“Black Star Press: Black Star, Black Star Press, Star," 2004,… (Kelley Walker / The Metropolitan…)
Is Andy Warhol the most important artist of the last 50 years?
That's the question posed, if not conclusively answered, by "Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years," an ambitious exhibition that opened Sept. 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Conceived by the Met's Marla Prather and independent curator Mark Rosenthal, "Regarding Warhol" is not a comprehensive survey of the late artist's work but rather an attempt to determine the precise range of his influence.
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The show is built around what Prather describes as "a scaffolding of Warhol" — about 50 works in various mediums. There is an emphasis on Warhol's paintings, from the Campbell's Soup cans to the equally familiar portraits of Marilyn, Jackie and Marlon. His experimental films get less attention, though 1968's "Lonesome Cowboys" and screen tests of Nico and Lou Reed make the cut.
Also included are a handful of lesser-known, early black-and-white pieces like "Dr. Scholl's Corns" (1961) that bridge the divide between Warhol, the commercial illustrator, and Warhol, the Pop artist.
"Regarding Warhol" is organized into five thematic sections that juxtapose major works by Warhol with those by artists who, as the curators put it, "in key ways reinterpret, respond, or react to his groundbreaking work." In the first section, organized around the use of everyday imagery in art, there's a clear through-line between Warhol's "Green Coca-Cola Bottles" (1962) and Ai Weiwei's "Neolithic Vase with Coca-Cola Logo" (2010).
Warhol's prescient understanding of contemporary fame is similarly evident in a section called "Celebrity and Power," where his 1973 portrait of socialite Nan Kempner hangs near Karen Kilimnik's 2005 rendering of Paris Hilton (on loan from the collection of designer Marc Jacobs, for an extra dose of star power). "Queer Studies" underscores Warhol's importance as a gay artist, pointing to his influence on the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
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The last two sections examine Warhol's appropriation of art history and, finally, the intersection of art and commerce. Here, rather than in "Celebrity and Power," is where the curators choose to address Warhol's maxim that "in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," by playing the premiere episode of "The Real World" and "The Osbournes" Christmas special on a continuous loop.
Prather characterizes the exhibition as "a kind of history lesson in postwar art," and perhaps as a result it tends toward bold-face names: Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Cindy Sherman, Gerhard Richter, Chuck Close, Matthew Barney.
"I like to say that we're not claiming he's the most important or the most profound artist, although I think that's open to debate," Prather elaborates. "Do you want stack up Andy Warhol against Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg? I don't, in terms of importance, but in terms of influence in the larger culture, it seems like you can't really argue against it."
As evidence, Prather says that during the process of organizing the show, she and her team were struck by the artist's ubiquity in contemporary culture. "It was rare that a day had gone by that there wasn't some Warholian thing that had happened in the world," she recalls. "He seemed ever-present in a way that other great artists are not. As much as one loves and appreciates an artist, you don't sort of see them every day in your life."
Twenty-five years after his untimely death, Warhol remains a divisive figure, which may in part explain the largely negative critical response "Regarding Warhol" has received. Writing in the New York Times, Roberta Smith described the show as an "enthusiastic muddle" "rife with failures of nerve and imagination." Lance Esplund at Bloomberg was even more scathing. "Embarrassingly provincial and out-of-touch" was his assessment.
Prather chalks up the reaction to Warhol's contentious legacy. "He seems to evoke in people really, really strong responses. In part it has to do with his incredible success, he was very rich, he was very famous, he was gay. He's open to so many kinds of criticisms," she argues, adding that "even for those who love him, the work is sometimes uneven, strange and unexpected."
Besides, Warhol is such a marquee name that the show seems destined to become a blockbuster, critics be damned.
It's already attracting celebrities. Spice Girl turned fashion designer Victoria Beckham, accompanied by her infant daughter, Harper, raved about the exhibition after visiting on opening day. "Harper and I loved our visit to 'Regarding Warhol' @metmuseum," she declared to her 4.9-million Twitter followers(@victoriabeckham), including a camera-phone snapshot of her favorite piece, Takashi Murakami's "Kaikai Kiki."
The Met later retweeted the message for the benefit of its 490,000 followers (@metmuseum).
No doubt Andy was somewhere, smirking with approval.
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