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Warhol’s Warhorses at the Whitney: Insert Your Own Meanings Here

In my Dec. 8 post analyzing the plans for what turned out to be a (literally) incendiary protest demonstration at the Whitney Museum, I pinpointed the artwork that “for me was the most haunting work” in that museum’s current Andy Warhol retrospective (to Mar. 31):

Andy Warhol, “Mustard Race Riot,” 1963, Museum Brandhorst, Munich
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Little did I know when I saw it at the Election-Day press preview that this painting would gain more relevance in the context of the confrontation at the Whitney on Dec. 9 between protesters and authorities.

What most transfixed me about “Mustard Race Riot” was not the grim subject matter (which I saw anew through the perspective of our current racially charged moment), but Warhol’s uncanny prescience about our media-saturated world, in which we feel compelled to ogle, over and over again, a disturbing, riveting image of death and destruction. (Case in point: the repetitive broadcasts of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, which might well have been one of Warhol’s “Disaster” subjects, had he lived long enough to silkscreen it.)

From the ceaseless repetition of shocking images in newspapers, on television and online, our mental focus starts to fade and degrade, until it eventually goes blank, just as happens in Warhol’s depiction of the Birmingham melee.

That’s my personal, perhaps idiosyncratic take on his treatment of an incident that was inescapable at the time (1963) when it happened. Andy once said, “Everyone has their own America” (the first line in the Whitney’s introductory wall text). It’s equally true, I think, that everyone has his own Warhol.

The celebrity-flattering portraitist is the aspect of his diverse oeuvre that most delights me—a liking of his likenesses that I’m sure is shared by many. For culture-lovers of my generation, this knockout array of Warholized performing-art stars and visual-art stars is suffused with the glow of nostalgia:

Warhol Portraits Gallery at the Whitney
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Whitney’s other big showstopper is its “wow” Mao, derived from the frontispiece image in “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.” For me, this triggered memories of the Chairman’s imposing presence overlooking Beijing’s Tiananmen Square:

“Mao” (as installed at the Whitney), 1972, Art Institute of Chicago
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
Tiananmen Square in 2010
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The pull of this well known but ultimately unknowable designer, illustrator and (above all) colorist, a magnetic manipulator of those who came into his orbit, is that Andy didn’t let on about what emotion (if any) he felt for his subjects, or about what meaning he ascribed to his seductive paintings and haunting films.

In this vacuum, we are left with the task of imparting significance to the seemingly inconsequential. Warhol’s lack of affect impels everyone—acquaintances, curators, critics, museum visitors—to fill the blank spaces with insights from our own takes on art and life, revealing more about our own passions and preoccupations than about enigmatic Andy’s.

Although a goal of the show’s organizer—the Whitney’s esteemed deputy director and senior curator, Donna De Salvo—was to provide new insights into this already exhaustively explored body of work, my personal “Race Riot” epiphany was my only major new takeaway.

Donna De Salvo, speaking at the Whitney’s Warhol press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Having seen umpteen Warhol presentations—most notably, the comprehensive exploration of his oeuvre (including the early I. Miller shoe advertisements) at the Andy Warhol Museum in his native Pittsburgh—I did not make many new acquaintances at the Whitney. Instead, the press preview was an occasion for re-encountering old friends—some writers whom I hadn’t seen in a while, as well as a representative selection of soup cans, soda bottles and scouring pads:

Installation shot of the opening gallery
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

While Warhol’s “Time Capsules” came as a revelation to some, the Pittsburgh museum’s then director, Tom Sokolowski (who performed a spot-on Warhol impersonation) had in 2010 ushered me into a whole room of those storage boxes, showing me the contents of one that was being catalogued:

Warhol Time Capsules, as stored in 2010
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

It appears that the Warhol’s “Time Capsule” accommodations have been considerably refreshed since my last visit. Here’s a current image from the museum’s website. (Click on “Floor 3”):

Warhol Museum’s Archive Study Center
Photo by Dean Kaufman

For its show, the Whitney managed to unpack a Time Capsule that included an invitation to its own landmark 1974 “Flowering of American Folk Art” exhibition (the yellow card at the bottom of the photo).

Very meta:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One of the people I bumped into was a seasoned critic who had been by my side during a brief, inconsequential chat that we had with artist back in the ’70s (my 15 seconds in the presence of Warhol, an experience shared by everyone then in the artworld). Echoing what I had been thinking about the Whitney show, she called it, “both overwhelming and underwhelming.”

For me (and, I suppose, for her), there weren’t many revelations in the current show—certainly not the repeatedly emphasized fact that Andy was gay. (The Whitney also saw its recent Grant Wood retrospective through a gay lens—a perspective already explored in the National Portrait Gallery’s 2010 Hide/Seek show.)

This label text for the painting below is one of the variations on the theme that Pop art was a rebellion by gay artists against the macho men of Abstract Expressionism:

Warhol’s decision to use Superman as a subject may offer a biting commentary on the heroic machismo associated with Abstract Expressionist “action” painting, or a queer reading of the Man of Steel, or both.

“Superman,” 1961, Private Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I dunno. What, then, are we to make of the twice-married (to women) Roy Lichtenstein‘s Men of Steel?

The Whitney applies the same (il)logic to the “Oxidation Paintings” on which Warhol and others urinated (or, as in the example below, poured urine):

“Oxidation Painting,” 1978, The Brant Foundation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

According to the label’s “Oxidation” explanation: “Warhol’s use of an allover drip technique can be seen as both an homage and a queer send-up of the machismo of Jackson Pollock’s canonical Abstract Expressionist works.” To me, it reads as a not-so-subtle metaphor for a “golden shower.” The Whitney display doesn’t go there: Titled, “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” the show doesn’t fully grapple with his Triple-X.

I got a good look at that aspect in the temporary exhibition that had just opened at the Warhol in Pittsburgh when I visited in 2010—Dirty Art: Andy Warhol’s Torsos and Sex Parts. As confirmed to this wide-eyed writer by Sokolowski, the show was a strong contender for Most X-Rated Show in that museum’s history.

Thomas Sokolowski, then director of the Andy Warhol Museum, in front of a (non-explicit) band of Elvises
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Dirty Art” included not only Warhol’s relatively unshocking paintings of genitalia, but also his unsparingly explicit, small black-and-white snapshots of men caught in acts of oral and anal sex. As I then commented on my blog: “Move over, Mapplethorpe!”

I’ve gotten myself into enough hot water for now. In a future post, I hope to let you know what I most enjoyed about “From A to B and Back Again,” and what most troubled me.

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