Throughout his own career, the celebrity artist tried to hide behind his work. Can the first Warhol exhibition in 20 years shed new light?by Emma Crichton-Miller / February 29, 2020 / Leave a comment
In March, Tate Modern opens its first major Andy Warhol exhibition in nearly 20 years. It follows the Whitney’s monumental show last year, the first US retrospective since the one at MoMA in 1989 organised after Warhol’s unexpected death two years earlier. Given the global ubiquity of Warhol’s image and works—whether in galleries and auction rooms, or on funky stationery and Calvin Klein swimwear—the long gap may seem hard to believe. After Picasso, Warhol is the most famous and influential artist of the 20th century.
Sotheby’s prelude to the Tate show in February, Andy Warhol: Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away!, reminded us how sought after he is. The auction house has overseen a string of record-breaking prices—from the $1.4m hammered in 1988 for his 210 Coca-Cola Bottles to the $105m taken in 2013 for his Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster). Perhaps because of his commercial success, critical respect has been harder to come by.
Yet the Tate and Whitney shows suggest there is much more to be discovered about this complex, contradictory and unquestionably great artist. Both have been stimulated by new research, including the detective work on display in Blake Gopnik’s new thousand-page biography, Warhol: A Life as Art. And both argue that new insights—particularly into his upbringing, his relationship with his mother, his sexuality and his religious faith—will transform the way we evaluate his work. The Whitney quotes Warhol himself: “Nobody really looks at anything; it’s too hard. I think someone should see my paintings in person before he says they’re vacuous.”
Of course, at other times Warhol invited casual dismissal of his work: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” But we shouldn’t take him at his word. Beyond our first thrill of recognition or pleasure in pattern—whether it is a painting of a Campbell’s soup tin or an image of Marilyn Monroe or an impassive Chairman Mao—we are drawn in by the enigmatic originality of his work to a deeper reckoning with the images’ power.
Warhol spent his career trying to disappear behind his work. He claimed, “in his public persona” (as…