Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years is the title of a grand new show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum that is full of stunning art. It has almost 50 pieces by Warhol himself, including any number of masterpieces, paired with major objects by Gerhard Richter, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and other post-Warholian talents. There’s just one problem with the show: it has too many masterpieces, too much stunning art. It makes Warhol look like an old master, in the mode of a Titian or Rubens, whereas he was all about breaking that mold. That’s where his true, astounding greatness lies. Warhol was much more than the precious objects he made, or any influence they had.
Warhol wasn’t about his photographic sources and repeated images, his pop subjects and celebrity sitters, his brash colors and flawed surfaces—all the standard and very Met-y themes explored in this tasteful, connoisseurial show. He was and is about a bizarre, unique Warholian essence lying beneath all those details, one that’s there in every ad that featured him, every party he hosted, every silly portrait he sold. The other artists in this exhibition borrow from his pictures, but they almost never steal from his true Warholism. The show serves Warhol well, if only by exposing the huge gap between him and even his greatest successors.
At their best, Prince, Sherman, and Richter—as well as Bruce Nauman, Barbara Kruger, Ai Weiwei, and the show’s other notables—make really excellent art. The thing is, they—and we—know that’s what they’re doing. With Warhol, from the beginning, you could wonder if art was in question at all. His works have become so hallowed, it’s hard to remember how radical his soup cans and Brillo boxes seemed before they cost dozens of millions of dollars. When they first appeared on the scene, Warhol’s unsellable pictures could seem as dumb and mute as the objects they showed; his Marilyns might really have been the dumb blondes of art. There didn’t seem much difference between looking at a Warhol picture of a soup can and staring at the real thing, between ogling his stars or the ones in Variety. Both the originals and his copies are just there in the world, for the looking, but without obvious intentions or any particular point. I believe that this dumb muteness is still there at the heart of Warhol’s excellence. His works can seem so unthinking, they’re smart—they have a deadpan directness that’s also there in Vermeer and Manet and Cézanne.
That’s what’s missing from the explicit social critique of a Hans Haacke (his giant cigarette pack is in the show, taking a poke at Big Tobacco) or the conceptual brilliance of a John Baldessari (he gets in with pieces based on film stills). Their works feel fully willed and artfully conceived, doing the things we expect art to do. With Warhol, we’re never so sure.
Warhol doesn’t only make art. He remakes what it might be. Only a few of the other artists in the Met show could be said to have done anything close. Damien Hirst did, maybe, in the sheer aggression of his Warholian sellout, and Jeff Koons did, in the glaring wrongheadedness of so much of his work. Both, however, are represented at the Met by objects that come close to tasteful, whereas to get at Hirst’s authentic Warholism, we’d need to sample the crass commerce of his $200 million Sotheby’s auction, and from Koons we’d need a dose of his matrimonial porn.
Those examples would have cast light on one of the most important features of Warhol: the lurking possibility that he’s simply bad. That’s not hard to see in Lonesome Cowboys, one of the few Warhol films included in this show. With its lackadaisical shooting and miking and script, Cowboys breaks every rule of what a good movie should be, which is what makes it worth watching. Warhol’s Love Boat cameo and TDK ads, and his piles of gawd-awful portraits—as well as the absurd market they’ve spawned—would have confirmed his badness potential. (Which may be why the Met has left them out.) But it’s worth reading badness back into all the works now acclaimed as icons—into the Marilyns and Elvises and Jackies. It is (or ought to be) as easy to read them as being full of thoughtless stargazing and a magpie love of shiny things as to read them as witty commentaries on stardom built around brilliant compositional moves. They always deliver a slap in the face, as well as an invitation.
Warhol didn’t upgrade low culture into high art, the way Roy Lichtenstein did. And he didn’t insist, abracadabra, that the humble must count as fine, as Marcel Duchamp did with his urinal Fountain. Warhol kept the low low and dared high folk to swim in it—and to count their baptism as art. That’s what this posh show at the Met can’t quite get across.
Remember that from his earliest days as an artist, Warhol was and wanted to be a true icon of popular culture, not merely its recorder. He was at least as well known—and maybe as genuinely important—for the antics at his silver-walled Factory, or later at Studio 54, as for any artwork he made. That means that Warhol doesn’t merely use art to convey the sadness of Marilyn, the desperation of Elvis, the superficiality of a socialite such as Nan Kempner, the way a great photographer might. (The way Richard Avedon does, for instance, in his Truman Capote portrait in this show.) Warhol shares his celebrities’ sadness, their striving, their superficiality. He’s got none of the safe distance that most makers—including all the clever Warholians now at the Met—keep from their subjects; he’s in the thick of things with them. It’s said Warhol genuinely liked Campbell’s soup. I doubt Lichtenstein kept up with Donald Duck.
Looking at a Warhol painting, you feel a mix of someone just being himself—the star-struck Warhol; Warhol rubbernecking at tabloid death—and someone wrapping that “natural” persona in complex artifice. The best room in Regarding Warhol gives a hint at the origins of his art’s double state. It sets Warhol in the context of art by and about gays and lets us see that the doubleness that’s in almost any Warhol may be there already in the simple fact of being gay in a homophobic world—where you’re seen as not just being gay but as playing gay too. Warhol couldn’t simply act however he wanted, be as limp-wristed as he chose; he was always also viewed as acting the “swish,” as being that character known as the Limp-Wristed Man. In his paintings, he doesn’t simply express a stargazer’s love of Marilyn, the way an outsider fan artist might. He also expresses an arch awareness of his own fandom, a remove from it, an awareness of the social performance it counts as. And he uses the artifacts of painting—the crudeness of silk screen, the harshness of unblended color, the vacancy of blank fields of paint, the endless repetition of subjects—to evoke the “unnatural” state of his tastes. He doesn’t merely depict Marilyn. Like a drag queen, he makes sure that we notice the way that he’s capturing her.