Whitney Museum displays artist Andy Warhol

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again” exhibit is the first major retrospective of Warhol’s work in nearly 30 years curated by a United States museum. The Whitney’s collection ranges from Warhol’s first lesser-known pieces of work from the 1950’s to his final work until his death in 1987 – and everything in between.

Over 350 works of art are on display, giving a complete timeline in the progression of Warhol’s career as an artist.

The exhibit reasserts Warhol’s relevance for the younger generation in the digital age.

“People are still excited about Warhol,” said Donna De Salvo, deputy director for international initiatives and senior curator at the Whitney who worked on the Warhol collection in an interview for The New York Times. “Warhol was a myth when he was alive, and he’s even more of a myth now…To humanize Warhol and get people to actually look at what he made is not as easy as it might sound.”

De Salvo’s goal with the exhibit was to give a more personal insight into the person people knew very little about. She first met Warhol in 1985 and has since curated five exhibitions of his work.

Warhol’s experimental and non-traditional approach to art is why he is recognized as one of the greatest modern American artists and the leading figure of the pop art movement.

The first part of the exhibition focuses on the foundation of his art career, while he was working as a commercial illustrator. In the early 1960’s Warhol began experimenting with subjects involving post-war America through his art, which is a movement that went on to be known as pop art.

Warhol later found inspiration in everyday objects others wouldn’t typically perceive as art – such as a Campbell’s soup can or a bottle of Coca-Cola, both of which are on display. He used the silkscreen device as a way to create repetition, with slight variance in shape and color to create the desired effect. This was a major breakthrough for the development of his recognizable style of art.

With the Campbell’s Soup series, Warhol discovered the impact of serial imagery and the visual effect it would have on the viewer. “I should have just done the Campbell’s Soups and kept on doing them…because everybody only does one painting anyway,” said Warhol when reflecting on his favorite pieces of his career.

Warhol had a fascination with celebrities in popular culture. The subjects of his art that are included in The Whitney’s curation includes; Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor, to name a few.

Marilyn Diptych is on display, which is seen as one of Warhol’s most notable portraits of actress Marilyn Monroe. He made it soon after her death in 1962, which immortalized her as a cultural icon. It repeats the same image 50 times, 25 being brightly colored, the other 25 are black and white with a fading effect. The contrast of the color to the black and white is a representation of the two lives Marilyn lived; one side being a Hollywood starlet, to the other side representing her damaged and fading mortality.  

“So many people seem to prefer my silver-screenings of movie stars to the rest of my work,” Warhol said, “It must be the subject matter that attracts them, because my death and violence paintings are just as good.”

In his Death and Disaster series, Warhol depicts historical photographs form the media over top of brightly colored canvases. It captured the violence and exploitation in media from subjects such as; suicides, electric chairs, police brutality during the Civil Rights Movement, and car crashes.

Throughout the rest of his career, Warhol continued to experiment with new mediums and controversial subjects. In 1972 when President Nixon made his visit to China, Warhol became inspired by Communist leader Mao Zedong. He created hundreds of different silkscreens of Mao using a portrait of him from his book called “The Little Red Book”. The portrait of Mao that was on display at The Whitney is approximately fifteen feet tall, which is the most eye-catching piece of that room.

“Everybody’s always asking me if I’m a Communist because I’ve done Mao.” said Warhol. He never openly stated his own political views, so this painting is up to interpretation for the viewer.

One of his final paintings, Camouflage Last Supper, is one of his most personal works included in the exhibit. He had a mysterious persona and never opened up publicly about his personal life. This work depicts a silkscreen print of Leonardo Da Vinci’s mural with a camouflage pattern painted over top. It is seen as an expression of the tensions he faced as both a gay man and a member of the Catholic Church – which weren’t revealed until after his death in 1987.

“What it comes down to is the guy was mortal and in some way there’s vulnerability within his work,” says De Salvo. “And there’s coldness within the work because there are aspects of capitalism that are cruel. There’s some human element to it that I want to return to Warhol.”

“Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again” will be on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City until March 31, 2019.