Everything Andy Warhol did as portraitist, publisher, publicist or salesman counted as components in one boundless work. Credit Robert J. Levin
In the fall of 1968, still aching from an assassin’s attack, Andy Warhol returned to work in the bright new offices he’d rented on Union Square. After years of stardom in Pop Art, he pondered his future. “I was confused because I wasn’t painting and I wasn’t filming there,” he recalled.
Instead, he watched his minions taking care of business. They were shooting movies under his name, selling his prints and finding him portrait commissions — one way or another, making money with art. “I knew that work was going on, even if I didn’t have any idea what the work would come to.”
That corporate work, Warhol soon came to realize, was actually some of the most important art he ever made. Business Art, he came to call it, “the step that comes after art.” It established that everything this artist had done or would do, as head of Andy Warhol Enterprises, Inc. — as portraitist, publisher, publicist or salesman — counted as components in one boundless work: part performance art, part conceptual art and part picture of the market world he lived in and that we all still inhabit.
Now the Whitney Museum of American Art is about to open a major new Warhol survey. Titled “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again,” it stars a full cross-section of his epochal creations: The Soup Cans and Marilyns of the early 1960s, which held up a mirror to American commodity culture; the experimental films of his Factory years; the society portraits, homoerotica and almost-abstractions of his last two decades. All treasures, without a doubt, but maybe just as significant for the times we now live in as aspects of his Business Art project.
“I’ve wrestled with money — in an art sense — all through my career,” Damien Hirst, the longtime British art star and entrepreneur, said. “And I saw through Andy Warhol that it was possible to do that, that it was acceptable. Even though it raises questions, it’s not something to be afraid of.”
IN A RECENT INTERVIEW, the writer and curator Jack Bankowsky said, “Business Art remains as important as it ever was, because Andy Warhol is as important as he ever was.” In 2009, he organized a landmark exhibition called “Pop Life” for the Tate Modern museum in London that was about how Warhol’s decision to turn the marketplace and the publicity machine into artistic mediums has touched today’s major figures.
Alongside Warhol the show presented Jeff Koons, and the hard coreimages of sex with his wife that catapulted him to tabloid fame and to a corporate-scaled practice that even Warhol would envy.
Mr. Hirst was also central to “Pop Life,” not because of famous art objects like his shark-in-a-tank, but for the blockbuster auction he staged of his own works in 2008, an artistic “performance” most important for the more than $200 million it brought in. Although, as Mr. Hirst said, it would still have counted as an artistic win regardless of sales, “I knew I was pushing something to the breaking point, whether it succeeded or failed.”