Warhol Retrospective Opens at SFMOMA This Month

By Sura Wood

Andy Warhol show comes from the Whitney to SFMOMA; it promises to give form to the this ”profoundly influential, restlessly creative, complicated figure.”

Though Andy Warhol may be best known as a pop artist—his iconic paintings of Campbell Soup cans, Coca Cola bottles and comic book characters launched his career—in reality, his engagement with pop art was brief, lasting only a few years.

“Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” a comprehensive, 40-year retrospective of over 300 works, which opens at SFMOMA this month, attempts to humanize the artist behind the myth while emphasizing Warhol’s creativity and originality. It arrives after a run at the Whitney, where the show was organized.

“This is a chance to see the expanse of Warhol’s whole career and the development and complexity of the work,” says Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s Elise S. Haas senior curator of painting and sculpture. “Bits and pieces have been looked at before but there has been nothing this holistic or personal. His identity as a gay man, for instance, is an important element of the show.” 

The exhibition includes work from Warhol’s formative years in the 1950s, including delicate line drawings of Truman Capote, whom he idolized, and commercial advertising art he produced in New York. Among that work is a 1956 collection of ink illustrations of pointy-toed slippers collaged with gold metal leaf and embossed foil. Each is dedicated to and named for a figure important to Warhol or well known in fashion circles, including Capote, Diana Vreeland, Elvis Presley, Kate Smith, Babe Paley, Mae West and the transgender celebrity Christine Jorgensen.

Born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh during the Depression, the gay son of immigrant parents,
Warhol grew up as an outsider infatuated with American pop culture, glamour and Hollywood. His celebrity worship reached its apex in commissioned silk screen portraits of the rich, powerful and famous, his single largest body of work. Nearly 40 such pieces from the 1970s and ’80s are displayed here in an immersive grid installation. The 40- by 40-inch silkscreens of Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Dennis Hopper, Versace and the Shah of Iran, among others, were intended to culminate in “Portrait of Society,” a monumental project he left unfinished. The success of Warhol’s portraiture practice provided revenue for pet projects like Interview Magazine, which he founded, and experimental, less remunerative ventures in underground film and cable television, some of which are shown in this exhibit.

The show also includes lesser-known artworks produced during a period that stretched from the 1970s until Warhol’s death in 1987. “It’s an overlooked, neglected and undervalued part of his career and there hasn’t been much serious scholarship devoted to it,” notes Garrels. An imposing portrait of Chairman Mao looking down from on high is featured in this section, along with “Ladies and Gentleman,” a series that represented Warhol’s most overt engagement with gender and queer identities. The subjects of these portraits were Latino and black drag queens and trans women recruited from Manhattan bars and other hangouts. Warhol printed and enlarged the photos before applying layers of paint in vivid contrasting colors.

As a post-modern artist who came of age in the 1950s and ’60s, Warhol had a consummate understanding of media culture and the power of images, especially his own. A notorious shape shifter and poseur, Warhol’s self-portraits are key to the evolution of the public personas he inhabited and the nuanced mutability of his various masks. “I always thought I’d like my tombstone to be blank,” he once said. “Actually, I’d like it to say ‘figment.’” He used photo booth images for his first self-portraits (1963-64), a quartet of panels in shades of blue where he portrays himself in sunglasses, brashly confronting the camera. By 1967, the self-portraits had grown coy, their subject introspective and increasingly elusive. For “Self-portrait (in drag),” a half-dozen color photos taken in 1989-82, he posed—quite convincingly—as incarnations of several different women.

“He’s the quintessential artist of the 20th and 21st centuries and more relevant than ever,” says Garrels. “People may think ‘I know what Warhol is about.’ But I hope the exhibition will open Warhol up to visitors and that they’ll come away with a deeper sense of this profoundly influential, restlessly creative, complicated figure.”

May 19 → Sept. 2


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