Andy Warhol's Eternal Return, in a Retrospective at the Whitney

"From A to B and Back Again"
A still of Edie Sedgwick from a 1965 film The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved

The Andy Warhol retrospective "From A to B and Back Again" at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, which opened on Monday and takes up the two floors of the museum in addition to parts of the lobby and other areas, is astonishingly well edited for such a mammoth undertaking. 

"Ethel Scull 36 Times" from 1963 was created by transferring photo booth images to silkscreen.  Whitney Museum of American Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS) N.Y.


With about 350 works, including masterpieces and lesser known works from his heyday and the years he was considered in decline, the exhibition functions as a reappraisal and celebration of the part-time Montauk artist for his entire oeuvre, not merely as the international Pop Art sensation. This seems apt for the first American retrospective in 30 years. The show travels to Chicago and San Francisco after closing on March 31.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition demonstrates the artist's engagement with themes that would occupy him for a lifetime: self-presentation, fame, history, and the media. At different times, he also tackled money, consumer culture, gender, power, sex, mortality, violence, and race.

Now, as in previous decades and likely into the future, his work looks fresh and visionary. It seems we have been cast from his molds — like human Brillo boxes or multiples of Marilyn — as our own (social) media "Superstars," with egos dependent on "likes" in our Instagram feed.

There is a lot of explanatory text in the show. This can sometimes be a distraction. Here, it is highly recommended. With work this deceptively simple and direct, the temptation is to move quickly on to the next one, particularly for those familiar with his art, and really, who isn't?

At the press preview last week, Adam Weinberg, the museum's director, said the exhibition's curator, Donna De Salvo, a recognized Warhol expert, had specific reasons for choosing the images she did from the thousands of works Warhol produced.

Ms. De Salvo, a senior curator at the museum who is one of the last curators to work with the artist while he was alive, asks you to consider the more sophisticated underpinnings of Warhol's choices or why he presented his subjects the way he did. It turns out there is a lot of depth to his surface.

The viewer will see him winding his way through history and his own work to return to themes again and again up until his unexpected death in 1987. On the fifth floor, the exhibition greets you with a 9-by-36-foot mural "Camouflage," a current and ubiquitous trend in fashion. Its all-over abstract patterning refers to the heroic action painting he encountered in New York early in his career, translated through a depersonalized mechanical process into an updated product of his Factory. It also becomes a veiling technique over Leonardo's "Last Supper" in a similarly sized painting, one of his final works featured in the show's last gallery. 

These works exemplify how his early influences emerged late in his career. Warhol's initial reaction to abstraction was to subvert it. In the tradition of Marcel Duchamp's "ready mades," he employed existing images and reproduced them mechanically. With "Camouflage," he presented non-objective imagery under his terms. Co-opting patterns from a widely used consumer fabric, he raised it to high art on a self-important monumental scale. Concurrently, he deflated the puffed-up machismo associated with midcentury abstraction.

Warhol came to New York in 1949, after graduating from what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He worked as a commercial illustrator during the zenith of the New York School. After a name change from Warhola to Warhol, he had his nose thinned by surgery to conform with the era's norms of attractiveness. Thus began a lifelong preoccupation with how he presented himself and his persona.

In his painting "Before and After," he refers to a rhinoplasty ad he found and also to these same standards of beauty. The show has two passport photos from 1956 that are their own before and after, with one of the photos altered by pencil to show how he would look with his nose whittled.

The exhibition includes fashion illustrations and his designs for corporate promotional material. It also shows an artist engaged with the subjects and news of the day who pursued his own creative outlet through them. He began to make drawings of fanciful shoes and named them for celebrities such as Elvis Presley and Mae West. There is also a collection of ephemera that demonstrates his working process from photos to sketches to final drawings, one of which featured a man inserting a needle into his vein to promote a special report on crime in America by CBS.

An early gallery holds a collection of iconic Pop images taken primarily from 1962. Here, his early hand-painted versions of Campbell's soup cans, S&H Green Stamps, and Dance Diagrams are joined by works in a new medium. Determined to keep evidence of his hand out of his work, he found a way to remove it entirely. Silkscreen became the ideal medium to transfer a photographic image to the canvas. With a "factory" of assistants that helped with the transfers, Warhol retained the mantle of artist while minimizing his role. He translated it into sculpture as well with his Brillo Boxes, which adapted the aims of Minimalist sculpture to his own methods.

A series of succeeding galleries display his hand-painted versions of comic strip panels, newspaper facsimiles, and coke bottles and then explode into the silkscreened images that are so well known. As Mr. Weinberg said, there are clear reasons why these versions of the subjects were chosen. 

The "Marilyn Diptych" was created after Monroe's death with the left side's multiple in Technicolor and the right in black and white, the images becoming smudged and then black by the second column and fading into oblivion in the last. Jackie Kennedy is presented in three photos taken around the death of John F. Kennedy: before the assassination, at the funeral, and at the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson. Taken out of order and presented serially, as if a motion picture, there is a dislocation in the images that the curator posits is a reflection the public's grief and confusion during that time.

Similarly, the "Death and Disaster" and "Most Wanted" canvases offer a crystalized summary of the artist's subject matter, a certain electric chair, so abstracted to be indecipherable, an attack of white police officers on a peaceful civil rights demonstration in the South, a lethal can of tuna fish. 

The exhibition goes on to explore the artist's retirement from painting in the mid-1960s, when he produced his Cow wallpaper, his floating Mylar pillow "paintings," film, and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multimedia and performance project with a soundtrack by the Velvet Underground. 

After the artist was shot in 1968 and almost died, he launched into new projects that followed him into the 1970s. These included "Ladies and Gentlemen," a series of portraits of drag queens and trans women, portraits of Chairman Mao, and a series of still lifes that became increasingly abstract. 

The 1980s brought more innovation as Warhol continued to engage with new technologies — such as the early desktop computer he used to make a portrait of Blondie's Deborah Harry — and other mediums like television. He also began collaborating with the younger street artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

There are a number of works that serve as cultural critique. A series of dollar signs sum up the '80s and its obsession with money, an obsession that continues into the present day. There are also works that refer to President Ronald Reagan and his administration's priorities. After his portraits of others in the 1970s, he has his own Duchampian "Rrose Selavy" drag moment in a series of Polaroid self-portraits in wigs and makeup. Having mined Duchamp early in his career, this period marks a return in many ways. Ms. De Salvo terms this the "recursive nature of his work." We sense Nietzsche's eternal return in subjects like the Mona Lisa that he shrouds in white in his 1979 version. He first used the subject in the 1960s, when it toured America, attracting crowds who waited for hours to see it, another oddball celebrity moment. 

The floor ends with examples from his "Rorschach" series, another nod to an early technique, where he would draw in ink on one piece of paper and blot it with another. In these acrylic paintings, he continues to mostly take his own hand out of the process while creating something unique and abstract. These mural-sized paintings demonstrate his lifelong simultaneous deployment of Modernist and Post-Modernist strategies.

There are more galleries on this floor and around the museum, where there are scores of his portraits, multiple flower paintings, his Cow wallpaper, and more on display. 

As in his other mediums, the artist was a prolific filmmaker. That output is scattered through the exhibition and more formally in theaters on the fifth and third floor. The artist embraced accessibility in his painted works, but film allowed him to be more obscure, outrageous, and avant-garde. On the third floor, the films will be presented as themed programs. The fifth floor films relate to subjects in the exhibition there.

"You can get Andy Warhol in a quick moment, and it's fine if that's what you want, but if you dig deep you're going to be rewarded," Ms. De Salvo noted at the preview. "Any great work of art always rewards you if you take the time." 

After spending a couple of hours there, it is clear that she is correct. Go slowly, read the texts, and savor the richness of this feast. And don't forget to save room for the films as dessert or a later second helping.

The Whitney's late "Rorschach" from 1984 made from acrylic paint and canvas next to a 1964 self portrait from the Art Institute of ChicagoThe Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS) N.Y.
A facsimile of Andy Warhol's "Cow" wallpaper serves as a backdrop for his silkscreened "Flowers" in their own side gallery in this installation photo.Jennifer Landes/ The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York