Thursday, January 3, 2013

Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, Part 1

Andy Warhol said, "Buying is much more American than thinking, and I'm as American as they come."  This comment is a bit like a sly bow-tied, seer-sucker wearing lawyer with a Southern accent saying to a jury, "Now I'm just a country boy but...." as he demolishes his opposing counsel.   The Met's recent exhibit "Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years" made me think so much that I thought my head was going to explode.  (Of course, I attribute a lot of that to going to the exhibit with my friend Wendi, who has a mind-boggling amount of knowledge about contemporary art.)

Seeing "Regarding Warhol" before the exhibit closed at the end of the year provided the impetus for my trip to New York last month.   (I don't need much of an excuse to hop a flight to NY, especially when fares are only $200!)   The exhibit turned out to be nothing like what I expected.  I had anticipated a very straightforward show with a painting done by Warhol of, say, Marilyn next to a work done by another artist in a similar vein.  Instead, the curators of the Met put together a show around five themes that they believe capture the importance of Warhol's work.  (This approach turned out to be a bit controversial, as the themes that they selected did not necessarily jive with the  views of art historians nor did the artists whose work they chose necessarily take their cues from Warhol.)

Warhol's Green Car Crash
We entered the exhibit into a room organized around "Daily News:  From Banality to Disaster."  Concepts of mass consumerism abounded (along with the Warhol quote I opened with), and a stack of newspapers was piled up in one corner as a tribute to the power of the tabloids.   There were works about the Bhopal gas leak and Neal Armstrong taking one small step for mankind  and the LA riots.  (Warhol did a Death and Disaster series of paintings that were the inspiration for the darker side of this portion of the show.   His 1963 Green Car Crash--which was not in the exhibit--sold for $63MM in an auction at Christie's in 2007.  There's a video of the auction on YouTube and the bidding went from $17MM to $64MM in just over nine minutes.  The crowd didn't start to get into it until the auction had reached $50MM.)

Polke's Watchtower with Geese
A particularly haunting image from this part of the show was Sigmar Polke's Watchtower with Geese (1984).  This work is like the picture that can be either an old woman or a young girl, depending upon your perspective.  When I look at this painting, I immediately see a prison guard station.  When you focus on the right hand side of the painting, however, there are sunglasses and geese.  Could it instead be a hunting blind?  A lifeguard tower?  Knowing (now) that his family escaped  from East Germany to West Germany when Polke was a teenager provides support for my initial interpretation, but there's no doubt that the ambiguity in the work was intentional.
Warhol Boxes of Brillo Pads

The banality portion of the show with its focus on mass consumerism was much more what I had envisioned (although it had dark undertones as well). Here I found Warhol's boxes of Brillo pads juxtaposed with a painting of pots and pans by a German artist whose name I neglected to write down.  Warhol liked the idea of mass produced products as a leveler across economic classes.  Everyone drinks coke (four a day in my case) and takes aspirin and uses a spaghetti pot.  Wendi is a big Damien Hirst fan and one of his medicine cabinets, Eight over Eight, was on display. (He did an entire series of medicine cabinets that he filled with empty boxes from his grandmother's medicine cabinet.  His first four works were named after an album by the Sex Pistols--Bodies, Liar, Seventeen, and Pretty Vacant.)   I particularly liked Hans Haacke's Helmsboro Country (1990), which brought the two themes of this part of the exhibit together nicely with its five and a half foot long cigarettes.

Two rooms down, lots more to go.  Next up:  The exhibit continues with "Portraiture and Celebrity Power."

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