A new retrospective traces a revolution in thought and feeling.
FRED W. MCDARRAH / GETTY
Andy Warhol was a child of poverty in the 1930s, a college student in the 1940s, a Mad Man in the 1950s, a counterculture sorcerer in the 1960s, a personal brand in the 1970s, and a nouveau riche mascot in the 1980s. And since? At the first major retrospective of Warhol’s work, in 1989, two years after the artist’s death, John Updike noticed visitors “glancing slyly at one another, as if to ask, ‘How foolish do you feel?’ ” Thirty years on, no one is feeling scammed at “From A to B and Back Again,” the mammoth retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Who thinks of Warhol anymore as a maker of larks and postmodern bêtises? He’s now widely regarded as the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century.
“Because we live in a culture of display and consumption,” Adam D. Weinberg, the director of the Whitney, writes in the introduction to the show’s catalog, “where the personal and the public are virtually inseparable, Warhol was the perfect artist for his time and our time.” Weinberg draws the obvious connection between social media and Warhol’s aphorism about everyone’s 15 minutes of fame. But Warhol’s great advance was collapsing any distinction between commercial and noncommercial modes of experience. Maybe it’s never been easier to make the case for his powers of influence because his afterlife has paralleled the rise of neoliberalism—the attempt to turn over all human activity, no matter how sacred, to the marketplace. Neoliberalism is simply Warholism as a theory of governance.
Despite its subtle and not-so-subtle ravishments, a Warhol canvas is expressively vacant. “There’s no place for our spiritual eye to penetrate it,” the art historian Neil Printz has said of the work. “We’re just thrown back on the surface.” That’s true, though the effect is more dreadful than that. What made Warhol so perishingly cold was the implication that the “spiritual eye” never existed in the first place. Warhol, one observer put it, “wanted to be Greta Garbo, he wanted to be Marilyn Monroe,” and to better convert himself into an icon, he withdrew behind an affect as lifeless as one of his Marilyn paintings. The deadpan rigmarole was total. It functioned as an anti-elegy. It said that nothing was lost, that nothing of depth or value had been surrendered to the image.
What made Warhol thrilling in 1962 acquired a bitter aura in November 2016. As Weinberg points out, Donald Trump has made admiring reference to Warhol and his dictum “Making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art.” What to make, then, in an era of trash politics, of an art that celebrated trash? The exhibit follows him from a super-devout Catholic family in the Slavic ghettos of Pittsburgh—a boy who was cripplingly shy, ill-assimilated, and often confined to a sickbed; a boy for whom thought, expression, and narrative were pain—as he turned himself into Andy Warhol. What can this story tell us about our own anti-humanist swerve?