Rethinking the Legacy of Andy Warhol

What do you think of when you hear Andy Warhol? His Campbell’s Soup cans and Three Elvises? His prognostication of 15 minutes of fame, as the “creator” of the Pop Art movement? His early embrace of an openly gay lifestyle? Warhol certainly deserves recognition for all of these. A retrospective of Andy Warhol  “A to B and Back Again” (named after his book on his philosophy of art), makes a compelling case for expanding one’s view of both the artist and his legacy.

Andy Warhol From A to B and Back Again

The exhibition now at San Francisco’s SFMOMA traces the artist’s career from his first job as a commercial illustrator through his climb to fame, close call with assassination, his nurturing of new talent at “The Factory” studio and his 1987 death at age 58. It demonstrates, and helps explain the full range of his work and contributions through more than 300 of the artist’s paintings, sketches, silkscreens, photographs, film, television productions, sculptures and even wallpaper.

It begins with a display of many of the artist’s most iconic Pop works—his soup can, Coca Cola and Brillo box paintings, silkscreens and sculptures through his large-scale, multi-pass silkscreens of celebrities including Elvis, Marlin Brando, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Particularly poignant is his “Nine Jackies, which presents three different silkscreen prints of each of three post-JFK assassination photos of Jackie Kennedy. The exhibit explains the process he used for creating multiple, very different looking images of the same original, his fascination with celebrities, the very nature of celebrity and how he himself became one of the most noted celebrities of his time.

Brillo BoxesCampbells SoupNine JackiesElis

From there, the exhibition moves to other, less well- known aspects of his career and the dramatic evolutions of his focus and his artistic style. This evolution was portrayed in his subject matter, the move from ultra-realistic to highly abstract styles and in the changing ways in which he portrayed himself in self-portraits through his career.

On one hand, Warhol was very highly regarded and extensively commissioned for his portraits, not just of celebrities, but of his many friends and lovers, of royalty and of wealthy individuals and of political leaders. His huge portraits of Mao and his rather freaky, green-tinged Nixon (the latter for a McGovern campaign poster) have become iconic. Others, such as the paintings of Ethyl Scull that he created from three dozen photos snapped in a Times Square self-photo booth, portray the quirky, fun side of subject. A separate section of the exhibition, located in another section of the museum, displays portraits of about three dozen of his other subjects, ranging from actor Dennis Hopper to the Shah of Iran. But while Warhol certainly welcomed commissions, he viewed them primarily as a means of funding the work that he really wanted to do.

Tom with Tricky Dick2019-05-17 14.07.07MaoEthel Scull

And, as mentioned above, his idea of what he wanted to draw, paint and silkscreen changed continually throughout his career. He went, from periods of fun and lightness through those when he became darker, more introspective and guarded in the way he presented himself. His themes, subjects and media and techniques all evolved and many of his references became more oblique. These ranged from:

  • Highly expressive and sympathetic, yet often highly-coded portrayals of gays, lesbians, drag queens and transsexuals;

Ladies and Gentlemen 01

  • Dark, often macabre representations of violence (such as during Civil Rights marches), death (as in his dozens of representations of sculls and detailed paintings of auto accidents and electric chairs;

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  • Light, almost flippant portrayals of brightly colored, highly simplified flowers–over 500, assorted color and sized (S, M. L and XL) canvases of hibiscus alone–, cow wallpaper and his fun installation-style creation of Silver Clouds (large, helium-filled mylar balloons that people bat around the room);

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  • More than 600 variations of a single photo of a sunset;

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  • Experimental works, such as he and his assistants drank different liquids to see how their urine would stain copper powder they spread over canvases; and

Oxidation Painting with urine

  • Highly abstract works, such as paintings of Rorschach-style inkblot paintings and a fascinating image of DaVinci’s Last Supper overlaid with green- and black-painted, military-style camouflage.
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Although most of Warhol works were his own, he, through programs at The Factory, also encouraged and helped other, less recognized, aspiring artists. He took a particular interest in the then growing number of street artists, helping to nurture, champion the work of, and even co-create paintings with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Herring and others.

Jean Michel Basquait and Andy Warhol 01

All through his career, and especially after he was seriously wounded by a a feminist author who felt that Warhol did not give her due, he took a few years off painting to focus on producing photos, hundreds of home-style movies, more formalized videos and even television programs, such as “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes” variety show. A number of these are available for viewing in another section of the museum.

Warhol the Illustrator

Another separate part of the exhibition, which is presented almost as an afterthought, could well serve as its introduction. This brief section, which traced the beginning of Warhol’s career as a commercial illustrator where he worked largely on ads for commercial, and especially for fashion products. His growing recognition as a talented commercial artist also led to a commission to create the promotional drawings for an advertising campaign around a CBS series on drug use In America, a topic in which he was to have considerable personal experience.

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Buoyed by his early success, he began applying some of the images and commercial artistic techniques, such as the use of fading, ink-blotting, image reproduction and stenciling, into some of his first forays into “Fine Art”. This is particularly evident in one of his first series of images of fashionable, women’s high-heeled shoes.

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However, while he would return to commercial imagery and artistic techniques through most of the rest of his career, the initial “Pop Art” focus that helped turned him into a celebrity and one of the most bankable of all living artists, only lasted for a couple of years. His fame and success fueled his latent fascination with celebrity, power and glamour and provided the entrée to the celebrities around which he would build the next stages of his career.

This work led to a greater focus on expressing the underlying identity and emotions of his subjects and led to deeper, more layered imagery and darker, more introspective themes—not to speak of the gender identity issues—explored in his much darker portraits of occupants of sub-cultures of the then underground LGBT community, in the macabre depictions of violence and death and ultimately in his late-career abstraction phase. The primary mid-to-late career detours from these efforts came in the many portrait commissions that he accepted as his artistic popularity faded and as he needed money to fund operations of The Factory and his own darker, less popular works.

A very interesting exhibit. If it comes to your area, we suggest you check it out.

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