Andy Warhol is back as the protagonist of his adopted city with the large exhibition dedicated to him by the Whitney Museum of American Art: “Andy Warhol from A to B and back again” (open until March 31, 2019). It is an ambitious and successful exhibition that makes us reflect on the “most superlative” American artist of all time and his many contradictions: the most recognizable (critics would say predictable), most quoted (detractors would claim overrated), most versatile (or perhaps the most superficial?). As someone who has always been rather skeptical of claims to his artistic genius, I was forced to reassess my opinion during my visit to the exhibition and recognize that Warhol – in addition to having a revolutionary and creative drive – has had extraordinary influence on our tastes and our ways of relating to one other, an influence that persists more than 30 years after his death.
In the exhibition, you will find everything that comes to mind when you close your eyes and think of Warhol: the serial repetitions of the canned Campbell soup, the Coca-Cola bottle, the Brillo soap pad boxes—all symbols of a mass consumerism that brought people of all social classes together. Warhol’s magic wand could transform objects of banal everyday life into works of art, not by making them unique, but rather by multiplying them serially to the point of paroxysm, artfully and infinitely changing small details between each reproduction. Through his works, Warhol seems to have brought to their extreme the theories that Walter Benjamin expressed in his well-known 1935 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Warhol reached the point of making us believe that works of art made entirely by hand were actually produced industrially.
You will also find the faces of Marilyn, Elvis, and Mao, true icons and cult objects of our time; images traceable to the influence that the icons in the Byzantine-Catholic church for immigrants of Pittsburgh, where Warhol would spend many hours with his mother, had on his childhood imagination. Even when in New York, Warhol would regularly attend services at the Orthodox-Catholic church and pray daily in ancient Slavonic with his mother, though he found himself (or maybe because he found himself) caught up in a vortex of drugs, sex, and alcohol, which would bring many of his friends and collaborators in those years to death or desperation. After all, Marilyn Monroe is considered the martyr par excellence of the “star system;” Elvis appears regularly to his followers who do not believe he really died; and Mao was, for many young people – especially European – the new messiah. Warhol, depicting them with simplified traits and patches of compact and solid colors, like those poor icons of his childhood, is on the one hand creating an iconostasis for our times, and on the other making a mockery of society’s ironic overturning of its own values.
But the part of the exhibition that most took my breath away was the one on the ground floor of the marvelous building – designed by our very own Renzo Piano – exhibiting Warhol’s latest productions in chronological order, circa mid-1970s to the 1980s. They are some of the dozens of portraits through which Warhol was able to boost his finances and, unlike many artists of his generation, accumulate conspicuous assets. They are the portraits of his friends, the characters who populated the underground world of the Factory, but also of the celebrities of the time, from Liza Minelli to Giorgio Armani and Pelè to Marella Agnelli.
Being in that room among those portraits was like being in a space which reproduces in material reality the virtual reality in which many of us spend our days. This room is Facebook: the faces tell stories, and our photos, along with those of our friends, mix in with those of famous personalities, extending the illusion of those 10 minutes of fame to which, according to Warhol, we all can aspire. But it is also Instagram, the platform for sharing photographs in which the casual nature of the images is made orderly through the square format they all share and through which they look more orderly and organized. And it is even Snapchat, with its crazy filters that allow us to create infinite variations of one theme, in particular that of the human face.
Warhol, who always went around with a voice recorder and a camera (like us today with our smartphones), not only forever revolutionized art, but also had a lasting and rippling effect on our way of communicating for decades to come. Yes, because Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and all the devilry to come, were, in a certain sense, invented by him.
Translated by Alyssa Erspamer