During the past decade or so, the Metropolitan Museum has tried to step up its game on contemporary art, and with “Regarding Warhol,” it swings for the fences. The show presents the Pope of Pop along with 60 artists who followed in his wake. It codifies his influence over the art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries by grouping his work along with the others’ under headings such as “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster,” “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power” and “Identities: Gay, Camouflaged and Hybrid.” The power of Andy’s brand is likely to make “Regarding Warhol” a home run as a visitor attraction. But as a curatorial exercise, it barely gets on base.
First off, the show looks like what it essentially is: a Warhol retrospective packed with filler. One could easily imagine it as a period survey from the future—say, a hundred years hence—looking back on our benighted era with a title like “Warhol and His Followers” or “Warhol and His School.” Andy is presented as the Old Master, with everyone else—even big names such as Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter—reduced to footnotes. It’s ironic to consider that galleries all over the world were probably desperate to get their artists into this exhibition. (The New York Observer recently published an online ranking of the dealers with the most artists in the show; the winner: Larry Gagosian.) But the Met is scarcely doing anyone’s reputation a favor, Warhol’s included.
Part of the problem is institutional. Contemporary art has always been an awkward fit for the Met, where the millennia-old preponderance of humanity’s cultural achievements bears down on you like Mount Olympus. The work of any artist from the past 50 years or so is bound to look puny in comparison, for the simple reason that time is the ultimate arbiter of an object’s long-term cultural value. Warhol’s output has yet to pass that test, so in a sense “Regarding Warhol” jumps the gun by anointing Andy the ne plus ultra of recent art.
This is not to diminish Warhol’s impact, but for an exhibit trying to make an art-historical case, it does seem to engage in sloppy art history in at least one instance: the aforementioned Polke and Richter. Both are represented here by paintings from the early 1960s, when the two formulated Capitalist Realism along with artist Konrad Leug (later Konrad Fischer). Capitalist Realism was meant as a jokey critique of American Pop Art and popular culture (the omnipresence of which constituted a kind of soft-power occupation of postwar Europe). But it wasn’t Warhol’s work per se that sparked the idea. Rather, it was a 1963 visit Richter and Leug took to Paris, where they saw a show by Roy Lichtenstein. And indeed, it’s clear just by looking that Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots have as much influence on Polke’s Rasterbild (dot paintings) presented here as Warhol’s silk screens. The curatorial attitude, though, appears to be “Lichtenstein, Schmichtenstein.” The show excludes Andy’s Pop Art peers, because their presence would only complicate its message.
Lichtenstein’s work antedated Warhol’s, and if you really wanted to get picky about it, neither of them coined the term Pop Art. That distinction arguably goes to Richard Hamilton and other artists associated with London’s Independent Group during the late 1950s (see Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?). What is indisputably true, however, is that Warhol synthesized an understanding of how the superficialities of popular culture would come to govern all aspects of life. This awareness is his real legacy and the reason he’s held in such high esteem. The things Warhol supposedly stands for—the worship of celebrity, the primacy of money, the triumph of appearance over substance, the breakdown between public and private—have become foundational to our postmodern, plutocratic order.
It’s no surprise, then, that the bulk of the artists collected here date from the 1980s and ’90s, the decades when high culture completed its appropriation of low culture, and wealth was massively redistributed upward. The Warhol manqués who emerged then—Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince—turn up here as you might expect, and if “Regarding Warhol” accomplishes anything at all, hopefully it will be the utter consignment of their efforts to permanent also-ran status. As for the Met’s other choices of artists, they oscillate between obvious and obscure.
Omitted from the discussion (and from most discussions regarding Warhol) is Andy’s Catholicism. Warhol once stated that there was nothing beneath the surface of his art, but if you accept that claim, as most cultural machers do, you’re left with little more than nihilism. It’s only by looking at Warhol’s work through the prism of the sacrament or the veneration of relics that it begins to make sense on a larger, human level. Koons, of all people, gets this, which is why he burbles on so much about the spirituality in his own work—a quality actually absent.
Nevertheless, I thought I detected a certain apocalyptic arc to the exhibit, a narrative flow comporting with the Church’s eschatology (and by extension Andy’s). In the last section there’s a darkened hallway, taking you from the purgatory of Cory Arcangel’s eight-byte video of Mario Bros. clouds, to the hell of Ryan Trecartin’s methed-up teens colliding with nearby snippets of reality television. Then, as if Virgil himself were leading the way, you are deposited in the stillborn redemption of the final gallery, where Andy’s Cow Wallpaper and helium-filled Mylar balloons take up the space as the sounds of the Velvet Underground tinkle around you.
Warhol, a blue-collar escapee from Pittsburgh, used pop culture to jump class, vaulting him into the elite. But you have to wonder what he thought once he landed among them. The empty-party atmosphere of the exhibition’s finale, with its vacuous herd of bovines staring at you from the walls, suggests an answer. Too bad it’s also a metaphor for this show.