“Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Whatever else you can say about it, Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years provides confirmation of a literary adage. Until recently, the aphorism “Art is what you can get away with” had merely been attributed to the Pittsburgh-born artist Andrej Varchola Jr., better known to the world as Andy Warhol (1928–1987). The quote has served as a neat marker of Warhol’s bemused detachment and artistic achievement. For observers not inclined to applaud Warhol’s iterations of celebrity culture and Madison Avenue bromides, the statement is a self-aware petard on which the artist’s platinum wig can be hoisted. Woe should the maxim prove an invention! But it is, in the end, Warhol’s and Warhol’s alone. This fact comes courtesy of, not the organizers of Regarding Warhol or some-or-other historian out to establish his Pop Art bona fides, but rather, the museum’s gift shop. That’s where you’ll find block prints emblazoned with the quote, complete with a background reproduction of a Warhol silkscreen. This feat of scholarship will set you back anywhere from ten to two hundred dollars.

Warhol would have relished the irony. He doubtlessly would have admired the other merchandise available for purchase: the books, the postcards, the coffee mugs, the calendars, scarves, and candy bars. Yes, candy bars; the wrappers of which are emblazoned with Warhol self-portraits and additional aphorisms. (“All I ever really want is sugar” being, in this case, the most fitting.) Warhol may have cast a puzzled eye at the skateboards emblazoned with his signature iconography, if only because skateboarding had yet to become a sizable subculture during his lifetime. But Warhol would have recognized his aesthetic in unapologetic full bloom. He was, after all, an entrepreneur par excellence. “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” But would Warhol recognize the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is currently giving his work a berth previously set aside for ancient Egypt, Byzantine reliquaries, fifteenth-century Prague, Renaissance tapestries, and seventeenth-century Delft?

     

Eminences All:  Andy Warhol, Charlie Chaplin and Louis Armstrong

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Not that the Met is equating Twenty Marilyns (1962), Warhol’s Day-Glo homage to the dead movie bombshell, with the glories of Byzantium. Museological real estate doesn’t translate into artistic parity. Or does it? The verbiage surrounding Regarding Warhol might lead you to think otherwise. The curator Mark Rosenthal posits Warhol as an artist of “profound psychological depth,” a “revolutionary” who “encouraged the embrace of all possibilities for uninhibited cross-fertilization and hybrid creations.” The exhibition catalogue is replete with far-reaching plaudits, many from artists whose art can be traced directly to Warhol’s example. Did you know that the perpetually aloof painter of Brillo boxes, car crashes, and Chairman Mao is a twentieth-century eminence on the scale of Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, and Ernest Hemingway? “I think [Warhol is] absolutely a giant,” writes Julian Schnabel. “There’s something at the bottom of all of his work,” the cinema auteur and serial plate smasher continues, “that is absolutely heartbreaking.”

Schnabel’s right, but not for the reasons he thinks. Warhol is a giant . . . of marketing. As a painter, printmaker, draftsman, photographer, and filmmaker—you know, as an artist—Warhol is, at best, a curiosity. As with Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí, the artists from whom he gleaned lessons in strategy and PR, Warhol’s influence is more consequential than his achievement. He did possess artistic knowhow for layout, color, and recognizing the hypnotic power that could be elicited from repetition and pattern. For line, too: anyone familiar with the shoe drawings Warhol created as a commercial illustrator in the 1950s can attest to their period charm. But Warhol is less an artist than a phenomenon—a cultural tsunami that poached upon the prestige afforded by art while simultaneously undermining its principles. Having your Campbell’s soup and eating it, too—that’s the rule Warhol imparted. The consequences of this legacy have been broad and numbing. “The Warhol Effect,” it’s called and it’s endless.

Video Art: Ozzy Osbourne and Family

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Regarding Warhol  is a sprawling, unwieldy exhibition. Though the entire oeuvre is glanced upon, it’s not a retrospective per se, but an overview of Warhol’s impact on contemporary art. Peppered in between forty-five Warhol masterworks are one hundred paintings, drawings, prints, videos, and sculptures by a who’s who of blue chip art stars: John Baldessari, Gerhard Richter, Gilbert & George, Matthew Barney, Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Avedon, Richard Prince, and Sigmar Polke. The work of Jeff Koons is seen in abundance, and why not? Few artists have exploited Warhol’s pro-capitalist ethos with as much cynicism and chutzpah. Also included is the cartoon-based imagery of Takashi Murakami, whose international art industry makes the Factory, Warhol’s famed Union Square studio, look rinky-dink in comparison. (The Factory is partially recreated toward the end of Regarding Warhol.) Snippets of reality TV shows are available for viewing—Warhol’s movies having cleared the way, apparently, for The Osbournes. The concluding chapter of the catalogue is an accounting of Warhol-influenced artists not included in the exhibition.

Regarding Warhol is divided into five thematic 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.” That the Metropolitan Museum has seen fit to codify a laundry list of politically correct nostrums says much about the utter irrelevance of Postmodernism as an artistic force. A movement that predicates itself on the anti-aesthetic is, by definition, invalidated when given the stamp of approval from an institution dedicated to the preservation of High Art. What we’re left with is a glib array of politicized attitudes buffed to a glossy sheen. These are sometimes clever, often pretentious, and invariably smug. They are, above all, indecipherable without accompanying wall texts. Visitors to Regarding Warhol spend more time reading than looking. Given the paucity of visual interest (forget visual pleasure), can you blame them? So much art, yet nothing to see.

Hans Haacke, Taking Stock (unfinished) (1983-1984), acrylic on canvas with artist’s frame, 95″ x 81″ x 7″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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But stuff—well, there’s a lot of that to contend with. Cady Noland fills an aluminum basket with the leftovers from an automobile repair shop; elsewhere, she drills bullet holes into an aluminum cutout of Lee Harvey Oswald. Damien Hirst—can’t have an overview of contemporary art without this diamond-encrusted huckster, can we?—provides a simulacrum of a pharmacy display case. The reliably didactic Hans Haacke is represented with slams against the late North Carolina senator Jesse Helms—Helmsboro Country (1990) is an over-sized package of cigarettes—and Margaret Thatcher. Robert Gober prints a musical score on a wax effigy buttocks—complete with human hair. In this context, the art school primitivism of Jean-Michel Basquiat and tepid stylization of Alex Katz come as a relief. Matisse is also on view, though not in the exhibition proper. Take a minute and watch a snippet of the reality show featuring Ozzy Osbourne and his family—there look to be Matisse drawings hanging in their living room. The heavy metal rocker has good taste in art. Who knew?

Regarding Warhol is a veritable obstacle course of knee-high metal bars. Given the preponderance of guardrails, you’d think the organizers were worried about viewers wanting to nose up to, say, Keith Haring’s graffitied poster of Elvis Presley or the wan celebrity portraiture of Karen Kliminik and Elizabeth Peyton—as if their surfaces somehow redeemed each artist’s sticky adolescent nostalgia. But material sensuality is beyond the ken of these artists. They’re too besotted with the slick calculations of mass media and divorced from the possibilities of hands-on media. Notwithstanding the recurring emphasis on sexuality and its “shifts,” artists working in the Warholian tradition are a fairly puritanical bunch. Materials and processes are employed only to the extent that they illustrate a theory. This is a generation of artists for whom materials are objects of distrust—impediments to vision rather than agents in shaping it. No wonder, then, that many of the objects on display are either factory-made or amateurish in execution. The humanity implicit in touch is either denied or deemed pathetic. This is the coldest Met show on record.

Andy Warhol, Brillo Soap Pads Box (1964), silkscreen and enamel on plywood, 17″ x 17″ x 14″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Then again, there are those who might argue that it’s also the brainiest. Arthur Danto, the art critic for The Nation and a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, famously posited Warhol as a fellow deep thinker, a “transformative” figure whose silk- screened imitations of Brillo boxes brought about “the end of art”—the “end” being the beginning of “our post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes.” Danto and Rosenthal rather welcome this sea of change, not least because it affords promiscuous conjecturing independent of the objects under consideration. As history has proven, Warhol’s noncommittal ironies accept any sort of claptrap thrown at them. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to—and a lot of people aren’t. Rounding the corner of the exhibition’s second gallery, I came across a trio of museumgoers standing in front of Brillo Soap Pads Boxes (1964). Actively discussing Warhol and his role in shaping culture, the most voluble of the three remarked that Warhol “was smarter than most people suppose, but not as smart as a lot of people would like us to think.”

Artists who’ve picked up Warhol’s ball don’t run with it so much as run in place. Tweaking the extra-aesthetic can’t obscure a poverty of invention; certainly, it adds nothing to the development of art. Barbara Kruger channels Madison Avenue in the cause of anti-capitalism, Cindy Sherman pimps the Old Masters as a commentary on identity, and Ryan Trecartin, whose manic videos are located toward the end of Regarding Warhol, explores the furthest reaches of self-indulgence because—well, because he can. But all these artists really do is confirm their own lack of imagination. (Confirmation of their nihilism being a foregone conclusion.) Warhol insisted on his own superficiality. Duchamp, whose presence hovers over the proceedings, couldn’t, in the end, stomach “the easy way out” of neo-Dadaism. Thumbing one’s nose is a formula whose frisson is as tired as it is guaranteed. Regarding Warhol is an essay in stasis.

Gavin MacLeod and Andy Warhol in a publicity shot for Love Boat

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That Warhol opened the floodgates for any number of art school navel-gazers, over-intellectualized gadflies, and celebrity-smitten ideologues will come as no surprise to even the most cursory observer of the art scene. When Rosenthal opens his essay by declaring that Warhol “gave permission [for artists] to do virtually anything in the name of art,” you can’t help but think that the curator doth cheerlead too much. How deeply does Rosenthal believes  his own guff ? Arguing that Warhol is a sociological “beacon”’—that he had anything profound to say about mass media, gay rights, and (say what?) the evolution of abstract painting—is to trade in arrant hyperbole. Rosenthal twists himself into knots trying to convince himself that vapidity wasn’t the artist’s true métier or his most damning limitation. Movie stars, newspaper advertisements, and processed food provided this working-class son of Slovakian immigrants readymade pegs on which to hang vaguely formed notions of democratic culture. A distinctly American figure, Warhol had nothing profound to say about American life. There’s a difference between elaborating upon a subject and succumbing to its excesses. Alexis de Tocqueville, Warhol ain’t.

Warhol was a willing and eager accomplice to the most callow tendencies in American culture. Which isn’t to say he didn’t know the lay of the land, particularly when it came to currying favor from the rich, famous, and powerful. Notwithstanding the “oh wow” trappings of his deadpan public persona, Warhol was a shrewd operator. Anyone who can navigate downtown bohemia and the Upper East Side with nary a false step knows how to please most people—the right people—most of the time. The art may have initially held up a mirror to the mundane (Dr. Scholl’s foot remedies, for instance) and the glamorous (Monroe again, but also Jackie O. and Marlon Brando), but it soon evolved into the most obsequious form of flattery. Expensive, too. Warhol became a sought-after portraitist by a clientele whose wealth and social standing didn’t prevent them from recognizing the cachet afforded by a mere whiff of the outré. In 1969, Warhol began publishing Interview magazine, in which celebrities were lionized with panting adulation. Andy The Brand became ubiquitous; he seemed to be everywhere, including as a passenger on Love Boat, a 1970s TV sitcom. “How does an artist know when a painting is really successful?” a character asks Warhol-as-Warhol. “When the check clears,” answers the artist. The laugh track responds appreciatively.

Separated At Birth?: Rembrandt van Rijn and Andrej Varchola, Jr.; both images courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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But no one’s laughing now. There’s too much money involved. At auction, Warhol’s paintings have garnered staggering amounts of money—absurd amounts of money, really. A work-on-paper, the low medium on the pricing totem pole, could set you back $4 million. In 2005, Christie’s sold a Warhol painting for close to $72 million. This tendency could change. The Andy Warhol Foundation announced the divestiture of its remaining Warhol inventory—twenty thousand pieces that have an estimated worth of $100 million. This move may well devalue the Warhol stock. Alberto Mugrabi, a collector whose family owns a whopping 800 Warhols, was outraged: The Foundation has “a great product, and they’re pushing it out into the market like cattle.” Be that as it may, the Foundation calculated its decision with timing that would have made Warhol envious. It came just as the Met was opening the doors to its “innovative presentation” of his art.

The Foundation, in other words, knows the value of having “a great product” associated with an institution renowned for its august character, its encyclopedic scope, and its Rembrandts. Placing a figure renowned for unrelenting blandness within a stone’s throw of a painter who is nothing if not a benchmark of quality is a smashing career move. Business is the best art and so is ensuring its ongoing viability. But what kind of business do museums conduct? The preservation of culture, ostensibly; separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Of course, we’ve reached a stage where the “gate” takes precedence over artistic merit. Today’s mega-museums have wholeheartedly embraced the shopping mall aesthetic. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been, if not entirely innocent of commercial calculations, then cognizant and proud of its role in maintaining the highest standards. Regarding Warhol is something new for our greatest museum—a capitulation to market forces and mass culture that doesn’t think twice about how mendacious, crass, and ugly it is. Rembrandt will always be Rembrandt; his integrity is fixed and true. But the Met’s integrity? Its fate remains to be seen.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 2012 edition of The New Criterion.

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