Andy Warhol is back again and better than ever—thanks to the Whitneys Donna De Salvo

Andy Warhol with the cast of his play “Pork” at La Mama, May 1971
Courtesy Jack Mitchell Archives

In The Art Dealers, an oral history of New York gallerists in the early 1980s, the Greek-born dealer Alexander Iolas says: “The boy is a very important artist, Andy, because he helped America.”

Iolas was speaking of Andy Warhol, of course—in the art world theres only one Andy. Certainly, hes been good not just for the country but also the art market, art history and scene-makers everywhere. And anyone with half an eye who visits the Whitney Museums astonishing survey of this singular artists career ought to be able to see why.

From the shows seductive first moments, which envelop viewers in a room papered, floor-to-ceiling, with Warhols pink-and-yellow cow wallpaper and plastered with flower paintings just as colorful, Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again is actually exciting. Even, or especially, for those who think they know all there is to know about him.

“This is the best-installed Andy show ever. Ever,” said the Warholian artist Deborah Kass, emerging from the huge crowd that stepped out for the election-night, invitational opening. “I was here last night and this morning, and Im coming back tomorrow morning to do a breakfast panel,” said Vincent Fremont, the one-time Factory manager who inspired and produced Andy Warhols TV. “Were getting paid,” Fremont added, “so its all right. Bank of America, thank you.”

The bank may have helped to sponsor the show, but the credit for what already looked like a runaway success goes to curator Donna De Salvo, who has given museum professionals everywhere a model exhibition on an epic scale. “Donna De Salvo!” enthused the Museum of Modern Art curator Yasmil Raymond. “A-may-zing! We all need to take notes and be humble in her presence.”

Andy Warhol, Big Electric Chair (1967–68)
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This is De Salvos fourth Warhol exhibition, following two shows at Dia in 1986 and 1989 (showing the Disaster series and hand-painted Pop paintings), and early works at New York Universitys Grey Art Gallery in 1989. From the expertise she displays here, I can believe that she understands the material better than anyone, and knows where it lives.

A sculpture of coloured Mylar rolls stacked inside a thick, Plexiglass case that struck me as a cross between Donald Judd and Jeff Koons was quite a startling sight. Another discovery was Warhols take on Duchamps Large Glass, in the form of freestanding window panes imprinted with an image of John Giorno from the 1964 film, Sleep.

“I love my experimentation room,” De Salvo said, speaking between constant interruptions from congratulatory well-wishers. “Andy was a great sponge, and a great social observer as well. I think he understood major contradictions in American life and the oppositions—innovation and conformity—that define the American character.” Ironically, she reflected, European collectors and curators who saw him through their own filters were first to buy his work, while his own country dismissed it as lightweight pap.

Now, in the age of Trump, people appreciate Warhols deployment of his fetishes, interests in film, magazine and book publishing, television and advertising as the “business artist” he aspired to become. Yet the evidence on the walls at the Whitney show him to be a restlessly hands-on explorer and exploiter of every visual opportunity, in every medium, offered by sensational, glamorous or dismaying events or people. He was the ultimate voyeur with a wicked streak and a horror of physical human contact who was also an obsessive hoarder, and so insecure that he could never stop working, or shopping, for ideas as well as stuff.

De Salvo brings together telling examples from every phase of Warhols production, from early drawings and shoe collages (gorgeous) to the Marilyn, Elvis and Brando Pop paintings, portraits and self-portraits, the contents of one of his Time Capsules, Interview magazines, a colossal portrait of Mao, a pair of collaborative paintings with Jean-Michel Basquiat, screen tests and other films—perhaps his most influential work—arranged in unpredictable ways that make emotional, aesthetic and historical sense of this formerly inscrutable artist.

In the final gallery, Warhols varied approaches to abstract painting play off each other to great advantage. Putting one of his 36-foot long, white “reversal” paintings of the Mona Lisa, for example, opposite a Last Supper overlaid with a camouflage pattern is De Salvos masterstroke.

Iolas said of Warhol: “He is an amazing person, and probably someday he will be considered a saint.” Thankfully, Donna De Salvo has brought him down to earth, where we cannot just worship but safely touch him at last.

• Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, the Whitney Museum of American Art, 12 November-31 March 2019

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