In 1975, Andy Warhol said, “Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there — I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television.” There is a constant dual narrative with Warhol between reality and fantasy, the physical and the mechanical, the life lived and the life watched on a screen, and what this quote sums up is that Warhol, in the end, found it all to be one in the same. This exhibit of Warhol’s late work, Andy Warhol: The Last Decade, is no exception to the contradictions and in fact reveals just about as much as it obscures.
Looking In the Shadows
The first gallery is covered with repeating images of a cartoonish self-portrait on purple wallpaper. And you think … well, I did anyway … “There is the Warhol I know and love!” However, upon closer inspection, the works adorning the walls, such as “Self Portrait (Strangulation)” (1978) and “Self Portrait with Skull” (1978), form a drastic change in subject matter from the sixties. This is not the Warhol from the sixties which is one of the many reasons why this period is so significant and why this is not just another Warhol exhibit. Presenting Warhol’s treatment of his own death is a very clear way of presenting this to the unsuspecting museumgoer right off the bat.
This is the first time such an extensive exhibition has tackled Warhol’s late works, it is a period during which he created over 3,500 new works. This is an awkward period to treat because it is so expansive and it might be easy to suggest that his talent was waning and that he was trying to too hard. The exhibit doesn’t portray this frenzy in its numbers (of the 3,500 only approx 50 are present) but in the speed in which he ate up and served out styles.
We see Warhol’s undertaking of abstraction in which he is very successful. The abstract lends itself more readily to the ephemeral and to otherworldliness, so it is no wonder that figurative artists often flirt with abstraction towards the end of their lives (think Titian, Cézanne, Bonnard, and Monet). There are a couple works from Warhol’s abstract Oxidation series in which the canvas is primed with copper-based paint and then is urinated on by either Warhol himself or other people in the Factory. Surprisingly, the effect is quite beautiful. The wall text explains that these series are evidence of his fascination with and envy of the Abstract Expressionists. We see his fascination with these artists on several occasions during the exhibit but I do not, however, agree that Warhol was envious.
This gesture, urinating on the canvas, recalls a painting by Francis Bacon, “Blood on Pavement” (1988), which looks similar to a late Rothko, split into several, horizontal bands of color and yet in the center is a smear of red paint. Some believed that this was Bacon’s way of saying, “Just by smearing red paint on the canvas and calling it blood, my painting has more emotion than your hazy, abstract forms will ever possess.” Warhol’s “piss-paintings” — to steal a common nickname used to describe the works — seem to work in the same way. Pollock, Kline, de Kooning and others inserted themselves, visually, into their works. The Oxidation series seemed to say, you want gesture? You want physical presence? You want the mark of the artist?! I’ll show you the mark of the artist! Warhol’s other abstractions in the gallery as just as mysterious and handsome as the Oxidation series despite being sans bodily fluids.
The next room is filled with his Yarn (1983) series, paint with silk-screens, and Pollock on acid. He takes the very deliberate and forceful gesture of Pollock, freezes it, and turns it into rainbow doodles. In the same room are his Egg (1982) series that recall enlarged fragments of Larry Poons’s work. Warhol clearly had a fascination with the Abstract Expressionists, but envy had nothing to do with it. He isn’t making fun but having fun, taking something very serious and deep and exploring it in the flatest way possible, erasing any sense of physical depth.
Connecting With the World
The exhibition includes a group of paintings that Warhol collaborated on with artists Jean Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente. The style of each artist complements Warhol’s art very well, so when they visually overlap and converse it is attractive. It is easy to pick out the marks of each artist, but not in a way that makes the work distracting or disjointed. More so, it heightens each artist’s approach and productively revealed the influences they had on one another.
Not touched upon here in this article, but laced throughout the exhibit, are videos of the various recordable ventures Warhol took through the last decade. He produced several TV programs, including Fashion: The Express and the Commissioner (1980) and Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes (1985), they not only provide a visual break from the continuous paint-on-canvas work in the exhibit, but present the work Warhol was doing outside of painting during this time.
Warhol was such an enigmatic character that no wall text will be able to explain him fully. And with an exhibit this expansive and diverse, it can be difficult to make sense of it all but the catalogue provides a strong foundation to fully profit from the show. It productively adds to the thousands of pounds of ink that has been written about Warhol. Joseph D. Ketner II does a wonderful job of both critically discussing the works and examining the persona of Warhol during this late period.
Warhol’s Rorschach paintings came about in a typical Warhol fashion, he asked around to as what he should paint and one day someone suggested the Rorschach ink blocks. The paintings themselves appear flat opposed to the wall text description that they evoke “deep mysteries lurking beneath the surface.” I do think many of Warhol’s abstractions induce deeper sentiments than what remains on the surface of the canvas, but let’s not push it — these do not. There is a nice conceptual layer to them however; the idea that the supposed patient viewing the forms is evaluated on their responses to them … but who is evaluating me?
During my second visit to the exhibit, I encountered what may be evidence of the exorbitant copyright laws of the Andy Warhol Foundation, a security guard told me that I wasn’t allowed to take notes. As in, whatever I was writing down on my little pad of paper, I had to stop. I questioned, “I’m not allowed to … take notes?” “Not with this exhibit,” she replied. While no other security guard had a problem with my, supposedly, blatant infringement of the King of Appropriation’s foundation copyright laws, it would be interesting to know where the fire is to this smoke.
The last two galleries contain the religious pieces that Warhol completed towards the end of his life. And to be honest, they are very impressive. “The Last Supper” (1986) (only shown at Fort Worth and now Brooklyn. Sorry, Baltimore and Milwaukee, you missed out!) uses his tried and true technique of repetition. The Last Supper series, for which he made over a hundred variations, was a commission for the inaugural exhibit at Alexander Iolas’s new Milan gallery, located across the street from Leonardo de Vinci’s “Last Supper” fresco.
I thought it was amusing. A presentation of the Big C, the man himself, complete with motorcycles, the Wise owl (from the snack company) and an eagle! What’s not to love? Americana, baby. And all this is yours for $6.99.
Yet, it doesn’t feel like it has religious weight, right? And many critics are wary of trying to dig out the religiosity in these series, like trying to talk politics about Jasper Johns’s flags. But Warhol approaches religion like he does almost everything else; why should he treat religion any different than his beloved advertisements or celebrities? He treats it with nonchalance and casualness; this is part of his America, his notion of reality. To Warhol you don’t have to search for the religiosity and the spiritual, it is right there! The Big C! How can you miss it? No digging necessary, which is why the quote on the wall from Warhol in reference to the series seems irrelevant: “I painted them all by hand — I myself; so now I’ve become a Sunday painter … That’s why the project took so long. But I worked with a passion.” The curator appears to be trying to convince the viewer of Warhol’s religious passion, to convince them to take these works “seriously”.
In the last room there are two more Last Supper works: “The Last Supper” (1986) and “Detail of the Last Supper (Christ 112 Times)” (1986). The repetition of the fragment, Christ’s head outlined in Byzantine gold, is exceptionally beautiful. From the front it appeared as if it was a segment of a film strip and if it were sped up Christ would appear be in motion. From the edges of the painting, looking at it from an angle, the heads of Christ begin to evolve and morph into different forms as they recede into the distance. The room also includes two of his last self-portraits, both which are penetrating and slightly ghostly.
This exhibit reiterates the complexity of Warhol during a specific and profound time period in the artist’s life. The late period of any artist always holds a kind of curiosity and wonder. We see a new vulnerability in Warhol; an almost panicky need to create something of worth. This doesn’t debase the work nor is it evidence of him losing his cool. He remains a complete conundrum which can be discomforting to the viewer There is no doubt that Warhol created some of his best, most interesting work during this period and it is how you choose to approach this period, with all its contradictions and idiosyncrasies, that will affect your view. Do you believe him? Does it matter? And let’s face it, being a mystery will never go out of style.