Twenty-five years after his death, Andy Warhol (1928-1987) continues to exert an immeasurable impact on the global stage. His transformative contributions to the worlds of art and media are cultural milestones of the modern era. From the perspective of 2012, Warhol’s vast artistic enterprise–as well as his distinctive persona–is as relevant today as in the heyday of Pop Art’s reign.  For decades, critics have observed that Andy Warhol’s influence is dominant in contemporary art, but as of yet no exhibition has explored its full nature or extent. Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the first major exhibition to do so through approximately 45 works by Warhol alongside 100 works by some 60 other artists. This innovative presentation, structured in five thematic sections, juxtaposes prime examples of Warhol’s paintings, sculpture, and films with those by other artists who in key ways reinterpret, respond, or react to his groundbreaking work. The exhibition shows the dialogue and conversation between works of art and artists across generations.

Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years is organized around five broad themes, juxtaposing works by Warhol with those in a range of media by three generations of artists. Each grouping comprises objects that speak visually to one another, the aim being not simply to demonstrate influence but to indicate the many ways in which artists have worked in dialogue with Warholian themes or developed Warhol’s example in dynamic new directions. Among the artists featured are those who pay overt tribute to Warhol in their singular way, as well asthose who have absorbed, transformed, or challenged his example in more subtle fashion. If a crucial measure of an artist’s importance includes the possibilities he opens for those who follow, then Warhol undoubtedly qualifies as one of the most significant artists of the last fifty years. His many contributions–the embrace of the vernacular; his merging of photography with painting and his revolutionary filmmaking; the expansion of art beyond the studio; and his acceptance of human sexuality in all its permutations–are beyond dispute, but the debate regarding the extent and nature of his influence is far from over.

The exhibit opens with Warhol’s fascination and engagement with the imagery of everyday life in the section “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster.” Warhol had a famous brush with death in 1968 when he was shot by Valerie Solanis, a radical poet and disgruntled hanger-on at the Factory, but his fascination with the darker side of the news had begun long before. His vision of a consumerist cornucopia in the 1960s had a darker, more uncertain side, which the artist was not hesitant to show–a culture always on the verge of violence and death. As much as newspapers, magazines, and tabloids o the time told of a promising future, their pages also brimmed with violent images of Civil Rights protests, car accidents, and that patently American machine of death, the electric chair. All became subjects for what are arguably Warhol’s most moving works, his Death and Disaster series, which the artist originally thought to exhibit under the rubric “Death in America.”

How Artists engage with themes as powerful as anguish, loss, and the fragility of life became ever more urgent with the advent of AIDS in the 1980s. Responding to a brutal disease that decimated a generation, the subtle yet poignant ways in which some artists have chosen to represent the pain of loss–Félix González-Torres, for example, did so with a cascading pile of candy–demonstrate how art can draw attention to injustice or transform the commonplace into something magical.

His interest in commonplace or banal subject matter found in newspapers and magazines led him to create his early depictions of tabloid advertisements and press coverage of disasters. These works were clearly influential for other artists working at the time, such as Sigmar Polke and Hans Haacke, who took on similar subject matter. Key examples by younger contemporary artists such as Vik Muniz and Sarah Lucas are indicative of artists’ continued engagement with the news of the day. Also explored in this section is Warhol’s interest in items of American consumer culture of the 1960s (Brillo Soap Pads Box, 1964) and its connection to later artists who appropriate objects from the supermarket or the department store, including Jeff Koons, Robert Gober, and Damien Hirst.

Just like his interest in the packaging of consumer goods, Warhol was fascinated by the “packaging” of celebrities, which for him evolved into an engagement with portrait-making that is explored in the second section of the exhibition, “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power.” The best of Warhol’s notable portraits of celebrities, such as Red Jackie (1964) and Turquoise Marilyn (1964), are paired with contemporary examples by Elizabeth Peyton, Karen Kilimnik, and Cindy Sherman. Warhol’s portrayals of artists, poets, and musicians of his day are installed alongside similar examples by leading artists including Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Links between Warhol’s practice of society portraiture of the 1970s, as well as his artistic engagement with political figures (particularly Mao [1973]) and the work of later artists, are also explored here.

Warhol not only reinvigorated the moribund art of portraiture in the early 1960s, he reinvented it. His silkscreened images are synonymous with the superstars of the era–Marilyn, Elvis, Jackie, Liz–and all derive from film stills, publicity shots, or newspaper photos. But Warhol’s vision of glamour can carry a dark undercurrent. He depicted Marilyn Monroe immediately after her death, Liz Taylor following a near-fatal illness, and Jackie Kennedy before and after her husband’s assassination. Even the heartthrob Elvis Presley, costumed for the 1960 Western Flaming Star, slings a handgun. Warhol undertook his first portrait commission in 1963: Ethel Scull 36 Times, on view in the permanent collection galleries immediately following the exhibition exit. But it was not until the 1970s, after his long recovery from the shooting in 1968, that Warhol became the self-anointed court painter of the jet set. Commissioned portraits were the chief occupation of his enterprise. He based his silkscreened images of socialites and rock stars, collectors and artists, on his own photographs, usually taken with a polaroid camera and never without a flash. The artist aimed to flatter: “Always omit the blemishes,” he said, “they’re not part of the good pictures you want.” Power and fame in their countless manifestations have held a strong appeal for many artists beyond Warhol. The artists in this section, nearly all of whom depend on the photograph in some way, build on the Warholian model and replenish the art of portraiture in their own unique fashion.

The exhibition’s third section, “Queer Studies: Camouflage and Shifting Identities,” outlines Warhol’s importance as an artist who broke new ground in representing issues of sexuality and gender in the post-war period. Warhol’s enigmatic persona developed over the course of his career is well represented by his last Self-Portrait (1986). In this work, made the year before his untimely death, his visage is concealed by a veil of camouflage. This iconic work opens a section devoted to frank representations of the male body that share their subject and composition with Warhol’s Torso from Behind (1977)—as in David Hockney’s Boy about to Take a Shower (1964) or Robert Gober’s Untitled (1990). This section also strives to represent a new openness toward different varieties of queer identity that Warhol’s oeuvre ushered in, largely through work by photographers such as Catherine Opie, Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, or Robert Mapplethorpe.

The last two sections of the exhibition deal in diverse ways with the proliferation of images so inherent to Warhol’s projects. In “Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality,” Warhol’s groundbreaking use of preexisting photographic sources, often endlessly repeated (Baseball, 1962), his appropriation of art history (Mona Lisa, 1963), and his interest in abstraction (Oxidation Painting, 1978), for example, are grouped with work by Pictures Generation artists such as Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman for their uses of appropriation, or with contemporary painters like Christopher Wool, whose patterned painting Untitled plays with all-over abstraction and seriality in Warholian ways.

For the final section of the show, “No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle,” Warhol’s interest in artistic partnership through filmmaking, magazine publishing, and design is highlighted. Also foregrounded is his fascination with creating environments that envelop the viewer entirely—the Gesamtkunstwerk of his all-over Flowers installations and his wallpapered gallery walls inspired other artists to extend their practice beyond the traditional spaces of the rectangular canvas into the world beyond.

In New York in the 1960s, according to Warhol “there was always a party somewhere: if there wasn’t a party in the cellar, there was one on a roof, if there wasn’t a party in a subway, there was one on a bus.” This could sometimes be quite literally the case: in 1965 Warhol staged what may have been the first video installation in an unused subway tunnel under the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The following year he went even further to expand art making past its traditional boundaries, collaborating with the rock band the Velvet Underground on a multimedia project eventually called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable–a riotous amalgam of music, dance, light effects, and projected films.
In 1975 Warhol declared that he had taken his practice in an even more surprising direction: “After I did the thing called ‘art’ or whatever it’s called, I went into business art. . . . Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.” The launch of Interview magazine, a series of television shows, and endorsements ranging from Sony’s Walkman to Puerto Rican Rums were all ostensibly part of Warhol’s business art, which provided extremely suspect art-world observers who held to the modernist dictum that art should and could only be created for its own sake. This expansive approach has provided a model for many contemporary artists, who have explored and even built on Warhol’s artistic experiments, to great effect. The works in this section range from Polly Apfelbaum’s floor-installed fabric piece, Pink Crush (2007), to a selection of Ryan Trecartin’s collaboratively created videos.

For the duration of the exhibition, two of Warhol’s Ten-Foot Flowers (1967) from The Met’s collection will be on view in the Great Hall.

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