Even if a hard-won escape from the winter chill is no justification for the thunder and tumult of clanky boots and the chaos of iPhone shutter snaps inside the Whitney Museum of American Art, you will forgive, for at least fifteen minutes, waiting in line to enter. After all, judging by the snaking, interminable lines feeding into the museum, New York never quite shook Warhol fever, and the winter months invite the sick to flock indoors to warmer lodgings. On view until March 31, the Museum’s brilliant and monumental, retrospective “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again” is essential viewing for anyone curious about the genealogy of our modern, image-centered culture. Old questions are answered yet again, and new ones are asked.
The collection of prints, paintings and other art objects partitioned to three floors of the Museum is astounding. Warhol mainstays are present, of course. Expect to rendezvous with hyperchromatic clones of Chairman Mao or to complete the suggestive glance of an equally color-stained Marilyn Monroe. However, you should expect a few wonderful surprises.
New to me is a loving sendup of Marcel Duchamp’s “The Large Glass,” which Warhol has cheekily entitled “The Large Sleep.” For this standing glass work, Warhol has appropriated the structure of Duchamp’s most recognizable chef d’oeuvre while replacing the Frenchman’s mechanical cast of characters with two stills taken from his 1963 film “Sleep.” In the comparison of these identical images, the film stills give themselves to movement in their spatial difference, just as they provide for new kinds of superimpositions in their translucence. Looking through, the piece allows an infinite many views to the space it occupies, and also to the collection of items within. Whether in the reflection of Monroe’s face or in the gallop of the many ever-eager gallery hoppers, the stills offer themselves as something to be emblazoned upon the environment—a certified stamp of the feigned approval that one has come to associate with Andy Warhol and the factory “brand.” To study Warhol’s work is to be initiated into his materialist gaze. One arrives at a way of seeing the world as a collection of marketed objects, a way of seeing not too dissimilar from our own. But for Warhol, whether his objects have their own purposes or simply persist as representatives of their own object-ness is for the viewer to consider.
Several of Warhol’s film works are also represented in the Whitney’s show, but if there are any noticeable absences in the massive exhibition, it is the unfortunate omission of motion pictures such as “Chelsea Girls” and “Lonesome Cowboys.” Nonetheless, one can hardly complain. Warhol’s factory screen tests of superstars like Edie Sedgwick play in darkness (ten of them, each on 16mm film) on the fifth floor of the Museum in an open access, microtheatrical setting. On the third floor, one encounters a compendium of familiar faces, lookalikes and reproductions—most of them beaming at the viewer on videotape from small screen CRTs. On display are video rarities, each worth watching in full, like the often-licentious factory diaries and Warhol’s short-lived “Fifteen Minutes” produced for MTV. David Bowie, Grace Jones and Debbie Harry all make appearances alongside factory mainstays like Allen Midgette and Andy Warhol himself. There is no escape from celebrity and excess. Before you leave, don’t forget to watch Warhol eat a Burger King Whopper. You have to observe and hear it in person.
Another one to view in the flesh: the “Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times.” This infamous 1963 work of silkscreen ink on two large canvases functions with numbness as its fulcrum. Its eye-pleasing organization and ceaseless representation of death inoculate the art object against direct representation of tragedy to the point of its rebirth as a fashion object. Just observe the many college-aged visitors to the Museum who, dressed to the nines and always in pairs, patiently wait their turn to pose in front of the twisted, bloody wreckage for Instagram clout. The left-hand canvas is covered with these fourteen, identical images while the right-hand canvas is a blank, imposing orange rectangle, roughly equal to the dimensions of your smartphone screen.
She stands with her back to the work of art. Her friend lines up the shot as she doles out researched glances committed to muscle-memory, well-aware that taking the photo is only half the look. The shutter snaps sound at half-volume: another kind of screen test. This time it is digitally, and this time it is for immediate mass consumption. The women switch places and judiciously apply their filters. They upload, and the “Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times” takes them with it.