Wanting More from "Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again" at the Whitney Museum

I have an interesting relationship with the artist known officially as Andy Warhol. I started gaining more appreciation for him once I moved to the New York City area for college. I would visit the Met and view his works "Hammer and Sickle" and "Skull". I bought a deluxe edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico on CD with the peelable banana cover art at Nuggets in Boston when I visited a hometown friend during the Boston Marathon of 2008. When I was living in Chicago in the summer of 2009, I bought A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol by David McCabe from Myopic Books in Wicker Park. I remember being at home, likely during a break from school, watching "I Shot Andy Warhol", a movie about Valerie Solanas. In the past two years, when I would take walks around the Upper East Side during my lunch break, I would stumble upon the brownstone he called home on Lex Ave and 89th.

I think I know and understand him more as a person than I do as an artist or his work. In my opinion, his work only makes sense if you are familiar with him as a person; how he came from Pittsburgh, the son of immigrants, and came to New York City and made himself from nothing. I think what drew him to me initially was his understanding about fame and celebrity, and seeming to predict where we currently are with our 24 hour news cycle, before the internet and before social media. As a student of the Communications School at Hofstra University, I was essentially picking up everything he was putting down.

On my 31st birthday a few weeks ago, I decided to visit the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Whitney Museum "From A to B and Back Again" before it closed a few days later. The "From A to B and Back Again" name was taken from the book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, a book he wrote himself that was published in 1975. The book is an assemblage of self-consciously ironic "quotable quotes" about love, beauty, fame, work, sex, time, death, economics, success, and art, among other topics, by the "Prince of Pop" (according to the good ole' Wikipedia).

If the exhibit was to showcase his philosophy, it was unfortunately a miss. The artwork was displayed chronologically across multiple floors and the flow didn't allow for in depth reading of the descriptions or materials they were showing. I was hoping for more of an experience similar to the Brooklyn Museum's David Bowie exhibition that began chronologically, but then grouped his work and inspiration together by his style or stages, so you had more of an understanding of his approach that led to his work. For icons like Bowie and Warhol, their work is engrained in our brains due to their pop culture relevance, so reviewing them again in a museum isn't a new experience. Understand the context behind the work and the artist themselves allows for a deeper appreciation of the work, which is the common argument behind why it's worth cracking open an art history textbook once in a while.

My main takeaways, or new found appreciations of Andy Warhol, are:

  • I came to love and appreciate his drawings, especially the illustrative style. It serves as a reminder for everyone that behind every great artist, even of the pop and abstract persuasion, is a foundation in knowing how to draw or illustrate.

  • I respect every artist who had to do commercial work early in their career to pay the bills. Andy Warhol was also a SUCCESSFUL commercial artist within advertising and had made a small fortune before he really dove into his art.

  • His experimentation in drag and capturing photos of it has not been talked enough in books and articles about him, which I found fascinating. I wonder how people would feel if they made the connection that Andy Warhol, among many artists, had to conceal their sexuality because of the culture of the time and therefore creatively expressing themselves through their art was even more important.

  • I love the work "Ethel Scull 36 Times". I feel he was able to show the multi-dimensional personality and sides to a woman. If I were to create a female-focused creative co-working space, I would have a print of that hanging in the lobby.

  • The work of Marilyn Monroe "Marilyn Diptych" I fell in love with. The duality of showing her images in two palettes demonstrated beautifully the essence of life and death.

  • I feel that a lot of Warhol's work was focused on making a statement versus inciting an emotion from viewers. The only series of his where I've felt a personal connection is his "Death and Disasters" series, which treated each found image through silkscreen and repeated images as if they were advertising is mean to offset the shock of the images and desensitize the viewer.

Overall, I recognize it's a challenge to create a fitting exhibition for any cultural icon. I respect The Whitney for creating an exhibition that could be appealing to both newer art fans just becoming familiar with Andy Warhol and experienced art appreciators who have seen one too many printed Marilyn Monroe portraits in college dorm rooms. I did end up buying the exhibition catalog, which is a sign that I found it memorable enough to grab a copy. The gift shop itself was a tribute to Wahol due to endless amounts of objectives, books, knick knacks, and clothes you could buy with his artwork on it. Once a commercial artist, always one in some way.