Friday, November 30, 2012

REGARDING WARHOL at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an extensive look at Andy Warhol's influence on art and popular culture over the last fifty years.  The exhibition is organized around five overarching themes in Warhol's work: banality, celebrity, sexuality, appropriation, and business.  Each of these themes could have easily been a show of its own, but instead the audience is treated to a jam-packed historical and thematic survey of some of the most influential artworks from the second half of the twentieth century.  "Overwhelming" doesn't even begin to describe the vast scope that the Met is trying to cover, but sometimes a grand overview can be worth contemplating.

Left: Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles (1962); right: Ai Weiwei, Neolithic Vase with Coca-Cola Logo (2010)

Beginning with banality and seriality, Warhol’s Green Coca-Cola Bottles from 1962 displays his fascination with consumer culture, taking something as commonplace as a soda bottle and repeating it many times so as to raise its status to that of an item worthy of worship.  Juxtaposed with Ai Weiwei’s Neolithic Vase with Coca-Cola Logo from 2010, the status symbol of Coca-Cola is clear.  What Warhol accomplishes with seriality, Ai Weiwei accomplishes by painting the logo onto a 5,000 year old treasure, ruining this ancient work of art while raising the symbol of Coca-Cola to one worthy of imprinting itself on 5,000 years of culture.  

Visual continuity between symbols is taken a little too far at times, as can be seen in the first room of the “No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle” section of the exhibition.  Two versions of Warhol’s 1964 Flowers hang among works such as Jeff Koons’ Wall Relief with Bird from 1991, a large, hyper-realistic floral sculpture, and Takashi Murakami’s more recent flowered wallpaper.  While the room itself is a joyful assault of color, the grouping of these “flower” works cheapens the original intent behind Warhol’s Flowers, which some have speculated to be about life and death.  The stark black backgrounds of Warhol’s Flowers harken back to the momento mori of Dutch vanitas and still-life paintings, meant to remind viewers of their morality.  Murakami’s psychedelic and joyful wall paper with its thousands of smiling flowers, on the other hand, uses the cute and colorful anime-inspired motifs to comment on Japanese popular culture and fetishism.  While there are clear similarities between the exploitation of popular culture in the art of Warhol, Koons, and Murakami, the all too obvious aesthetic uniformity of this flower room takes away from the social commentary of these works.

Andy Warhol, Flowers (1964)
Installation shot including Jeff Koons, Wall Relief with Bird (1991) and Takashi Murakami's flowered wallpaper

The audience is then asked to consider an array of reality-based film works.  Upon initial investigation, it would seem a far stretch to pair “Empire,” a 1964 film by Warhol that consists of eight hours of footage of the Empire State Building over the period of one night, with MTV’s show, “The Real World.”  In “Empire,” the audience is asked to simply watch the time pass, and while this may not be the reason that contemporary society indulges in reality television, it is certainly an underlying current.  In a show like “The Real World” viewers are entertained by the everyday antics of seven people who allow the world to watch them as they pass the time.  

Andy Warhol, "Empire" (1964)

The overwhelming variety of work makes it seem as if the Met has taken an entire floor of a Contemporary Art museum and jammed it into five gallery rooms.  But, if the curators have made one thing clear, it is that Warhol was an influential artist and celebrity, even if coming to that conclusion means demeaning the artistic merit of his work.   The Met has shown that it is time for us to consider other artists in the same context as we do Warhol, in a spotlight of consumer-driven celebrity glory.


The labyrinthine rooms at MoMA PS1 are lined with an exhibition titled New Pictures of Common Objects, an aptly named collection of works in media as diverse as photography, sculpture, video and installations, many of which contain common, everyday objects for which the show is named. The works attempt to create a dialogue referring to the state of the world today based on its forms of communication and technology. Trisha Baga, Lucas Blalock, Josh Kline, Margaret Lee, and Helen Marten, the five young artists represented in this contemporary show, convey the effects that both new and old forms of mass communication have on the state of the world and this young generation that now lives within its interconnected confines. Margaret Lee and Josh Kline are two artists represented that specifically capture the consumerism of common technological devices in powerful and humorous manners.

By focusing on everyday objects and readymades, one artist in particular conveys the state of the world’s correspondence. Margaret Lee, a young New York-based artist, creates appropriated art, producing works that become humorous renditions of common items. Her collection of pieces in the show, such as Cucumber Phone and Eggplant Phone, Lee produces humorous telephones shaped as vegetables; one hangs on a wall, another sits on the entryway table- locations one would expect the telephone to be. However, she spins the notion of talking on the phone into one of complete absurdity. Cucumber Phone has a very realistic pickle as a handle; Eggplant Phone is entirely shaped like its namesake. Both of these objects are situated in a room reminiscent of a grandmother’s living room that is complete with wallpaper and floral arrangements, with few details spared in creating a specific sentimental ambiance.  By handling her collection of witty, culinary-inspired sculptures of semi-readymade in this way, Lee highlights outdated forms of communication, while appropriating the technology of yesteryear and filling a new void, recycling to create nostalgia.

Contrasted with Margaret Lee’s telephones are Josh Kline’s pigmented silicone works, Creative Hands. These eerie, disembodied hands hold various technological devices, such as cameras and remote controls, which are lined on stark white shelves similar to what one would see in a supermarket or convenience store. An interesting commentary on the consumer nature of society fitting for the overall exhibition, this critique of consumer culture strikes an uncomfortable nerve in the viewer. Rapid advancements in technology create more desire for objects, and a fear the removal of these objects from our hands. Even when on display in such a sterile space, people cannot stop their preoccupation with items. Though Kline’s hands are unnerving, he also includes the amusing aspect that allows each viewer to laugh at himself/herself, as he or she uses their own pieces of technology to document the critique on this very gesture.

Both these young artists have much to say about mass communication and consumerism. Through the redundant visualization of technological devices, Margaret Lee and Josh Kline have created entertaining yet critical atmospheres in which the viewer feels simultaneously comfortable and on edge.  With the state of high-tech correspondence today, and the ease at which one is able to connect with another, it is a reminder not only of how far our technology has come, but also of the current frenzy to stay connected to one another.


REGARDING WARHOL: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years

Few twentieth century artists have garnered such commercial popularity and critical respect as has Andy Warhol. In the Metropolitan Museum’s retrospective, Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Warhol’s visual authority is explored in a display of the influence that he may have had on both his contemporaries and artists decades since. Broken down into five major themes—Daily News, Portraiture, Queer Studies, Consuming Images and No Boundaries, the exhibit finds its strength not just in its content of Warhol’s own work, but in the way it showcases of other important artists of our time that perhaps haven’t gained similar recognition. 

Exploring a darker side of Warhol that was often overlooked underneath fluorescent palettes and banal subject matter, the exhibit provided insight into how pop-art pieces, specifically of the ‘60s, functioned to bring attention toward issues of equality, freedom of speech and corporate abuse. Hans Haacke makes a strong showing with his oversized Helmsboro cigarettes. Warholian in his use of an everyday product to convey political or social propaganda, the carton was a protest to Senator Jesse Helms’ limiting the display of controversial art. With $600,000 accepted from Philip Morris to sponsor the Bill of Rights, Haacke superimposed Helms’ photo over the Marlboro logo to show the irony of the government promoting freedom of speech while at the same time suppressing creative expression. 

The issue of Warhol’s ambiguous motivation in creating his famous Marilyns finds commonality in Jeff Koons’ ceramic Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Both commentaries on public perception and the pitfalls of celebrity, Turquoise Marilyn with her clownish aqua eye shadow and lipstick bleeding past the lines smoothly transitions towards Koons’ master and pet almost identical, dripping in gold and bearing the same red smile.  Bringing forth this concept of adoration versus mockery is one of the exhibit’s strengths.

“I wanted everyday people, not superstars because that was what Andy was doing,” reads Chuck Close’s Philip Glass portrait label. But while some artists such as Chuck admit to being directly referencing Warhol, a big issue that comes into consciousness mid-exhibit is the designation of Warhol as the influencer versus the influenced. Alex Katz presents an interesting case in this thread of inquiry with his Lita portrait. With the socialite Lita Hornick depicted against a solid blue background, facial features diminished to flattened planes, the artist claims Warhol stole the latter’s signature portraiture style. With such significant players featured in Regarding Warhol, it does seem a little misleading to clump such a notable group of artists as followers rather than trendsetters themselves.

Beyond Warhol’s Campbell soup cans, multiple Jackies and color-blocked Maos, it is his 16mm films that gave visitors a better understanding of his motivations as an artist. His four-minute Screen Tests of significant players in the art scene and the eight-hour documentation of the Empire State Building from night to day brings forth the artist’s role as an observer and his obsessive interest in voyeurism. It was this constant drive to capture moments in time and his fascination with what lies beneath the surface that allowed his work to ultimately earn an immeasurable audience.  

By the end of the exhibition, the viewer gets the feeling that perhaps some connections were too far stretched, such as screens playing episodes of MTV’s Real World and The Osbournes. Citing the artist’s desire to create his own “Nothing Special” television show, the allusion that he paved the way for reality television, while probably not entirely untrue in some regard, felt all together too forced.

Whether the exhibit convincingly relays its message of the Warhol influence on all of the work is up for debate, but while in the magenta and chartreuse lined walls bearing his famous Cow Wallpaper print, the biggest point to Warhol’s work becomes crystal clear. Bid goodbye by Lou Reed’s vocals, Silver Clouds floating aimlessly, one walks away with the realization that beyond the propaganda and social commentary, Warhol’s art was simply meant to be experienced.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, is The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster show of the season. The exhibition immediately grabs the audience’s attention through title alone; invoking Warhol’s name is enough to draw in large crowds. In addition to forty or so Warhol pieces, an astonishing amount of work by other artists is displayed as well. Approximately one hundred works by Warhol’s contemporaries and those within his realm of influence are present. This begs the question: how many major artists can the Met cram into one exhibit? The attempt to organize this chaos was a valiant effort, but ultimately an unsuccessful one.  
The exhibition is categorized into five parts: "Daily News: From Banality to Disaster," "Portraiture: Celebrity and Power," "Queer Studies: Shifting Identities," "Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality," and "No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle." As the titles suggest, this is a large and complicated exhibition. In the beginning, it appears to be well organized, but as the show progressed, pieces were crowded together. The show lacks continuity; it jumps back and forth between styles, artists, and chronology. It seems like an attempt to fit all contemporary art of the period into one exhibit at the same time. The works are fit into each category loosely, making it appear to be equal parts cohesive and confused.
Despite the frantic quality, the exhibition is still an enjoyable walk through contemporary art history, showcasing familiar and well-loved works. The first room features Warhol’s infamous soup cans and coke bottles, surrounded by the work of various artists, including Jeff Koons. The link between the two artists is clear; both are making statements about mass production, American consumerism, and the definition of what constitutes art. An example is Koons’ encased and pristine Hoover vacuums; preserved in clear Plexiglas, they are elevated to a level of preciousness. The fluorescent glow of the lighting seduces the viewer into admiring the material objects as sacred ones. While these ideas are no longer fresh to audiences, they can still be appreciated in an art historical context.
In the next segment, on portraiture, viewers find what they came for when they see Warhol’s Marilyns, Jackies, and Elvises. The silkscreened legends are vibrantly colored yet tragic, showcasing the effects of fame and the disconnect from reality. Scattered among Warhol’s silkscreens are works by portraiture powerhouses Chuck Close and Cindy Sherman. Chuck Close’s Phil commands attention with its monumental scale and magnified features. The photorealistic work provokes a dialogue about the relationship between photography and painting; both are reproductive methods that translate reality in their own way. Gerhard Richter, another featured artist, cites photography as a major influence in his paintings. Helga Matura is one work showcasing his signature style: monochromatic paintings in the aesthetic of blurry photographs.
The next rooms flow into one another, and wandering aimlessly throughout the exhibition brings the viewer through themes of gender issues, repetition and reproduction, and commercial decoration. It is hard to find the dividing line between subjects when the rooms are packed as full as they are. The overall effect feels like travelling through time; almost every major artist of the five decades is represented. It is too much to process at once, but one thing is clear: even though Warhol is named as the dominant force influencing all artists around him, the independent power of the “other” artists cannot be ignored. The audience comes looking for Warhol, but they leave finding a deeper appreciation for many other artists of the time.