Wowed by Warhol: An Indelible Fall Break Excursion

Hacked Super Mario Brothers. Pillow-shaped silver balloons. Velvet flowers. Dr. Scholl’s Corns. Cat litter. Urine as paint. Cellophane-wrapped candy. All this, and a dizzying amount more, await visitors to “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest blockbuster exhibition which runs until December 31 — an end date which makes it an excellent adventure for Swatties to embark on during fall, Thanksgiving, or winter break.

The exhibition is a mammoth endeavor, featuring approximately 145 works, with 45 by Warhol and the rest by his contemporaries and those that he purportedly influenced. The works span myriad media, with the old standby of oil on canvas surprisingly taking a backseat to more unconventional choices, including chocolate (in white, milk, and dark), urine, metalized polyester film, shopping bags, and electronic game consoles. There are so many galleries and so much to view and awe, the experience could be overwhelming; even though I didn’t stop and examine every artwork, it still took me four hours to walk through the entire show. But the visit did not feel even close to four hours, and I would have strolled among the art for at least another two hours had I not realized that I had a bus to catch. One loses any sense of time in this exhibition because it is that engaging and that provocative. If anyone harbored doubts before about the Met’s ability to be competitive in the spheres of modern and contemporary art, “Regarding Warhol” assuages those misgivings with incredible force.

The show unfolds in five broad themes explored by Warhol and other artists, starting in 1961 in Warhol’s career. While the exhibition jumps somewhat haphazardly from one theme to the next without clearly explaining the timing of Warhol’s exploration of these themes in his oeuvre, within each of the themes’ galleries a fascinating dialogue reveals itself between Warhol and other artists. The first theme, “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster,” explores Warhol’s depiction of staples of postwar American culture and the interaction between art, culture, current events, and our emotional reactions to them. While the caption that introduces this theme posits that Warhol’s featured works intimate “the darker side of American capitalism,” when seen side-by-side with the works of other featured artists, it seems more apparent that Warhol was one of the few artists who actually embraced American culture and did not excoriate it with the typical art world elitism that drives droves of average Americans away from art. Quotes like “Buying is much more American than thinking, and I’m as American as they come,” as well as comparisons of his artworks to those of others, affirm this notion. For example, Warhol’s “Big Campbell’s Soup Can, 19 ¢ (Beef-Noodle)” oil on canvas elevates a mundane, mass-market product into fine art subject matter. The more one looks at the painting, the more the image loses its prosaicism: the letters cease to compose words and transform into elegant arabesques and sinuous forms. An adjacent Warhol, “Green Coca-Cola Bottles,” conveys a similar effect, suggesting that Warhol does not disdain American culture, but rather appreciates and welcomes it into the artist’s lexicon of subject matter.

Almost ludicrously, the curators here seem to be straining in vain to imbue the works included in this theme with more gravity than they possess. One hilarious example is Robert Gober’s 1989 painted plaster replica of a store-bought kitty litter bag, titled Cat Litter. With utterly no indication of how, the corresponding caption speaks of the work carrying “darker connotations … [it] is handmade in the studio to fastidiously replicate its store-bought model; in the process, it is imbued with an uncertain aura of foreboding, desire, or melancholy.” What in the world led them to this conclusion, I could not find at all in the work; perhaps the “melancholy” comes from the artist’s realization that he pathetically just spent days painstakingly replicating a bag of pellets that catch cat excrement.

In the next gallery, the theme shifts to more somber tones. Warhol’s 1963 “Orange Disaster #5”, an acrylic and silkscreen enamel on canvas, displays the same image of an electric chair in an empty execution chamber, repeated in rows and columns spanning eight feet in height and six feet in width. The orange hue that tints the overall image infuses it with an almost surreal mood that makes it all the more nightmarish and thus creepier. “Ambulance Disaster”, a silkscreen on linen created in 1963–4, offers a haunting once-repeated image of a figure hanging loosely, like a rag doll, out of a demolished ambulance. Warhol thus heightened both everyday objects and psychologically disquieting subjects to the art realm.

Another theme in the exhibition, called “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power,” presents both the Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy portraits for which Warhol enjoys iconic awareness in the American public psyche as well as lesser-known, but astoundingly profound meditations on human representation. “Fidel Castro”, a 2001 gelatin silver print by Hiroshi Sugimoto, stands out as an extraordinarily psychologically penetrating piece. The black-and-white print shows not the actual Fidel Castro, but the wax replica of him found in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London. Nevertheless, the depiction appears unequivocally lifelike. But it is the artist’s quote, included in the print’s accompanying caption, that floors viewers and casts a life-changing light on the artwork: “If this photograph now appears lifelike to you, you had better reconsider what it means to be alive here and now.”

This quote embodies the prevailing spirit of Warhol. Throughout all his works, a vibrant vivacity pulses like a pounding heart, truly enlivening viewers as they engage with them. Pleasant surprises and whimsy, discomfort and sobriety, hilarity and adoration, all breathe throughout the body of the exhibition. Just as Warhol explored the American culture he lived through instead of detaching himself and flying above it into the ethereal, often inaccessible heaven of the art world, he also tapped into the emotions and life of the public. His works have become their own beings, containing all the tragedies and passions that each individual carries in his heart. No matter how much art a viewer might feel like they have seen, I can promise that this exhibit will bring unexpected, enlightening moments. It embraces America’s suspicion of art-world snobbery by crafting an experience that culminates in the antithesis of the typical please-do-not-touch, silence-please museum experience: the last room contains Warhol’s 1966 “Silver Clouds”, metalized polyester film balloons shaped like rectangular pillows that are buoyed around the room with the help of a fan and viewers’ hands. Music from Velvet Underground plays in the background. As each viewer enters this final gallery, they immediately drop the burden of trying to “understand” the art; instead, they bounce the “Silver Clouds” to and fro, and, seamlessly and beautifully, life and art merge.

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