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Louis Menand wrote a fascinating, provocative essay for the January 11th issue of The New Yorker (subscription required to read the full piece) on the question that still haunts the study of Andy Warhol: Just how are we to take his work? Is his Pop Art mocking commercial-celebrity culture? Or is he celebrating it? Even eyewitness testimony disagrees, Menand notes, over whether Warhol actually loved Campbell’s soup or hated it.
For Arthur C. Danto, perhaps the dean of Warhol critics, the issue is a matter of epistemology: Why is a Brillo box a work of art — when it looks just like any ordinary, mass-produced Brillo box? And the answer, Menand explains, has to do with art history: For centuries, artists have been playing with the distance between reality and the painted image-illusion. Warhol’s soup cans and Brillo boxes removed that game entirely. The image was the reality.
But Menand argues this isn’t true — because Warhol’s Brillo boxes aren’t ‘real.’ They’re not like Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades” or “found objects.” They’re actually silkscreened wood. So in that respect, they’re more like trompe l’oeil. They’re still a form of illusion.
So we’re back with that ambiguity. What does Warhol intend with these works?
Joseph Ketner, the Milwaukee Museum of Art curator, who developed Andy Warhol: The Last Decade, the new show at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, believes that Warhol was not simply the deadpan ironist he often played. And much of his work in the 10 years before his death in 1987 was partly prompted by a mid-life crisis. He was in his fifties and on the ‘outs’ with the art world and art critics. After more than a decade hanging out at Studio 54 and courting celebrity portraits for the money, Warhol was considered something of a joke.
He responded with a tremendous outburst of work, all sorts of work and work that, although it often employed some of his familiar techniques (silkscreened photos and the like), also picked up new ones (yarn paintings), new styles (abstract expressionism was supposedly what Warhol’s Pop Art toppled but here he’s dabbling in it), new scale (huge) and new subjects (explicitly Christian iconography).
We talk with Andrea Karnes, curator at the Modern Art Museum, about all this. Andy Warhol: The Last Decade is the first major retrospective of Warhol to appear in North Texas — and whatever you may think of Warhol or his work, it’s likely to be a blockbuster show for the museum.