THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
No one will ever review Andy Warhol more harshly than Valerie Solanas. Solanas’s 1968 attempt on Warhol’s life was poetic in at least one way: though Warhol was her main target, she also managed to shoot an art critic.
The would-be assassination is a dividing line in the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” the first big Warhol retrospective in the U.S. since 1989. Warhol, who was declared dead on the operating table of Columbus Hospital, survived the attack but was left physically and psychologically scarred for the remainder of his life. His practice would never be the same. Solanas, however, remains something of a mystery in this show—nothing more than a pair of bulging, wide-set eyes beneath a tabloid headline (“ACTRESS SHOOTS ANDY WARHOL”).
Solanas’s rage is hard to reconcile with the Warhol we meet in “From A to B.” Warhol, we soon discover, was down with every woke piety of 2019—a friend of transwomen and, like a more politically palatable R. Crumb, a prolific scribbler of fetish pics (in his case, drawings of male feet). Yet Solanas, whose SCUM Manifesto argued men were only capable of producing “degenerate art,” evidently struck a chord among some of her radical feminist peers. Philosopher Ti-Grace Atkinson, who was criticized at the time for praising Solanas’s actions, explained her thinking in an interview decades later:
“When I heard that Valerie had shot Warhol, and she had said something like, "He had too much control of my life," the first thing I thought was "Warhol is not exactly the exemplar you'd choose for male supremacy." I knew he was asexual [sic] so it wasn't some personal relationship, and the NY Times presented it as if it was somehow connected with feminism. This was right after a big piece on feminism, so everybody was aware of this anger building. All I saw was she had shot Warhol, and I knew he was exploitative. Some woman had done something appropriate to the feelings we were all having. She was fighting back. That’s what it felt like.” 1
Solanas might have been crazy, but by the standards of 1968, she was almost sane. And Atkinson has a point: Warhol clearly was exploitative. In fact, the exploitative dimension of his work may be key to his particular genius.
“From A to B” is more convincing when it links Warhol to one of our foremost contemporary narcissisms—namely, our collective submersion in social media. Andy was almost right when he predicted that everyone in the future would have fifteen minutes of fame. It’s just that Twitter moves on in more like five.
Entering the exhibition, we pass the black-and-white video Factory Diary: Andy on the Phone. This Warhol—childlike, image-obsessed, and compulsively consumable—feels like a forerunner of today’s Instagram influencers. Like Andy, many of us are engaged in the mass production of ourselves. Unlike Andy, few of us are canny enough to profit from it. More prosaically, the placement of Factory Diary could also refer to Andy’s peerless skills as a networker. In any event, it works. Warhol was wise enough not to say too much, so we can read it any way we want.
Warhol’s early commercial illustrations are also instructive, particularly when encountered alongside his later work. Expressive, superficially intimate, and seemingly personal, the sketches ultimately register as derivative and unchallenging. For all their verve and wit, they are totally in step with American popular culture and advertising at mid-century. Ironically, it was through direct but imperfect replication that Warhol revealed himself as a brilliant original and vaulted into the pantheon of Great Art—at least for now.
Just as the Green Bay Packers have become America’s Team, Andy Warhol has become America’s Artist. He achieved this coveted status by portraying America to itself in big, blunt images. Gun, for example, hangs near Cross, which in turn hangs near two Hammer and Sickle paintings. Nothing about this is particularly subtle. That’s fine—Americans aren’t into subtlety.
Andy Warhol, Gun, 1981-82. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Of course, it’s been more than thirty years since Andy Warhol died—and Americans move on quickly. Why, then, is he still America’s Artist? Well, for one thing, because he still packs ’em in.
The joyful, hateful, spectacle-seeking American public was particularly thick and hearty in the “Portraits” room. They’d come from every walk of life—these retirees, businesspeople, parents pushing strollers, sullen teens, and, at one point, a whole squad of soldiers on leave. Above them, a portrait of Iranian autocrat Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who hosted Warhol in Tehran in 1976, hung near images of Man Ray and Liza Minelli. How many of the viewers stopped to ponder the ethics of Warhol’s portraiture? The answer is, who cares? Celebrity is its own justification.
Perhaps it’s best not to think too hard about the politics of an exhibition cosponsored by controversial hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin. (Griffin, incidentally, is becoming the Michael Bloomberg of Chicago museum workers; any number of so-called progressives will suddenly abandon their values to go work for him). Warhol’s tarted up Mao hangs near a ghoulish Nixon (Vote McGovern). Do Warhol’s pieces express a coherent political stance? If you think they do, you misunderstand Saint Andy, who genuflected to fame and fame alone. Are Mao or Vote McGovern particularly dangerous? Maybe once upon a time. Today, not so much.
Indeed, many pieces in the exhibition elicit a markedly different response today than they might have sixty years ago. Brillo Boxes, for example, plays off a commercial design that would once have been ubiquitous. Today, however, it looks antiquated; the shock of familiarity has faded. In the big picture, however, Warhol’s obsession with consumer ephemera has not ceased to be relevant. In fact, Americans find it so hard to part with their stuff that they turn to the likes of Marie Kondo for Shinto lite decluttering advice. (Unsurprisingly, Warhol himself was a hoarder).
The experiential core of “From A to B” is a small, darkened screening room for Warhol’s films. While some of his pieces have lost their immediacy, his movies remain agelessly transgressive—in part because of their, yes, baldly exploitative nature. It isn’t easy watching Factory Girl and heiress Edie Sedgwick struggle to maintain a neutral facial expression for minutes on end. (Thankfully, the giggling security guards outside the screening room cut the tension). It feels like a boundary violation. Here again, Warhol proved to be a prophet of the social media epoch.
“From A to B” is not entirely dishonest in updating Warhol for 2019. It is, however, more truthful and interesting when it shows us how he remains difficult.
"Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again" is on view through January 26, 2020 at the Art Insititute of Chicago.
1 Breanne Fahs, “Ti-Grace Atkinson and the Legacy of Radical Feminism,” Feminist Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3, Feminist Histories and Institutional Practices (Fall 2011), pp. 576.
Andy Warhol, Mao, 1972. The Art Institute of Chicago. © 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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