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March 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1416

Andy Warhol Exhibits: A Glittering Alternative

Reviewed by David Anfam

Certain figures have made it hard to write the history of twentieth-century art and its ongoing legacy without them. Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dalí and Jackson Pollock instantly spring to mind. Persuasive new attitudes to gender, sexuality and politics or innovative media count as having also been introduced by somewhat lesser figures, including Frida Kahlo, Francis Bacon, Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, Anselm Kiefer and even (perhaps more controversially) Damien Hirst, whose achievements overall tend to be cogent, topical and often highly influential. Doubtless, Andy Warhol belongs to this otherwise multifarious canon. Yet he remains a special case. Warhol pioneered tedious art as never before, was a conflicted homosexual and a genius at celebrating capitalism behind a deadpan, disarming guise.

What Marcel Duchamp did for artmaking during the first half of the last century, Warhol perfected in the second. He fulfilled the Frenchman’s critique of mere ‘retinal painting’, blinding viewers to any aesthetic value that might have survived the age of mechanical reproduction and the cultural logic of late capitalism. With gravitas gone, no wonder the related exhibitions under review are a multi-faceted celebration that glitters: the only depth left perforce lies on surfaces.(1) It gleams literally in Warhol’s early youths and women’s shoes from the 1950s rendered in gold leaf; figuratively, in the superabundant media, subjects and mixed messages. The irresistible catalogue – a publication so over-designed as to challenge reading it – follows suit.(2) In fact, Warhol was at heart always a designer.

MUMOK’s admirable portmanteau project incorporates three shows. The first focuses on Warhol’s own output (Andy Warhol Exhibits); the second highlights his curatorial side (Defrosting the Icebox); and the last aims to contextualise him with an eye to Pop, Minimal and Conceptual Art (Misfitting Together). At the outset of the thirty-five thematic sections arrayed on five levels, big airy spaces offer some remarkable surprises; in particular, the Marbled Paper works (Fig.2). When in 1954 Warhol exhibited these drawings in a group show at Loft Gallery, New York, he had them folded into pyramidal objects, pinned to the walls or strewn hither and thither. Here, the sheets are displayed flat and sandwiched upright behind protective glass. Faint homoerotic motifs nestle within their abstract patterns, as if a word that dare not speak its name faltered at coming out loud and clear. One evokes Barnett Newman’s ‘zip’, while the general swirls and skeins owe an inevitable debt to Pollock. Indeed, Warhol arrived in New York from Pittsburgh in 1949 – the year that Life ran its notorious article about ‘Jack the Dripper’, titled ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’. Almost twenty years later, Warhol was still out to beat Pollock with the vastly extended horizontal ‘wallpapers’ bearing cows’ heads (maybe, too, a pun on the latter’s ‘cowboy’ posturing). These make a spectacular splash wrapped around the corners of gallery nine on the second floor. However, the marbled drawings are more significant. Crucially, Warhol’s preoccupation here with process, trace, time and allusion reflected Robert Rauschenberg’s precedent. Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns – Warhol’s heroes – stung their admirer when they deplored his being ‘too swish’. Little did the couple realise in those pre-Stonewall days that Warhol would garner fame not least for posing as a swish. History must credit his major role in tinting the yellow brick road, so to speak, pink. One cannot miss the serendipitously identical colours in Cow wallpaper (pink on yellow) (1966; reprint 1994; Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh).

Insofar as this reviewer was among the first to grant Warhol’s homosexuality serious scholarly attention, it was reassuring to see not only male private parts on parade at the start on the ground floor – the Cock drawings (c.1956; Kunstmuseum Basel) – but also his highly camp portfolio-cum-book A is an alphabet (1953; Andy Warhol Museum) and its unpublished counterpart the Ladies’ alphabet (1953; Andy Warhol Museum), their leaves laid sequentially in vitrines.(3) All bore witness to a lifelong obsession with gendered subjectivity. Again, Warhol was light years ahead of his time. He would be gratified to discover a personal fixation morph into our contemporary ideological obsession with identity politics.

From a different angle, screening Warhol’s cinematic productions – ranging from thirteen of his nearly five hundred shorts and the largescale Screen Tests series (1964) to the 204-minute Chelsea Girls (1966) – in a panoramic setting brought another Warholian volte-face. That is, nullity rather than graphic eroticism. Cinema is an inherently performative, ergo dramatic, medium keyed to narrative (not least because it involves duration, the sine qua non for storytelling). By making boredom, stasis, repetition and randomness his principal cinematic props, Warhol emptied film of its specular plenitude. Emptiness is the ideal stage setting for stardom. The celebrity – whether Marilyn Monroe, the desired macho males or the infantile space ships, police cars and robots that constitute Warhol’s children’s books illustrations (another engaging interlude that ends the installation on the second level) – has the stage to him/her/itself. Likewise, in the arbitrarily juxtaposed objects such as clothes and furniture that were central to the artist’s travelling exhibition RAID THE ICEBOX I with Andy Warhol (1969–70) the organisers of Defrosting the Icebox found a template to guide their updated curatorial simulation of Warhol’s precedent. Using loans from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and Weltmuseum, they have rearranged them so that ‘high’ (the antique marble heads) become ‘low’ (ethnographic artefacts) and vice versa (Fig.1). But levelling down never made Warhol a revolutionary in any left-wing or anarchist sense. Quite the opposite. He charmed, upheld and paid homage to the status quo as, in effect, a ‘court queer’. Painting dollar bills, he became a prophet of profit. Demolishing whatever use value art might still have as a source for aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual uplift, he managed to multiply its exchange value to the hilt. Why else has the quintessential Warhol come to outcost the average Old Master?

Misfitting Together, the final show-within-a-show, explores Warhol’s serial procedures, comparing them with those of contemporary Abstractionists mainly drawn from the Ludwig Collection. This curatorial brainwave provided further food for thought. Larry Poons’s gridbased ‘dot’ compositions (Fig.3) alongside Claes Oldenburg’s recourse to the most reductive, recurrent everyday commodities in The store (1961; MUMOK), shed fresh light on the period’s common causes, albeit approached from disparate standpoints. A serialism as blank as the Sphinx’s gaze set Warhol apart compared to the whimsical Oldenburg and Poons’s chromatic complexities. This highlights the tone that wafts, like some invisible aether, through Warhol’s entire undertaking. It arose from a strange mix involving private psychology and social forces.

For the psychological aspect, the concept of ‘reaction formation’ sheds much light on Warhol’s strategies. In a nutshell, reaction formation signifies a defence mechanism whereby anxieties and worse are mastered by exaggerating the antithetical tendency. The vilified ‘swish’ takes pride in becoming openly ‘gay’. The abject son of a Polish Lemko father, who worked in a coal mine, becomes Manhattan’s high society host, the faithful Catholic practises closet pornography and renders erstwhile nondescript second-class citizens of colour as technicolour icons, like the drag queen caught in the vivid Ladies and gentlemen (Fig.4). And if you cannot be James Dean or Marilyn Monroe one can at least go to the other extreme, don a grotesque fright wig or silkscreen a frightful Skull (1976; MUMOK). These fascinating contradictions and more were amply present in the exhibition’s scope. As for society, Warhol’s mature persona was famously a mirror.

The question is whether his and our ensuing hideous ‘greed is good’ epochs still wish to behold themselves. Judging by Warhol’s perennial success on multiple levels, the evident answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

1. This review is based on 129 installation shots and an online guided tour kindly provided by the museum. A short introduction to the exhibitions is available at, accessed 8th February 2020.

2. Accompanying publication: Andy Warhol Exhibits: A Glittering Alternative. Edited by Marianne Dobner. 207 pp. incl. 259 col. + 122 b. & w. ills. (Museum of Modern Art, Ludwig Foundation (MUMOK), Vienna, 2020). €45. ISBN 978–3–902947–85–7.

3. See D. Anfam: ‘Handy Andy’, Art History 14, no.2 (June 1991), pp.270–74; and J. Doyle, J. Flatley and J. Esteban Muñoz, eds: Pop Out: Queer Warhol, Durham 1996, pp.18–19.