Andy Warhol: A to B and Back Again

Everything about the SFMOMA’s retrospective exhibition of Andy Warhol feels very now. It’s as if we were just marveling at the work of an innovative new wunderkind. But Andy Warhol’s work was 50 years ago; it was prophetic. Few artists in the world — actually, in the history of art — are as instantly recognizable as Warhol (1928-1987). Unlike Picasso or Monet, whose works span about 75 years) Warhol’s work spans only a 40-year period due to his death at age 58. His influence on the art and popular culture of today cannot be understated.

Warhol understood the importance of the image in the modern world way before Facebook and Instagram. Although he is mostly remembered as the ultimate POP art icon, he worked in a wide range of media—painting, printmaking, photography, drawing, film, and sculpture. He was a workaholic who was constantly pushing and re-inventing himself and his art. He wanted to be successful and make money, challenging the romantic notion of the “penniless” artist.

This second in a series of three venues for the Warhol exhibition includes over 300 works and has already received worldwide critical acclaim since it opened at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York last fall. The Guardian noted, “He predicted Trump, selfies, and social media, but this blockbuster retrospective reveals that it’s the overlooked later work which can truly move us today.” The Art Newspaper pointed out, “A great strength of this show is Warhol’s presence throughout as not only a personality but as a man. He ages, grows, experiments, tries, and fails.”

“Art is what you can get away with.” —Andy Warhol

Warhol is labeled a POP artist, even though that genre only lasted a few years. His many creations of Coke Bottles, Dollar Bills, and Campbell’s Soup Cans took him from illustration to creating paintings relevant to society. The Factory, where he was a quiet observer, became a famous meeting place for artists, celebrities, socialites, bohemians, and street people. Many of his famous portraits of Hollywood personae and celebrities originated at The Factory, where they became a glamorous and attention-getting subject matter.

But Warhol was also involved in social issues of the time, which gain even more importance today. Gary Garrels, Elise S. Hass Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, wrote, “He is a complicated figure and a complicated artist. His inner emotions and his physical self were not his subject matter. His work goes quite dark and explores questions of gender and sexual identity, fame and subcultures. This is an artist we have to reckon with.”


Facts About the Original Social Influencer

  • Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh in 1928—the son of working-class immigrants from Slovakia.
  • He studied commercial illustration in Pittsburgh.
  • In 1949, he moved to New York and became a successful advertising illustrator.
  • Beginning in the 1960s, Warhol began painting images taken from mass commercialism (Campbell’s Soup Cans, Brillo Pads, Coke).
  • He made (silkscreened) images of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, as well as controversial images of our culture such as an electric chair and race riots.
  • He made experimental films (1963-68).
  • He established The Factory in 1964, his studio for the Pop art scene—the hangout for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
  • By the 1970’s and ‘80s, Warhol was famous for being himself.
  • A murder attempt on his life (by feminist Valerie Solanas, who objected to the portrayal of women as sex objects) solidified his fame.
  • Warhol died in 1987 after a routine gallbladder surgery.
  • At the time of his death, his net worth was $220 million, left to a foundation for the arts.

The eye-popping exhibition at SFMOMA is expertly presented on three floors of the museum. Floor 2 galleries offer Warhol’s early drawings and commercial illustrations created for advertising—a good look into his background and training. We see the gilded collages and expert sketches of shoes and illustrations for Glamour Magazine and The New York Times.

Floor 4, the main section of the exhibition, takes the viewer chronologically through Warhol’s career, including paintings, drawings, photography, film, and installation. See paintings of Dick Tracy, Superman, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, One Dollar Bills, Elvis, Mona Lisa, and more. These are the still-life scenes of the modern world. I like to compare these images to the 17th- and 18th-century genre paintings of “spoils of the hunt” —paintings with just-hunted fowl or rabbits and fruit and bread, all fresh and ready for the table. The Campbell’s soup cans are the 20th-century reality of that hunt; who hasn’t had soup from a Campbell’s can or a bottle of Coke?

Warhol once said, “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola and you can know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you too can drink Coke. A Coke is a Coke and no matter how much money you have, all Coke is the same.”

Andy Warhol’s 5 Most Expensive Paintings

  • Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) — $105.4 million (2013)
  • Eight Elvises —$100 million (2008)
  • Triple Elvis — $81.9 million (2014)
  • Turquoise Marilyn – $80 million (2007)
  • Green Car Crash (Green Car Burning I) —$71.7 million (2007)

The celebrity paintings are a testament to Warhol’s famous quote: “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” (This statement is even more relevant now with our culture of influencers, bloggers, and persons who are “famous for being famous”!)

Chairman Mao (Warhol showed great interest in the politics of his time), Marilyn Monroe (painted shortly after she had died of an overdose of barbiturates), Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley (the triple image of him as a macho cowboy in motion), Elizabeth Taylor (many images of her, taken from a photo when she was ill)—the rich and famous fascinated Warhol. He observed them at his Factory; he watched and he knew they wanted to be painted by the now-successful and celebrated Warhol. A portrait by Warhol made you a Pop Icon.

Warhol once noted, “I’ve always been fascinated by the assumptions the rich make… a lot of them think it’s normal, the way they live—because it’s all they’ve ever known.” Warhol loved famous people, successful people; he loved the glitter of it all. He loved silver and gold, painting criminals in silver and Marilyn in gold. He also loved money, once stating, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

The next gallery at SFMOMA takes a darker and more poignant turn with car crashes, electric chairs, race riots, tuna cans contaminated with botulism—The Darker Side of Culture.

Holland Cotter, art critic for The New York Times, states, “In making them, Warhol was shifting gears. He was moving away from consumerist themes—soft drinks, dollar bills and Hollywood stars—to grittier fare, though the idea to change may not have been his…It was curator Henry Geldzahler who advised him to cast an eye on a different aspect of American culture. Maybe everything isn’t so fabulous in America. It’s time for some death. This is what’s really happening.”

What followed were shocking images including Mustard Race Riot and Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times. These paintings portray a cruel and turbulent world—a violent America.

Then, almost a relief, we see the eye-popping 16 colorful Flower paintings installed on top of Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper. Visitors also have the experience of the floating Silver Clouds, a sculptural installation of shiny Mylar balloons (yes, way before Jeff Koons!).

Then there are Warhol’s self-portraits. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films, and me, and there I am,” he said. “There’s nothing behind it.” Warhol made a least 35 paintings of himself — inhabiting roles such as outlaw, businessman, drag queen — in addition to numerous lithographs and polaroids. No artist has been as involved with his own image (well, not until Facebook or Instagram).

Floor five of the SFMOMA exhibition presents Warhol’s television, video shows, and the wall of “Who’s Who” portraits of the celebrity world. Facebook in the time of Warhol! See Pelé (1977), Halston (1975), Liza Minelli (1978), Shah Pahlavi (1976), and the artist’s mother, Julia Warhola (1974), who is said to have lived in his basement with her hoard of cats. She always called him “my Andy.”

This exhibition provides an opportunity for us to consider Andy Warhol as one of the most influential, inventive, and important American artists. His understanding of the growing power of images in contemporary life foreshadowed our social media-focused world and helped to expand the artist’s role in society, according to Whitney Museum curators, Donna de Salvo, Christie Mitchell, and Mark Loiacono.

The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color, 400-page scholarly monograph edited by The Whitney’s Donna De Salvo.

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