in their own unique fashion [which is..?].

Actually, one of the artists featured in that section, Alex Katz, insists that, in his case, it was the other way around: Warhol “stole [from Katz] the flat backgrounds, the double portraits, and the square portrait format,” Katz told Met curator Marla Prather in one of her 13 artist interviews that appear in the catalogue.

The labels throughout the show say almost nothing of substance about the relationship between the other artists’ work and Warhol’s example. We are confronted by a series of superficial juxtapositions: a Warhol Marilyn, a Cindy Sherman Marilyn; a Warhol Elvis, a Keith Haring Elvis.

The show may have been compromised by its bumpy trajectory to the Met: As Prather candidly revealed at the press preview, it was originally organized by veteran guest curator Mark Rosenthal for the Detroit Institute of Arts, which abandoned the project midstream.

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Marla Prather, who had her own bumpy trajectory to the Warhol opening, accompanied (at right) by Rebecca Lowery, Met’s research assistant for modern and contemporary art

Rosenthal (who is still the show’s guest curator but did not get a turn at the press-preview rostrum) told me when we chatted on Monday that he didn’t know why Detroit had decided to withdraw from the show. But the DIA’s public relations director, Pam Marcil, told me this:

The DIA actually initiated the Warhol exhibition six or seven years ago…and established a tour that included the Met and Houston. Following the deep staff cuts made in 2009 we reviewed our exhibition schedule and realized that we no longer had the staff to maintain the number [of future exhibitions] on the books. As the Met had already become involved with aspects of the exhibition’s organization and following discussions with all parties, we decided to back out.

Rosenthal told me that Gary Tinterow, then the Met’s curator in charge of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art, had encouraged the transfer of the project to the Met. But then Tinterow decamped to Texas to become director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. (Somewhat surprisingly, Houston is no longer on the show’s itinerary. It will travel to the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, Feb. 2-Apr. 28.)

I bluntly asked Rosenthal why there seemed to be so little interpretive analysis in the show, and he acknowledged that it didn’t present “a deep thinking about the impact” of Warhol. “We’re supposed to glean that by ourselves.There are too many comparisons to make. I’m a big believer, more so than most people, in letting the relationships be rich and worth looking at. If you were to draw comparisons, you’d have endless labels, so I think you have to leave that to people [who attend the show].”

Notwithstanding my general dissatisfaction, I was intrigued by the early black-and-white Warhols at the beginning of the show, including this one (which struck me as more Lichtenstein than Warhol):

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“Dr. Scholl’s Corns,” 1961, Metropolitan Museum

And there’s a certain charge in being surrounded by High Pop Warhol—his then transgressive deification of consumer products:

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Left: “Green Coca-Cola Bottles,” 1962, Whitney Museum
Right: “Big Campbell’s Soup Can, 19ȼ (Beef Noodle),” 1962, Menil Collection

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“Brillo Soap Pad Boxes,” Andy Warhol Museum; Gilbert and Lila Silverman

In the midst of this deadpan appropriation, Ai Weiwei‘s and Hans Haacke‘s politically charged pieces in the same gallery, while also based on consumer goods, seemed anomalous for their seriousness of satirical purpose:

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Ai Weiwei, “Neolithic Vase with Coca-Cola Logo,” 2010, Mary Boone

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Hans Haacke, “Helmsboro Country,” 1990, courtesy of the artist and Paul Cooper Gallery

Haacke (ripe for a full-scale retrospective) understandably seemed, in his catalogue interview with Prather, to be much happier comparing himself to “that great sociological trickster,” Marcel Duchamp, than to Warhol. (As it happens, an intriguing 2010 show at the Andy Warhol Museum made a very compelling case for a Warhol-Duchamp connection.)

A much more comfortable fit in the same gallery is a familiar piece by (to my mind) Warhol’s worthiest successor, Damien Hirst, whose pharmacy cabinet creepily resonated with the Coke grid-painting and the Brillo packaging in the same room:

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Damien Hirst, “Eight Over Eight,” 1997-98, Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, courtesy the FLAGG Art Foundation

After a while, this monumental show of some 145 works seemed like an unrewardlng slog, as distinguished from the highly regarded retrospective of another Pop master, Roy Lichtenstein, co-organized by the Met’s new chairman of modern and contemporary art, Sheena Wagstaff, while she
was still chief curator at the Tate Modern, London. The LA Times‘ art critic, Christopher Knight, called that show (now traveling from the Art Institute of Chicago and to the National Gallery, Washington, where it opens Oct. 14) “a wonderfully revealing retrospective,” in which a familiar work “looks very different than it has before—deeper,
richer, more bracingly complex.”

That’s precisely what’s missing from “Regarding Warhol.” So where was Sheena Wagstaff, when they really needed her?

Actually, she was standing right there:

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Sheena Wagstaff, listening to speakers at the Warhol press preview

Whatever its flaws, the Met’s show is “a surefire blockbuster,” as Lance Esplund observed in his brief but bitingly negative review today in Bloomberg.

Devotees of the trendy will have even more to look forward to at the Met: PUNK: Chaos to Couture has just been announced as the next big show to be organized by the Met’s Costume Institute. (Why didn’t LA MOCA’s Jeffrey Deitch think of that?)

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