Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). Self-Portrait, 1986
Art Review: Late Warhol at the Brooklyn Museum by Aniko Berman
The summer has begun its quiet dissolution into fall, and a bittersweet crispness has finally entered the air. Another season gone, another season begun. Time goes on, life goes on, things change, and as do we. This early autumnal atmosphere inevitably yields quiet contemplation, and as we begin a new chapter, our thoughts may veer into the ever-present territory of mortality, and the everyday implications of this ineffable, inevitable tenet of the human condition.
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). Self-Portrait (Strangulation), 1978.
What better time, then, to take in the Brooklyn Museum’s beautiful exhibition “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade,” which ends this weekend on September 12th. Emphasizing the postmodern master’s late work, during the period from the late 1970s until the artist’s death in 1986, this show exemplifies the current trend in museum and gallery exhibitions that strive to rework art historical notions of art creation and focus on traditionally disregarded or disliked aspects of an artist’s oeuvre. Such exhibitions encourage a second-look at the canon, and have allowed multivalent visions to flourish, views that broaden our understanding of recognized masters and their masterpieces. Refreshingly working against the art historical cult of youth, which places the young, virile artist at the pinnacle of creative success, shows such as the current “Dalì: The Late Work” at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; this summer’s “Late Renoir” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and last spring’s “Claude Monet: Late Work” at Gagosian Gallery, New York, shine recognition onto the learned wisdom of the mature artist. Which frankly makes perfect sense: the wisdom of age is painfully underappreciated in this society. Is this new crop of exhibitions sincerely working to present novel, productive ways of art critical seeing, or is it merely the symptom of an over-processed art historical canon, whose torch-bearers will seek something new, anything to combat the boredom of an old story? I have yet to figure out the answer myself, but this exhibition argues strongly in favor of the former assessment.
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). Double $5/Weightlifter, 1985–86.
The show’s basic premise is the insistence that Warhol’s genius did not stop at his signature icons of snappy pop; what he began with Brillo Boxes did not end with technicolor Marilyns. On the contrary, as this show reveals, the artist’s particular brand of blasé pop-culture humor was re-envisioned and re-worked until the very end, in an elegant and contemplative manner that yielded several stunning, poetic works that round out the artist’s oeuvre in a fittingly profound way.
The tone of the exhibition is set upon the viewer’s entrance into the first gallery. A few of Warhol’s famous “fright-wig” portraits are on view here: the gaunt, silk-screened face of the artist stares out from these works, evoking a skull or death-mask. One work is particularly arresting:Self-portrait of 1978 features the artist’s head along with a superimposed skull. The aggressively morbid image may look more sinister than his uncannily blank female icons, or his sweetly philistine Campbell’s soup cans, but in reality, Warhol always treated the notion death to some extent. His obsession with Marilyn, Jackie, and even Liz was sprung from the mortal peril these women experienced. And what about Tunafish Disaster? Thirteen Most Wanted Men? And of course, the car crashes and electric chairs. One might also argue that his very method of art creation alluded to a death of sorts: the death of the Bejaminian aura that inevitably occurs when a work of art is reproduced (in this case, through the silk-screening method, which allowed the artist to copy the same image several times over), and the “authentic” hand of the artist is purposely eliminated.
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). The Last Supper, 1986.
A wonderful assortment of abstract works are also on view in this comprehensive exhibition. Mimicking the gestural Abstract Expressionist pathos that reigned supreme in New York during the 1950s, when the artist began his career as an illustrator, Warhol’s little-known Abstract Paintings series arose from the silkscreened reproductions of the artist’s own abstract hand. To this end, these works function aesthetically and conceptually, and exemplify how Warhol’s interest in authenticity and artificiality – whether culturally or physically– consumed the artist until the end. There are also examples from his Rorschach series, Oxidation series, and Camoflage series: a trove of Warholian abstractions that suggest the artist’s engagement with a variety of worthy aesthetic and conceptual issues.
One of the many highlights of the show is an amazing archive of Warhol’s late foray into television, which coincided with his Interviewmagazine (launched in 1978, and real examples of which viewers are encouraged to leaf through). A true trailblazer, Warhol prophetically functioned in the realm that exists between – and bridges – so-called high and low culture. Take a moment to watch some episodes of Andy Warhol’s “Fifteen Minutes”, an early MTV series, and revel in the particular cultural moment that flourished during the artist’s last years, when New York became a veritable crucible of creativity across race, gender, and genre.
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988), and Francesco Clemente (Italian, born 1952).Origin of Cotton, 1984.
In addition to some large-scale examples of Warhol’s collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat, the “radiant child” whose flash on the eighties scene in New York ushered in a new personality cult (and which also prompted Warhol to return to painting in the last years of his career), the show ends with the artist’s stunning Last Supper series from 1986, the same year as his death due to complications from a gall bladder infection. Apparently prompted by the artist’s secret Catholic spirituality, these works use reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic fifteenth century fresco, achieving a profundity of epic physical and conceptual proportions. Indeed, these works have the scale of a mural, and effectively overpower the viewer’s corporeality. Their content, however, arguably supercedes the enormity of their physical presence. Just as Warhol’s Marilyn became the patron female saint, a sacrificial shrine onto which we could project our desires for love, beauty, and success, Warhol’s treatment of Christ – the saint, the savior – is productively, amazingly complicated when his likeness is reproduced 112 times, as in the stunning Detail of the Last Supper (Christ 112 Times). Importantly, Warhol’s ever-present exploration of the cult of celebrity, and his interest in the Duchampian appropriation of known images, are both fully activated and stretched out to their teleological resting-place in this work, which merits recognition as the late master’s late masterpiece, the pièce-de-résistance in a career that achieved postmodern greatness, and which continues to be relevant today, particularly thanks to exhibitions such as this one.
Review by Aniko Berman for XXXX Magazine