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Warring with Warhol: What I Most (& Least) Appreciated About the Whitney’s Retrospective

Although I gave Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again (to Mar. 31) a mixed review last week, one focus of the Whitney Museum’s widely praised extravaganza particularly interested me. It’s an aspect that general audiences, who usually pay more attention to the art than the writing on the walls, could easily miss.

What engaged my wonky attention and engendered my appreciation was the Whitney’s pinpointing when, how and why groundbreaking changes occurred in the work of Warhol—an artist with a Picasso-esque penchant for radical shifts in style.

Here’s the show’s biggest (but easily overlooked) “ah-ha” moment:

Left: “Coca-Cola [3],” 1962, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Right: “Coca-Cola [2],” 1961, Andy Warhol Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As the Whitney’s wall text tells us, the earlier painting (on the right) is “expressive and drippy” in the then dominant style of Abstract Expressionism, “while the 1962 work [left] minimizes evidence of the artist’s hand.”

In what reads like an apocryphal Pop-Art origin myth, the Whitney’s wall text describes how the young artist managed to convene a group of contemporary art luminaries to critique these two works:

Uncertain about the direction his paintings should take, Warhol invited gallerists Ivan Karp and Irving Blum, along with [Metropolitan Museum] curator Henry Geldzahler and political filmmaker Emile de Antonio to look at the two paintings. All four friends encouraged him to move in the direction set by the more machine-like version, with de Antonio noting that “it’s our society, it’s who we are, it’s absolutely beautiful and naked, and you ought to destroy the first [which he didn’t] and show the other”

In embracing the more mechanical-looking Coca-Cola bottle as fine art, Warhol opened up the possibility of linking the worlds of commercial and fine art that he had previously held apart.

While his artistic acumen may have been in formation, Warhol’s networking skills were fully developed, as evidenced by his fruitful relationship with these artworld power-players.

Another Warhol origin-story told by the Whitney pertains to this blonde bombshell:

“Marilyn Diptych,” 1962, Tate London
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This was, according to its label, “among Warhol’s first paintings created using the photo silkscreen technique….Though it was possible to copy images with mechanical precision, Warhol subverted the process, allowing accidental distortions caused by clogs in the screen or images that were out of register.”

Yet another career landmark was his wacky silkscreen send-up of Ethel Scull, a cutting-edge art collector who, with her then husband Robert, famously offloaded some of her heavyweight trove at a legendary 1973 Sotheby Parke Bernet auction (which I attended).

Described as Warhol’s “first major painting commission,” this compilation of images captured in a photo booth is now jointly owned by the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum (given to them by its subject):

“Ethel Scull 36 Times,” 1963, Whitney & Metropolitan museums
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I was also interested in viewing Warhol’s awkward collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, but couldn’t help feeling that while the veteran artist might have gotten a fresh jolt from this partnership, the manic energy of the up-and-comer might have been constrained by it. That said, his reputation gained power from Warhol-ian fame-by-association.

Warhol/Basquiat collaborations
Left: “Paramount,” 1984-85, private collection
Right: “Third Eye,” 1985, Bischofberger Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One of this exhibition’s Big Ideas is that Warhol’s self-importantly monumental late works, long overshadowed by his cheeky Pop breakthroughs, are worthy of more serious attention than they’ve received.

Trying to get absorbed in them, I perceived his ghostly “Mona Lisas,” fading into nothingness, as a metaphor for life’s (and fame’s?) evanescence.

Here’s the full expanse:

“Sixty-Three White Mona Lisas,” 1979, Bischofberger Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And here’s a detail:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Looking for new market growth areas, dealers and auction houses love to get museum validation for less appreciated periods in a famous artist’s oeuvre. (As it was late Picasso, it may soon be with late Warhol.) Sotheby’s was the sponsor for the Warhol show’s opening dinner. Megadealer Larry Gagosian is one of the show’s three top individual sponsors.

The other two are hedge-fund mogul Kenneth Griffin, who alone gave “leadership support,” and real estate magnate Neil Bluhm, co-listed with Gagosian as providing “generous support.” Bluhm, a major collector whose holdings include Warhol, sits on the boards of the Whitney and the Art Institute of Chicago (one of two venues to which the show will travel, the other being the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The perception, if not the reality, of nonprofit museums’ market-independence is compromised by a dealer’s support for shows that are devoted to his or her gallery’s artists. Nowadays, accepting commercially self-interested benefactions seems to have become the norm, especially at the Whitney. When I began writing about museum ethics in the ’70s, accepting a dealer’s backing for a show of an artist represented by that dealer was rightly frowned upon (except, sometimes, for support of catalogue publication).

As I more recently wrote here:

It’s not good enough to say that you are “being careful” not to be improperly influenced by conflicts of interest. Even the perception of conflicts of interest must be avoided….A curator cannot convincingly claim to be objective if a substantial share of the bill for his show is being picked up by a commercially interested party.

The blurring of lines between nonprofit museums and commercial interests is a growing and troubling trend. It should be reversed.

I’m far more disturbed about that pervasive perversion of sponsorship than I am about the Warhol show’s Warren Kanders flap.

What most troubles me about “Warhol” is that the show implicitly heroicizes him, paying scant attention to his disturbing dark side: Attaching himself to acolytes with already damaged psyches, he observed, if not facilitated, their downward slide, doing little or nothing to stop it.

The most famously tragic case-in-point was his glamorous sidekick, Edie Sedgwick:

Image of Edie Sedgwick from her Warhol “Screen Test,” shown at the Whitney
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The only explicit reference that I noticed in the Whitney show to Warhol’s maleficent side was a page from “What’s a Warhol?”—a 1969 Playboy magazine piece by Paul Carroll. It referred to Warhol as “a shadowy, voyeuristic, vaguely sinister host…who presides over a melange of kinky sex, drugs and smoking revolvers.” Included in that piece was a quote from Time magazine that characterized Warhol as “the blond guru of a nightmare world, photographing depravity and calling it truth.”

In this #MeToo era, when artists are being called out (or even taken down) for exploitative behavior, Warhol still gets a pass. On that account, the Whitney’s 21st-century reappraisal of the artist, his work and its reception seems to me incomplete.

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