Regarding “Regarding Warhol”

It’s been Warhol Week here at the Abbeville blog, as we celebrate the publication of the e-book edition of Carter Ratcliff’s Warhol. Today we conclude with a few reflections on this year’s most high-profile Warhol exhibition.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current featured exhibition is called Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, and it is the talk of the season. Many of the featured names could be, or have been, the subjects of special Met exhibits in their own right. They include the famous living (Ai Weiwei, Chuck Close, Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons, David Hockney, Cindy Sherman) and the famous dead (Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Avedon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring), for multiple generations of artists now bear Andy’s stamp as plainly as if they were produced in his Factory. It’s a testament to the range and depth of his influence that the Met decided against a more intuitive title; “Fifty Artists, Fifty Years” would have left out too much.

In Abbeville’s Warhol, critic Carter Ratcliff argues that:

With Before & After any hint of satirical impulse [in Warhol's work] disappears forever. Nor is there any point in calling such art campy–a celebration of images so bad they eventually come to look good. Camp is satire in reverse, whereas Warhol refuses to take a point of view from which satirical gestures of any sort might be made. He is more like a still center, a mirror in front of which we and the entire culture strike our various attitudes.

The Met exhibition reminds us that this includes, first and foremost, the culture of art itself. Artists since Warhol have often seemed incapable of tearing themselves away from that mirror, or even of finding its blind spots.

From Warhol, Carter Ratcliff. Photograph by Christopher Makos.

Warhol’s work depended so heavily on restatement and repetition–on taking existing cultural icons and giving us more, and more, and more of them–that art too directly influenced by him risks seeming automatically exhausted, as if starting at a point beyond “ad nauseam.” Take the flashy and unabashedly commercial work of Jeff Koons. We might question whether, for example, his sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the Chimp really elaborates on the irony of Warhol’s garish Marilyns. On the other hand, art that intersects with Warhol’s work more obliquely can communicate a warmth that Warhol often does not. The “photorealistic” painter Chuck Close gives us faithful renditions of famous people, from Philip Glass to Bill Clinton, but the painstaking nature of his method conveys the raptness–the loving literalism–at the heart of Warholian stargazing.

It’s easy now to forget how unlikely Warhol’s dominance would have seemed before Warhol. In the years preceding Pop Art, the Abstract Expressionism of Pollock and Gorky and de Kooning ruled the New York art scene, which since World War II had rapidly become the center of the world art scene. Backed by such powerhouse critics as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, the movement inspired an intellectual zeal commensurate with its intense, almost High Romantic emotional urgency. Pop Art traded that passion for an absolute cool, a multilayered irony that the critical old guard resisted at first but that came to define postmodernism.

Now Andy is the establishment, for better or for worse. Blake Gopnik of The Daily Beast believes that the Met exhibition “makes Warhol look like an old master, in the mode of a Titian or Rubens, whereas he was all about breaking that mold.” But perhaps Gopnik is fighting the inevitable. As the show demonstrates, Warhol’s ideas have been considered au courant for five decades and counting. Can they really stay that way forever? If Andy gave us the images we already loved, why can’t a museum give us the Andy we already love? Treating him not as perpetually hip but as classically square–his followers disciples, his soup cans solemn icons like Titian’s Venus: might this not be a final irony the privately religious Warhol would have loved?

You can judge for yourself by visiting Regarding Warhol between now and December 31, and find out what other patrons have to say by visiting the Regarding Warhol Facebook page.

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