Despite my usual aversion to anything Warholian, as well as the ridiculously cold weather in New York, I ventured to the Morgan Library to check out their new exhibition, “Warhol: By the Book,” during its opening week. I should start by explaining my antipathy towards Warhol’s work. He is popular, has excellent market value, and is well known and generally well liked by the general public. It could just be snobbery on my part; a desire (not unheard of or particularly uncommon) to like less commercially popular art, to show refinement and taste on my part…it’s not really that (well, maybe just a little bit). It’s more that by the end of his career Andy Warhol stopped changing. He created art that he knew would sell, art that the people liked but that he had been producing for the past decade or so. He became really famous on the NY art scene in the 1960s and remained so through the 80s and has continued to hold a strong place in the market, academia, and popular media long after his death. The work that he is most well know for – the silkscreen paintings repeating the faces of celebrities, horrific scenes already multiplied in the media, and every day objects like Campbell’s soup cans – are what I am bored by…and that is really the problem for me, his work usually bores me. It was incredibly relevant at the time and I do not dispute Warhol’s key role in changing art culture. He held a mirror to American society: our obsession with celebrity, the icon status of daily objects, the relevance of low art as high art, the ridiculous falsehood of elevating art (especially when it is so often created by the young, destitute, and radical) to something elite and untouchable. I feel, though, like he could have taken it farther, and more importantly, the artists who claim to follow in his footsteps (Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, etc) do not seem to care to take it any farther either. However, upon closer inspection, many of his later endeavors that are less well known, his bookmaking and film experiments, are following a different path along the same line of thought. Despite this, many Warhol exhibitions are designed to be blockbuster crowd-pleasers. They bring a lot of foot traffic and people interested in seeing in person the works they see reproduced so often on the Internet and on bric-a-brac, not to mention works that bring such unimaginable sums of money on the market. I find these shows more disappointing and boring than Warhol’s artwork, and it is perhaps for this reason more than any other that I often noticeably scoff at the mention of his name.
Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise that this small, unassuming show concerning one of the top grossing and most well-known artists of the twentieth century featured only a few of his well know images (among them two colorful Marilyn portraits along the far wall). Otherwise, it featured and focused on his bookmaking and small-scale ventures from the early part of his career, before his name and face became a matter of course on New York’s fashion, club, and art scene. These works, at times sketch-like and often personal, give a unique view into the often closed mind and heart of a notoriously “created” artist; a man more known for his self made, self perpetuated persona than the person he actually was (for example, he changed his last name to Warhol from his given family name of Warhola, a name brought over from modern-day Slovakia by his working class, Pittsburgh-based parents). I often say that, for me, a good work of art will show you the true nature of an artist. What they choose to show in their art, as well as hide, is evident (if you know how to look for it) and revealing (of who they are, regardless of whether or not they intended to show it). That is why I appreciate sketches and unfinished works so much, they show a process and line of thought (or perhaps stream of consciousness): they are revelatory. These works, much more than the blockbuster pieces created in The Factory that we all know so well and which all end up looking the same, are different. They show interests, social anxieties, and obsessions (like his cat and shoes – especially interesting since his artistic career in New York began with fashion drawings for magazines, particularly of shoes). The peculiar relations between people, animals, and things – often couched in a childlike format with simple rhymes and colorful, cartoonish images – reveal more about Andy (which is itself a childish name, shortened from the much more adult Andrew) than I had expected. Not only this, but they show a level of skill (not for realism necessarily, but for originality, presentation, and creation) that I had feared was lost to the artist and the viewing public when his fame solidified his art and cemented it into the singular, marketable mold. Still recognizable as Warholian with their repetition, bright pop colors, and flippant play with social norms, taboos, and everyday acceptances, they still manage to minimalize his career-long obsession with the kitsch and everyday horrors into a more innocent format.
Warhol was interested throughout his career with mass producible and collaborative art. He experimented with printmaking in many ways and worked alongside several young artists and friends in a community based, commune-esque environment where he created the works churned out by his Factory. The works in the show, however, made with friends like Corkie Ward instead of “produced,” show the artist’s hand and the possibility of a unique, auratic work in the print medium, which, by definition is not unique but inherently multipliable. The collection on show further demonstrates his use of multiple and varied mediums: collage, watercolor, pen, print, typewritten words, mockups, and photographs work together to display an inherent interest in the repetition of everyday objects and actions often overlooked unless studied directly. His use of repetition, iconography, and societal norms reveals an almost satirical (at least a humorous and deprecatory) critique of celebrity, consumerism, and the truly “American” idealism of the desire to become someone or something more than what you are. The American dream of the 1950s that hard work and a good attitude could bring success is scorned in his obsession with marketable products and exclusive social scenes: everyone can buy a can of coke or Campbell’s soup and it will be the same for everyone, but not everyone can get into Studio 54. What’s the difference, though? What is the difference between these things and these people? Warhol, born into and escaping from the rust belt where the faithful were repaid for their belief in the “American Dream” with destitution (and continue to be to this day), created something so intangible as to become unreal…because a picture, a painting, a print is nothing more than an idea made physical and he was revered for it. How ironic…how iconic. His clear social anxiety, which is apparent in many of his works and his subjects (like Horoscopes for the Cocktail Hour, my favorite piece in the show), is really the best indicator of his awareness of the tenuousness of this situation…its surreality bordering on unreality…realism of the surface made to such a degree as to be nothing more than surface and thus not really real. This show reveals the human beneath the celebrity that Andy Warhol (né Andrew Warhola) was and continues to be.
“Warhol by the Book”
February 5th – May 15th, 2016
The Morgan Library and Museum
225 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016