11:33 am Sep. 19, 2012
Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's survey of Warhol’s work and its influence on the past half-century of art, occasionally feels like a hall of rigged carnival mirrors: everywhere you look, you are supposed to see Andy.
That, of course, is one meaning of the “regarding” in the show’s title: we are asked to gaze at Warhol-influenced work after Warhol-influenced work and consider his legacy. But it is tempting too, at least initially, if ultimately erroneously, to take the title as a kind of challenge or question. Beyond the invitation to look, there is the possibility of interrogating, of interpreting, of re-investigating Warhol’s assumed place in the canon.
The exhibition brings together some hundred and fifty works, about a third of them by Warhol, the rest by a selection of 59 other artists: Warhol’s contemporaries, competitors, and inheritors. Divided among what the curators have termed “five broad themes,” the works are grouped by category: “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster,” which presents artists grappling with the increasingly omnipresent news cycle; “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power,” which brings together various depictions of the famous and the infamous; “Queer Studies: Shifting Identities,” a collection of erotically suggestive works, many with transgressive undertones; “Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality,” which somewhat redundantly concerns itself with the repetition of pop-culture images; and “No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle,” which literalizes Warhol’s pronouncements on the intersection of art and money and about his most famous declaration about those fleeting 15 minutes of fame. (This last category includes a monitor screening the first episode of "The Real World"—which, to be perfectly fair, does seem like art in relation to what became of the show and its spawn—as well as A Very Ozzy Christmas, an episode from the first season of "The Osbournes.")
Displayed in 12 galleries, the works occasionally seem cramped, as if the curators, running out of room and with too much material at hand, single-mindedly kept stuffing the walls. Because so much of the art is obstinately, even ruthlessly, colorful, and because so much of it loudly, even gaudily, announces some brand name or other commercial imagery, the exhibition can, at times, induce a feeling of claustrophobia. With all those logos, all those products, all those real and would-be-Warhols bearing down on the visitor, it’s not unlike walking through some upscale bazaar, hawkers hollering left and right, shiny goods beckoning from every sightline. It's an experience that can be, at moments, quite enjoyable, but also a little overwhelming in total and, finally, quite exhausting.
The relentless commercialism of the show’s vision does not help here. An obvious answer to the question why Warhol’s successors must be drawn, almost exclusively, from the ranks of the commercially successful might be that Warhol made an art of business and a business of art. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he cites his realization that “‘business’ was the best art” as a key moment in his artistic development and insists that “making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” It must thus follow that Warhol’s heirs would be those artists who’ve made good on the master’s vision of financial success.
But that answer is too pat, too complacent, even if, unfortunately, it appears to be the implicit thinking behind the exhibition’s roster, which resembles the slate at a contemporary art fair, adding up to too much glitz and glamour and too little genuine risk. Even the potentially subversive “Queer Studies” category is tamed by being constituted entirely of blockbusters like Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Richard Avedon, and David Hockney. This is not to suggest that these artists are not great, not worthy of our continued attention. Nor is it to claim that museumgoers have nothing to gain by contemplating their work. But it is to lament an opportunity lost.
That Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Richard Prince are all part of the trajectory Warhol helped identify, articulate, and define is hard to deny. Indeed, there is little—too little—to ponder by way of what binds Warhol and an artist like Kalup Linzy, the erstwhile James Franco collaborator, whose Conversations wit de Churen V: As da Art World Might Turn (2006), a 12-minute video in which Linzy, in the guise of his alter-ego Katonya, melo-dramatizes the demands of the art world; the whole thing reads like a clever but wholly logical update of Warhol’s Philosophy. (More on Linzy's live-performance contribution to the exhibition's opening weekend here.) Nor does it take a tremendous imaginative leap to link Warhol’s 1964 Brillo Soap Pads Boxes and Robert Gober’s 1989 Cat Litter. Even Ai Weiwei’s 2010 Neolithic Vase with Coca-Cola Logo, an actual Neolithic relic defaced—or is that beautified?—with the immediately recognizable soft-drink brand comes to seem obvious juxtaposed with soup cans.
All of which is to say that, in aggregate, Regarding Warhol seems more like a celebration of what we already know about Warhol's legacy than an investigation of what we might not have considered. Regarding Warhol and Warhol’s place comes to seem a one-dimensional affair. Many of the individual pieces in the show, including many by Warhol himself—the well-known but rarely-screened Empire State, say, or the Birmingham Race Riot screenprint, or Diamond Dust Joseph Beuys, a half-tribute to, half-grudge against the influential German artist—are not only fascinating to look at but have the potential to seriously impact the viewer. But they are rarely given the chance to resonate: packed too tightly among so many other art-world stars, the works don’t quite manage to talk to each other, to conduct a meaningful conversation about the development and the current state of the art world and the art market. Instead, they competitively preen for attention, as if the whole thing were some beauty pageant.
By the time you reach the final gallery, where Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper is set off by Silver Clouds, those floating metalized-polyester helium balloons, everything has started to blur. Warhol’s wallpaper blends with Murakimi’s Cosmos, which blends with Polly Apfelbaum’s rug (the aggressively magenta Pink Crush), which blends with Warhol’s Flowers silkscreens, and works that represent vastly different aesthetic, formal, and cultural concerns are flattened out and drained of contextual meaning or immediacy.
The Velvet Undergorund’s first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, produced by Warhol, plays overhead in that last room. When I was there, the song happened to be “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Lou Reed’s plaintive paean to his smack dealer, but, for a moment, it also seemed to be a kind of lament for what could have been: having reached the end, I was still waiting for Warhol to bring something new, to shed some new light.
Though Regarding Warhol showed that looking at Warhol and other big-name, big-dollar contemporary artists could certainly be great fun, that other mode of regarding, that sense of posing provocative questions, would have to wait for another time.
'Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years' is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through December 31, 2012.
Image credits, from top: 'Cow Wallpaper' and 'Self-Portrait,' by Andy Warhol, © 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS); 'Neolithic Vase with Coca-Cola Logo,' by Ai Weiwei, courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York; 'Black Star Press: Black Star, Black Press, Star,' by Kelley Walker © Kelley Walker. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; 'Liza Minnelli,' by Francesco Vezzoli © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome.
More by this author:
- Victorian time travelers McDermott & McGough fast-forward to 1967 in new exhibition
- Conspicuous consumption: Rob Walker takes his consumer critique into the art gallery