What Andy Saw: Warhol Wasn't Just the Godfather of Pop. He Was a Clairvoyant Whose Ideas on Celebrity, Cinema and Even Supersizing Made Him the Most Influential Artist since Picasso
Plagens, Peter, Newsweek
Byline: Peter Plagens
Great artists make the familiar seem astonishing. Really great artists turn around and make the astonishing seem familiar again. In the big, 250-work retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (up through Aug. 18), Andy Warhol does both--and then some. His paintings of electric chairs and gangsters, and replica-sculptures of Brillo boxes, remind you what an astute eye Warhol had for exactly what in our stockpile of popular-culture artifacts might be truly iconic. His harsh, acidic silk-screen images of tragic Marilyn Monroe and grieving Jackie Kennedy exude a strange reassuring quality, perhaps from having graced the covers of half the coffee-table books on contemporary art published during the past 40 years. And Warhol's sly but perfected sense of scale, color and modulated crudity of image-making lets you understand just how, at the beginning of the 1960s, pop art's ironic immediacy managed to overthrow abstract expressionism's melodramatic paint-flinging for the top spot in the American art world. The exhibition demonstrates why--and this is probably an understatement--Warhol is the most influential artist the world has known since Picasso. What the Beatles were to pop music, Warhol has been to modern art.
But Warhol's enormous body of work--paintings, drawings, sculpture, prints, photographs and films--resonates far beyond the confines of art. Today, his deadpan prescience about celebrity, cinema, supersizing and even sleazy sex seems to turn up everywhere. In fact, Warhol's takes on pop culture have leached out over the years and so pervaded the cultural soil that you almost don't notice them anymore. His passive-aggressive esthetic in the Marilyn portraits is at once celebratory and heartless--just like the endless grinding of the wheels of fame today on the E! network. The gruesome but somehow distanced car-crash "Disaster" paintings keep popping up, four decades after they were made, on our TV sets in the form of "Cops" and "Wildest Police Chases." "Any kind of wickedness or anything that is punky or raw goes back to Andy," says fashion designer Betsey Johnson, who was a Warhol-scene insider back in the 1960s. "Andy was the daddy of us all."
Warhol didn't invent pop art--Roy Lichtenstein was already showing comic-strip paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1961--but he wanted in on it. Casting about for a suitably mundane subject (Warhol was a former commercial artist and believed the makings of art could be found anywhere), he hit upon Campbell's soup cans and showed all 32 flavors in his first gallery solo as a pop artist in--where else?--L.A. in 1962. The critics hated them, but that didn't stop Andy. The same year he discovered the advantages of silk-screening photographic images onto canvas. The medium allowed him to crank out paintings in droves--Warhol remarked that he wanted to be a machine--and to indulge in a cheap, indifferent medium that perfectly matched his attitude toward his subject matter. It's no accident that Warhol fixated on Marilyn and Jackie just after their lives turned tragic. He had a love-hate relationship with celebrity. Warhol was amused by how famous people are, after a while, famous simply by being famous, and that we become more genuinely interested in their lives when misfortune makes them more human. But Warhol--who was raised poor in Pittsburgh and was a picked-on sickly kid in school--resented celebrities' good fortune, too. His callously ready-made red-lip shapes and grotesque eye-shadow patterns on Marilyn testify to that. Warhol's serigraphed heroines don't tell you much about their souls, only about their utility as fungible tabloid icons. In that way, he was a perfect barometer for our scandal-sheet culture, where the minute actors or singers run afoul of the law (or their spouses), their notoriety skyrockets. …