“Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years“ : A Bad Taste In My Mouth
“Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years“
Metropolitan Museum of Art
[Curators: Mark Rosenthal, Marla Prather, Ian Alteveer, and Rebecca Lowery]
I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning. – Warhol
To say that Warhol had a tremendous impact on the art world would be a fucking understatement. Delving into the obscure plasticity and fleeting nature of cultural consumerism, and building on the similar investigations of DADA, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Warhol manufactured his own lexicon that revolutionized the way in which we interact with Art and even consumerist culture. Conversely, although Warhol’s influence has continued for about five decades, there arguably hasn’t been an exhibition that has effectively presented his work in a manner that has outlined his artistic voyage and his influence on the contemporary arts. While the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh exists, many believe that the museum has yet to generate a show that elaborates on Warhol’s indisputable influence on commerce, photography, multiplicity, and modern culture.
Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, now on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, was aimed at linking common threads between artists who in various ways had unique relationships, direct or otherwise, with the late Art phenomenon. Some artists included in the show were Matthew Barney, Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close, John Baldessari, Damien Hirst, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons, Andreas Gursky, and other equally renowned artistic heavyweights. Although presented in a linear manner with some connecting ties, the show was an overall disappointment. Curators Marla Prather and guest curator Mark Rosenthal, in their defense, tried to create a dialogue that would juxtapose various artists and inform an audience of the shift in art practice and theory that Warhol generated. However, that dialogue was nothing short of a successful failure.
In a world where it is now nearly impossible to separate big business and politics from certain institutions of art, Regarding Warhol was problematic in that the show’s transparency was astounding. Nevertheless, because of Warhol’s influence, the business and consumerism behind the arts as well as political ploys and celebrity play well into the discussion of the Warholian influence. For although the exhibition lacked a great deal of depth, the way the work was presented embodied a quaint superficial Warholian existence. However, anyone who has studied Warhol would know that there was always more to Andrew Warhola then the obvious face value.
Museum, business, and cultural politics come into play in various ways with this exhibition. In 2008, Philippe de Montebello retired as the Met’s director, and has since been succeeded by Thomas P. Campbell. Now although Campbell is in no way related to one of the exhibition’s largest sponsors, Campbell Soup Company, that should still raise some eyebrows as to whether or not the show was an actual exhibition honoring Warhol’s influence, or a business tactic coordinated between the Met and Campbell’s Soup. Coincidentally [or not], before the exhibition went on view, Campbell’s Soup planned to release, once again, limited edition tomato soup cans through another partnership, this time with Target department stores in honor of Warhol’s original piece, 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962 and it’s 50th anniversary. This obviously transparent marketing scheme could have been overlooked had the actual exhibition contained some substance beyond the presentation of obvious Art stars and the banality we are all too familiar with. However, wouldn’t the best way to present work that dealt with commerce, marketing, and the banal be to actually engage in the business Warhol became all too familiar with? One would think so, however this tactic backfired.
According to Lance Esplund at Bloomberg, this exhibition was merely a power play by the Met to celebrate the artist as an opportunist as well as display works solely based on appropriation. Was the institution operating as an opportunist as well? Additionally, after sifting through the countless bad reviews of the show, one realizes that its a shame that the museum missed such an opportunity to really engage in what Warhol brought to the business of art far beyond the banal. Reflecting on certain instances where cooperate machines have taken over culture, a dialogue around the shift in consumerism, humanity, and the constituents of art would have been more fitting.
The show still had some great moments however.
Broken down into five main sections, Daily News: From Banality to Disaster; Portraiture: Celebrity and Power; Queer Studies: Shifting Identities; Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality; and No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle, the show went through many of the overarching themes of Warhol’s work and legacy, such as celebrity, multiplicity, artist as business, and the complexities of first world consumer identity.
The space is utilized in a way that incorporates various artists’ work along side Warhol’s to somewhat try and explain his way of thinking, working, and how that has had an impact others. After greeting a screen-printed diptych of Warhol’s mug, the viewer jumps right into familiarity. The first section of the show, Daily News: From Banality to Disaster, continues the famous Duchampian conversation where the everyday is appropriated. Emphasizing Warhol’s ability to be inspired by the most mundane of things, concepts and objects presented reflected that of consumerist culture, the pivotal focus of the Pop movement.
Arguably, after every period of war, America has had an economic boom that resulted in more consumers spending and an emphasis on product versus content. This dismal reality of consumerist culture created atmospheres of superficial commodity and high production. With heightened marketing tactics to reflect demand and economic wealth, obviously culture at the time would be challenged by this.
This section of the show gives the viewer the iconic soup cans, Brillo boxes, and an introduction into kitsch. One of the first things visitors notice are the fact that any one of the various works of art in the exhibition had to ability to be reorganized in so many different ways. Either the curators wanted to push the audiences way of organizing Warhol, or they basically placed work in the first category that came to mind. This is where the organization begins to fall apart, and the audience begins to see the show for what is really was, a clusterfuck of ideas and lack of direction. Although, a very strong piece from the first section was Jeff Koons’ Ushering in Banality,1988, demonstrated the true legacy Warhol left behind: the ability to express modern consumerist kitsch culture as art.
Making your way into the second section, Portraiture: Celebrity and Power, the audience is able to see the iconic Marilyn diptychs and prints, as well as other portraits of celebrities such as Jackie O and Elvis Presley. With Warhol’s obsessive nature around the subject of plasticity, celebrity, and the idol, it was strange that this section did not entertain a more enlightening discourse. It was common knowledge that Warhol began to take commissioned projects, and many of these portraits were nothing but that, portraits. Other artists such as Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and Glenn Ligon also were exhibited with their various interpretations of celebrity portraiture. However there were no indications of specific narratives the curators wanted you to follow. Glenn Ligon’s, Malcolm X (small version), 2001 piece next to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Fidel Castro, 2001 was such a shallow connection, it was almost not worth mentioning. This section also contained some of Cindy Sherman’s famous Untitled color film series, but why they were there other than the obvious nature of her work through the appropriation of cinematic female characters, leaves one desperate for explanations. Also eerily missing from this section, let alone this exhibition was David LaChapelle. This section would have been a great section to elaborate on the influence Warhol had on LaChapelle, and how this relationship in turn helped transform fashion, celebrity, and editorial photography with the help of other players such as Guy Bourdin, and Jean Paul Goude. Warhol’s creation, Interview magazine would launch a young LaChapelle into his own celebrity status. That was a great opportunity missed. It would have also be great to see Alice Neel’s portrait of Warhol, where he a celebrity in his own right was depicted at an extremely vulnerable state in his life. His obsession with perfection in his life and work would be challenged by Neel’s interpretation of a man suffering in the limelight. Even just that piece would have changed the show.
The third section, Queer Studies: Shifting Identities, was the point of the exhibition where things started to look up. Spanning from the 1960s to the 1980s, Warhol was one of many pioneers of the queer identity, even prior to the 1969 Stonewall riots. Although this section had a more focused narrative and objective, more artists could have been included in this section. The main highlights were some of the Mapplethorpe prints and Kalup Linzy video. This section could have been more aggressive in terms of identity politics, sexuality, and controversy. A majority of Mapplethorpe’s work including Self-Portrait with Bullwhip, Warhol’s Blow Job, some work by Keith Haring, and even some portraits of Grace Jones by Jean Paul Goude would have spiced this section up. Furthermore, the catalogue of the show discusses Warhol’s relationship with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Warhol was questioning why two artists that he respected had difficulty accepting him. His openness about his sexuality, some believed, was what made Johns and Rauschenberg somewhat weary for they continued to be closeted a majority of their careers.
Understandably, the demographics of Metropolitan visitors comes into question, but as far as identity transgression and political representation goes this section should have really taken a more aggressive approach.
Another problematic factor was to ease at which the exhibition overlooked Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat’s relationship with Warhol was such an important highlight in Art History; one would have to question the curators’ research or interest in different historical narratives. Race could have been a great concept to integrate in the show, instead they chose some politically charged pieces and supplied no context. Many argue that during his time, Basquiat was becoming such a force of the Art World that Warhol connected with him to not let the focus shift. By validating Basquiat, Warhol helped escalate his career in a way that would cause many historians of the African Diaspora to question Warhol’s intentions. Considering the fact that Warhol dealt with identity politics, whether he wanted to or not, the exhibition didn’t leave room for artists inspired by Warhol who appropriate modern and consumer culture to deal with tough subject matter. Artists like Hank Willis Thomas, Renee Cox, Leigh Bowery, and Mariko Mori come to mind. This would have been a great point of transition between Shifting Identities and the next section, Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality. Warhol watched the world usher in a new phenomenon that questioned authenticity and the purchasing power of identity. Ryan Trecartin fits very well in the junction of these two ideas of consumption and identity. In terms of appropriation, one particular work stuck out: Betye Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972. This was such a strong piece to be included in a show with absolutely no context or explanation as to why it was selected. Appropriation of imagery that already exists in culture, and introducing that into artistic dialogues may have been something the exhibition came close to.
The final section No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle, aside from the presence of the new Warhol, Murakami, became an instant let down. Murakami is such a phenomenal artist, the viewer would then realize that they would have rather gone to a Murakami exhibit. Business has shaped the art world like any other field, and although not directly a result of Warhol, dealing with marketing forces and politics of investors really can complicate a show and ruin its intent.
Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art. - Warhol
Again, the show had some over all heavyweights and great pieces that anyone who has studied art should be already familiar with. However, what the curators lacked was focus, narrative, and context. Their objective to help give a summary of the Warholian influence was far from a success. On a positive note, there was room left to remove a chunk of irrelevant artists, and incorporate more historically striking pieces. Some pieces referenced in the catalogue yet not included in the show, such as Shepard Fairey’s Obama Collage, and even Pop music visual representation in the forms of Lady Gaga, Madonna, and the like could have been referenced in some way. Warhol is alive more than ever in contemporary culture, and if Pop is dead, Warhol sure as hell isn’t.