The most important figure in contemporary art may be a guy named Andy Warhol. Not the Andy Warhol who gave us Campbell’s soup cans and Marilyns. That Warhol died in 1987 and now counts only as an Old Master of pop art. The other Andy Warhol is the one who appeared on The Love Boat and made paintings by peeing, whose movies could be absolutely static but whose sold-out life was as buzzy as could be. That Warhol died in ’87, too, but his influence lives on as though he never left the scene.
Fifty years ago this autumn, Warhol made his switch from commercial illustrator to fine artist. Since then, he’s had the same all-consuming influence that Picasso had on the half-century before. Except that where Picasso shattered what art looked like, Warhol transformed what it could be.
“To my mind, Warhol’s everywhere …there are a zillion people who resonate with his example in some way,” says curator and writer Jack Bankowsky. In 2009 he helped organize a big exhibition called Pop Life that paired Warhol with Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and his other heirs—and that billed the Love Boat appearance as one of Warhol’s more notable works. Warhol, Bankowsky wrote in his essay for the show, crafted a “next step after art” in which “social climbing, shopping, cruising, and collecting are bound up in a roving social sculpture held together by art—which is to say business.”
This Warhol set an example for all the artists who now do more than paint and sculpt—who appear in the tabloids and on TV, who design for Louis Vuitton and star in luxury ads, whose price tags matter as much as the diamond skulls they get stuck to. “[Warhol’s] trick is that he somehow brought all that stuff under the sign of art,” says Bankowsky. “We’ve gotten to the point where that larger Warhol is catching up to the pop Warhol.”
Over the weekend in Washington, this “larger” Warhol went on display at the National Gallery, in an extensive exhibition of pieces the artist built around the tabloid press. Titled Warhol: Headlines, the show includes works in video and film that still shape those art forms today. Across the Mall at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, curators just launched the first display of all 102 of the Shadow Paintings, which Warhol finished in 1979. They all show one version or another of the same unintelligible image—a bit of shadow in a studio corner—but silkscreened in a huge range of colors. They have the ironic opacity you’d expect from an art-school student today, along with the same slacker wink. “The opening party had disco. I guess that makes them disco décor,” Warhol said, when asked if the Shadows were art.
Like museums, the market has also come to embrace an enlarged view of Warhol. Amy Cappellazzo, in charge of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s auction house, says that although bidders would “just go bananas” for a great early Marilyn, over the last five years or so they have come to settle quite nicely for much later works—such as the 1986 “fright-wig” self-portrait that sold for more than $27 million last spring. Yet Cappellazzo acknowledges that “there are parts of Andy Warhol that no one can own”—that the market simply has no way to get its grips on Warhol the filmmaker, public figure, and mass--media machine.
The “serious” art world once wanted no part of that Warhol. In his own day, Warhol the TV star and painter of celebrities could look like a clear falling-off from, and selling out of, the great Warhol of classic pop art. “A lot of people had difficulty with him moving between the art world and fashion,” remembers John Hanhardt, a veteran film curator who knew him. (“The films are the great body of work—they are simply breathtaking,” Hanhardt adds. Many artists now feel the same.)
Warhol’s critics weren’t wrong to say he sold out. Works like his Shadow Paintings or the metal surfaces he peed on, let alone his Love Boat cameo, don’t register as unique works of genius, as his early works do. But that’s because Warhol had moved on to making un-unique art that tested what selling out might be about, in an America where selling more matters most. When Warhol churned out 102 almost illegible canvases, different only in their colorways, it was partly to explore the power of his brand and the mass production of the Warhol™ product. “I always think that quantity is the best gauge on anything,” Warhol once said, and that maxim came to govern his art. When rich collectors pay through the nose for a single shadow painting, as though it were a Rembrandt, they aren’t understanding what Warhol’s products mean. But they are proving his point, anyway.
“If we are going to be honest about what we’re taking from Warhol, we have to accept the business/art network as what he’s about,” says Bankowsky, the Pop Life curator. “The debased Warhol is actually the pure Warhol.