Andy Warhol: The Last Decade
Searching for the hidden depths in the deeply superficial
Published: December 22, 2010
Andy Warhol: The Last Decade
That’s a wealth of Jesuses. One hundred and twelve of them, to be exact. He looks the same in each image: head slightly tilted to the right, eyes cast downward, lips neither smiling nor frowning nor expressing any sort of emotion other than infinitely forgiving beatitude. It’s arguably one of the more familiar renderings of Jesus ever, and yet—yes, and yet.
There’s this nagging sense of something wholly and gloriously awkward about these Jesuses—instantly, that there’s so many of them. Arrayed in a mammoth horizontal rectangle 80 inches by 421 inches, four rows of 28 Jesus heads totals these 112 Jesuses, and standing there in front of a more than 35-foot-wide span of Jesuses is so . . . so . . .ineffably baffling and profoundly ordinary. It’s like the biggest photographer’s contact sheet ever, only no single image is circled in red waxy crayon with notes about how this one shot should be used for the promo photo. It’s like this gargantuan engraving plate to be used for making a bunch of fliers announcing Jesus’ upcoming tour, only nowhere does it advertise “one night only” and, really now, who could you possibly get to open for Jesus? It’s like somebody made this one image of Jesus his tiled desktop wallpaper and now has the coolest, grandest wide-screen monitor ever on which to kill zombies in Red Dead Redemption’s “Undead Nightmare.” This is Jesus as recycled mass-media image, Jesus as pop-culture regurgitated as a Kardashian, Jesus by way of mechanical reproduction.
And yet—still, and yet. The images themselves are both personal and removed. Jesus is outlined in safety-vest yellow against a black background, and the resulting grid feels a bit like a negative image. But Jesus is rendered with such care and thoughtfulness, economically referencing its source—because even though the image has been radically altered, it is unmistakably a cropped detail of Jesus as painted by Leonardo da Vinci for “The Last Supper” mural in the 15th century. And just as easily, the artist behind this array of Jesuses is equally recognizable.
Andy Warhol’s 1986 “Detail of the Last Supper (Christ 112 Times)” dates from one of the last commissions of his life, when Greek art dealer Alexandre Iolas asked Warhol to create works for Iolas’ Milan gallery opening, located near the Santa Maria delle Grazie that houses Leonardo’s fresco. Warhol’s response was to create mammoth silkscreen paintings inspired by da Vinci’s masterpiece. And as told in Andy Warhol: The Last Decade, which runs through Jan. 9, 2011, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Warhol made more than 100 “Last Supper”-inspired paintings during what turned out to be the last year of his life. This period represents one of the more prolific and creatively industrious eras in Warhol’s career, and Decade, organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, is the first U.S. museum exhibition to present this period of his output since he passed away Feb. 22, 1987, following gallbladder surgery.
And by the time you arrive in front of “Detail of the Last Supper (Christ 112 Times)” in Decade’s penultimate gallery, you may find yourself reconsidering Warhol’s art—in particular the dramatic bounty of paintings he created during this time. Decade includes approximately 50 pieces dating from 1978-’86; a few others from the BMA’s permanent collection can be found in the museum’s west wing of contemporary art, which closes for about a year Jan. 17, 2011 in preparation for the BMA’s $24 million renovation of its exhibition spaces for contemporary, American, and African art collections—and the breadth and scope of Warhol’s pursuits during this time overwhelms, if only because his output from this period are relatively little known. The exhibition is a revealing and compelling exploration of one of America’s and contemporary art’s most omnipresent brands, and seeing the unfamiliar products of somebody so prosaically familiar in both high- and low-culture is a little odd. Warhol works at auction have fetched record prices in recent years: In November 2009, his “200 One Dollar Bills” sold for $43.7 million, while this November an early black-and-white Coke bottled fetched $35 million. Warhol’s imagery is still forever tied to fame: Jay-Z used one of Warhol’s 1984 “Rorschach” pieces as the cover for his Decoded book of lyrics/memoirs. And these are just the newsworthy examples: Something Warhol is probably being printed on something plastic right this moment.
A re-evaluation of the hows and whys of that high/low world straddling is what this exhibition asks of the viewer. Warhol, the artist infamous for laconically celebrating the something in nothingness, appears to have spent his last decade searching for meaning in the very vocabulary and iconography that some people still find to be junky jokes. And yet, the man who so cheekily captured the fleeting nature of fame has remained indelibly part of popular culture for nearly a quarter-century since his death.
The years Decade documents form the only period in Warhol’s life for which some of us have any firsthand memory. People born at or after the time when he and Pop Art exploded American culture in the early to mid-’60s entered a culture that became decidedly Warholian. People who became teens and young adults during the ’70s really only have memories of Warhol the fame whore: the celebrity snapshots that appeared in magazines, the Love Boat appearance, paparazzi photos from Studio 54, that short-lived mishmash of a television program on MTV. This public face of Warhol can be found in the BMA inside the Lounge, a groovily decorated room that presents the era in time capsule form. A stretch of Warhol celebrity Polaroids—Farrah Fawcett, Truman Capote, Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, John Waters, etc.—lines one wall. Assorted beanbags are gathered in a corner for reclining upon while listening to music hits from the era on headphones (played on cassette tape). And an old-school small black box of a TV plays a loop of the 1985 pilot episode of Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes.
It’s shocking how dated the program feels. Warhol turned away from painting in the ’60s to make movies, rightly recognizing in commercial cinema a potential to reach a bigger audience than painting or fine art ever could, and his interest in television probably followed a similar line of reasoning. Warhol, though, was never particularly good at creating mainstream cinema—his movies are interesting for other reasons entirely, but Warhol’s movies don’t speak the same language as Steven Spielberg’s—and he was just as inept making TV. Fifteen Minutes is fascinating—interviews with then model Phoebe Cates at ages 16, 18, and 22; a visit to amateur night at the Apollo Theater; a kinda/sorta look at then-hot fashion designer Stephen Sprouse. The program almost becomes a TV cultural news-magazine program, but even by cable-access standards it’s pretty flimsy. Old-school Details magazines remain a better source for finding out what was going on in underground downtown New York in the ’80s.
The limited appeal of the TV program and his movies is worth pointing out not for hitting an easy target, but just to consider one of the typical complaints about Warhol. For an artist so synonymous with the commercial, with selling out, with the lowering of fine art—in short, with the populism that sometimes gets associated with the idea of “pop”—Warhol really sucked at it. He might have been good at recognizing how everyday, manufactured items spoke to the everyday, average American, but accessibility in the mainstream sense was never his strong suit. It takes a genuine effort and desire on the part of the consumer to sit through Sleep or Chelsea Girls, read his novel A or The Andy Warhol Diaries, or even leaf through ’70s copies of Interview, the magazine he created in 1969. You can tell right away that none of these items are for everybody.
A similar feeling runs through the mind when regarding his “Oxidation” paintings of 1978, for which Warhol and assistants treated canvases with metallic paints that they micturated on: The urine incited chemical reactions in the pigments that caused them to change color. Overall, the canvases have the coppery hue of new pennies, and where the urine hits the canvas it turns a mottled blue-green, a mossy, patina-like color. It’s a technique that feel like a stunt—the resulting imagery is unquestionably abstract, a vocabulary decidedly not made by hand—but the paintings themselves are rather striking. Does how they’re created add or detract from their aesthetic experience? It’s difficult to say: They’re so renowned as Warhol’s “piss paintings” that it’s hard to see them and not know how they were achieved. And therein lies the provocative streak running through Warhol’s works in this exhibition.
The man was a virtuoso at distorting the line between being able to discern what the artist did and what he didn’t, what was created by hand and what was mediated through mechanical means, what bore the imprimatur of the artist himself and what was merely the result of the assembly-line process of making the work. All went into creating Andy Warhol’s Pop Art in the ’60s, and all get somewhat tweaked, revisited, experimented with, inverted, and otherwise overhauled during the years documented by Decade, when Warhol made this impersonal gift often profoundly revealing.
The background storyline running throughout Decade is the long shadow of high-art, serious painting cast by Abstract Expressionism—and particularly Jackson Pollock—over Warhol’s career and psyche. The exhibition (and its accompanying catalog) suggests Warhol returned to abstraction after his portrait-happy ’70s to find his response to Ab-Ex, to see if he had grand, lyrical statements in his arsenal. What he discovered was something infinitely more intimate.
Decade moves fairly chronologically and thematically from 1978 to Warhol’s Last Supper paintings, but two specific series emphasize Warhol’s wit and experimentation of this era quite well. For the “Rorschach” and “Camouflage” paintings of the mid-’80s, Warhol discovered an abstract idiom that succinctly gelled with his appropriating enterprise. Warhol took the inkblot psychological tests created by Hermann Rorschach in the ’20s and turned them into monumental panels for this series. (The two in the exhibition eat up a single wall in the first gallery space, the canvases being vertical rectangles larger than 13 feet by 9 feet.) Formed simply—large sheets with acrylic poured onto them folded over to make a mirror image, much like a printing process—the pieces achieve a monolithic dazzle. The scale alone conveys this sense of importance—manly Ab-Ex artists worked large for size-matters reasons—and the designs themselves speak to more primal emotions. The black-on-gold 1984 “Rorschach” in the exhibition is arresting on first look, as if you’re looking at the designs that appear on the back of a giant bug.
Something about them, though, feels fragile and introspective. That bug’s design could merely be magnified to outer-space proportions when in reality it’s tiny, frail, and not nearly as intimidating. The lines in the design are these graceful, looping curlicues, and the acrylic doesn’t always transfer as intensely to one side of the canvas, so in some places the blotted lines are diffuse and hesitant. This “Rorschach” morphs from something towering to something tender as you take it in, and you slowly begin to remember just what Rorschach images are: by design, nonobjective shapes that prompt personal interpretations to diagnose thought disorders. You start to feel as if you’re looking at Warhol’s search to see something different in the way he makes art.
It’s a vulnerability echoed in the disarmingly pretty “Camouflage” paintings. For these acrylic and silkscreen paintings, Warhol took another ready-made design—the color patterns used by military dress to help soldiers blend into an environment—and accentuated the geometric compositions and color play involved. It’s a shrewd visual strategy: By the ’80s, camo patterns were as globally recognizable as Coke bottles, which Warhol riffed on by choosing colors that stand out, such as red, white, and blue or shades of lavender. It’s playfully political—the very idea of red, white, and blue camo given the United States’ continued military presence world-wide is a satirical commentary that just doesn’t get old (especially, as Keith Hartley points out in his essay in the exhibition’s catalog, “Anyone less militaristic than Warhol is hard to imagine”)—and coyly distancing at the same time. While achieved through Warhol’s familiar combination of silkscreen and acrylic, the patterns themselves don’t easily fit into any of Warhol’s vast vocabulary. With them he wittily finds a way to call attention to his compositional gifts—some of these paintings achieve a modernist lyricism—through visual patterns meant to conceal.
The tension encountered in the “Rorschach” and “Camouflage” paintings—a search for meaning, authorial invisibility—ricochets through Decade in revealing ways, and the works showcase a painter willing to go wherever the work wanted. In his collaborations with young, emerging neo-Expressionists in the ’80s the older Warhol showed the confidence to practically disappear in the rough ideas of his partners. “Untitled (50 Dentures),” a 1983 collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat, is the most instantly breathtaking painting in the exhibition. Restlessly messy, the large-scale work features gray acrylic running down the white panel like dirty water across a window. Kind of centered in the left-hand side of the work is a hand-drawn “50”; it faces a graffiti-like shape that morphs into a set of false teeth, the upper well defined and regular, the bottom looking those of a human scavenger. It’s a visceral, uncomfortable image that never settles down. If you’ve spent any time looking at Warhol and Basquiat you know who did what, but what they created here vibrates with a naked humanity and gritty vulnerability that neither explored with such intensity on his own.
That Warhol proves continually able to surprise is what makes reconsidering his staying power rather novel. If he was merely the first artist to recognize the art-world market value of superficial consumer culture, the omnipresence of his imagery would have diluted its power and interest long ago. But his work can still strike a nerve, and as witnessed in The Last Decade, his process revealed curiosities in an artist who claimed an interest in superficialities. Perhaps something about the way Warhol looked at the items and people he chose to immortalize has something to say about the prison house of fame, the isolation of popularity, the tyranny of perpetual irony. What that may be still feels to reside in a conflicted morass of ideas and responses stirred up by looking at his imagery—but look we do, again, again, and again returning to a body of work whose celebration of the surface of things is slowly starting to reveal its curious depths.
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