I have always thought the world was divided into two sides: those who love chicken and those who detest it. If so much contemporary art tastes like chicken, so to speak, one artist is guaranteed to generate opinions: Andy Warhol.
There are those who find him mesmeric in his chameleonic career moves, such as the esteemed philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, in whose new book “Andy Warhol” Danto declares him “the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced.” In the opposite corner is the longtime “Time” magazine art critic the pugnacious Robert Hughes, who dubbed Warhol “a paragon of the American ‘industrial’ artist, a man diligently turning out a steady stream of product whose purpose is less to reflect on, and with difficulty articulate, the complexities of experience from image to image than to supply an expanding market with eucharistic emblems of his fame and desirability.” The joke, of course, is that Warhol—famous for his monotone maxims of the “uh, gee” depth—would agree with both. It also means he leaves it to the viewer to make up his or her own mind.
These Warhol Wars have persisted since the artist’s ascent in 1962, when he began orchestrating his silk-screen transfers onto canvas to create the repeated-image paintings of Marilyn and Jackie O and himself (fame is as fame does). Posthumously—after Warhol’s inadvertently negligent death in a hospital in 1987—the debate continues; Warhol’s practice of having his assistants do the manual labor and his merely signing his name draws the same skepticism as that attributed to Dalí signing blank pieces of paper in his declining years. Yet the exhibitions and retrospectives pile up unceasingly: in Athens, two exhibitions have opened pinpointing his three-minute “screen tests” and his fascination with celebrity icons; locally, the Spencer Museum of Art, in Lawrence, just closed its show of photographs donated by the Warhol Foundation, and an exhibition of silk screens has opened at Union Station Kansas City. So, is he the Nobel laureate of Pop or the Devil of Mayberry?
“Andy Warhol Portfolios: Life and Legends” (running through January 10) centers on work from the Seventies and Eighties: these were the Glam Years, of running “Interview” magazine and designing the Rolling Stones’ zipper album cover for “Sticky Fingers” and rubbing shoulders with Mick and Liza. It was a period of settling down after the breakthrough of the Brillo boxes and the Campbell’s soup cans in the Sixties’ Glory Years when he made his mark on the public and critics by turning America back on itself, not by classical metaphors and ancient references but by commercial images and new celebrities. The show opens with several quotes, illuminated in neon and, upon reflection, enigmatically illuminating, as Warhol’s comments always were. One links art to the business of art, which he viewed as perhaps more important: at the least, more interesting.
A silk-screened “Marilyn” introduces the show; it is a natural giving their historical proximity, and yet it hints at a show that is not to be. The next image, “Birmingham Race Riot, 1964,” a black-and-white scuffle of no particular emotional or compositional power, is a surprise. It does not fit in with the accepted view of “Andy” as a fun-loving party animal. Which makes it a neat touch; it shows how he constructed his silk-screens, by selecting an appropriate image from a newspaper or magazine. His hand does not seem to exist in or on the work at all. This is no “Guernica” where the viewer shares in the artist’s suffering. His dispassionate Sixties “disaster” prints were notably shocking then, the same way that his recast celebs were new to people. The prints did not do anything, unlike the way Abstract Expressionist paintings in the Forties were meant to provoke or his Sixties peers Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein poked fun at America using more obvious reference points like comic strips.
The promising start becomes a mishmash of his late period, which is sadder still because he never knew it would become his art testament. Helpful wall labels explain the various series—flowers, endangered species, athletes, famous Jews of the twentieth century—but I wondered as I wondered through the basement galleries what someone new to Warhol would make of the work. The wall labels excel at giving his history; if only the work on the walls matched the multifariousness of the context. Warhol, however driven by commissions and the need for attention, took, if not the business of art, art itself seriously enough to keep thinking up subjects. He had to because his late-period method was a reduction of his earliest spirited works like “Edith Scull 36 Times.”
Viewed individually, certain prints offer pleasure. Before they turn into a jumble, his “Endangered Species” series shows off some colorful animals, notably a bighorn ram in Day-Glo purple and orange as well as a striking Giant Panda in white and red. “Myths” (1980) assembles ten iconic American figures from pop culture, such as Mickey Mouse and Superman (and The Shadow, with Warhol himself impishly in the picture). They do not amount to that much aesthetically (he had been pursuing that idea all along with greater impact). What holds them together is and was Warhol himself.
That is what is missing in “Andy Warhol Portfolios”: Warhol. He was much more than an old-school artist like de Kooning was (or Gerhard Richter is today), where the art spoke for the artist; to properly gauge his oeuvre one would need more than an edited-down show (the works for this exhibition were lent by Bank of America). Paintings, silk-screens, movies, photographs, magazines, advertising illustrations, TV shows, even his ceramic cookie jar collection (why not?) and perhaps his silver wig to top it off, like Marie Antoinette’s head, would make a dent in understanding Warhol. He had only his self to offer and he did so, unselfishly to the end and beyond.