Andy Warhol once called New York the best place in the world, and Warhol was the patron saint of the alternative East Village culture that today’s NYU students both mourn and gradually cannibalize. Head to the Whitney Museum of American Art next week to pay homage to the artist who pioneered loving stuff ironically, from selfies and celebs to fake news.
“Andy Warhol– From A to B and Back Again,” the biggest Warhol retrospective since the decade he died, opens at the Whitney on Monday, Nov. 12. It’s curated by Donna De Salvo, one of the few remaining curators to have worked directly with Warhol.
The exhibition unfolds over three floors. An entire room is dedicated to his portrait commissions–including Aretha Franklin and Liza Minnelli–and another room is covered in his “Cow Wallpaper,” with his “Flowers” paintings displayed over it, as Warhol had wanted. There’s a wall of video viewers for the artist’s films; on one wall is Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth’s video of Warhol eating a hamburger.
The exhibition is designed with an eye towards Warhol’s continued relevance today, and you’ll notice his eerie prescience even without the museum’s pamphlet. There’s “Mustard Race Riot,” a huge piece that reproduces photographs of white cops assaulting black civil rights demonstrators in Alabama. A work Warhol designed for the 1972 presidential race, of a leering Richard Nixon with the caption “Vote McGovern,” has startling parallels with current depictions of our tangerine-tinged head of state. “Before and After” is a cartoon print of a nose job ad, and a New York Post cover Warhol made with Keith Haring depicts a Madonna scandal with the subtitle “Rock star shrugs off nudie pix furor.” Warhol’s themes of “power and conformity,” especially, are deeply relevant today, said the curator, de Salvo, at today’s press preview.
Warhol’s stuff was famously made to sell, but even with that, the gift shop is awesome–there are skateboard decks with Warhol’s patterns, a book of exactly 192 one-dollar bills (which costs $384), and condoms printed with the artist’s quote “After being alive, the next hardest work is having sex.”
The exhibition highlights not just Warhol’s uncanny distillation of the American essence, but how he arrived there; for one thing, his job as a commercial illustrator gave the artist insight into the power of reproduction decades before camera phones and screenshots brought memes to the masses. And in 2018– when pop culture, politics and life itself seem poised to reach the great Singularity– it’s delightful to see the work of someone who took pop culture seriously at a time when myopic mainstream culture still treated it as secondary.