Eye on Art – 2019

My “Eye On Art” column appears monthly in the Sag Harbor Express

Andy Warhol at Face Value

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Andy Warhol, “Self-Portrait,” 1963-64. Silkscreen and acrylic ink on canvas, four panels 40 x 32 in. overall. Cingilli Collection.

Question: what’s the difference between an S&H Green Stamp and the Mona Lisa? Answer: nothing, when they’re silkscreened multiple times by Andy Warhol. Or, for green stamp, substitute Marilyn Monroe. Or switch out Mona for a dollar bill. Those images and many more have become touchstones of 20th century art, not only in America but around the world. Seeing them gathered at the Whitney Museum for the exhibition, “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again,” on view through March 31, is a sobering reminder of Pop art’s enduring impact on visual culture, as well as an object lesson in branding against type.

The Whitney exhibition is billed as the first comprehensive New York presentation of Warhol’s work since MoMA’s 1989 retrospective, two years after the artist’s untimely death at 58, caused by complications from gallbladder surgery. In the catalog of that earlier show, the art historian Robert Rosenblum described Warhol’s subject matter as “the most commonplace facts of visual pollution in America that would make the aesthetes and mythmakers of the fifties cringe in their ivory towers.” And cringe they did, even as a few prescient dealers and a new generation of collectors jumped on the Pop bandwagon. The art world was knocked on its kiester by the unlikeliest successor to Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Klein—a gay misfit from Pittsburgh who lived with his mother and drew shoe ads for I. Miller.

After introducing itself with a few of Warhol’s greatest hits—Brillo boxes, Coke bottles, Campbell’s soup cans—the Whitney show does an admirable job of surveying his early career as a commercial illustrator, with a selection of book and magazine layouts that remind me of Ben Shahn’s graphics. There are also some juvenilia, eccentric character sketches of his friends, and drawings of shoes as surrogate portraits, in which we see Warhol’s singular linear style emerge. Then on to the hand-drawn newspaper, advertising, and cartoon knockoffs, for which source material is also displayed. Much of the documentation comes from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, a more inclusive and, to my mind, more revealing treatment of Warhol’s career. But since we’re not in Pittsburgh, we have to take the Whitney’s version at face value, though with a grain of salt.

Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” 1962. Casein, acrylic, and graphite on linen, thirty-two panels 20 x 16 in. each. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The presentation segregates key aspects of that career away from the primary installation on the fifth floor, making it appear as if Warhol channeled most of his creative energy into the screenprinted canvases of pop-culture icons, car crashes, and self-portraits. Like the visual equivalent of a drumbeat, his repetitions reduce even the most compelling imagery, such as the mangled body of a suicide jumper and police dogs attacking civil rights protesters, to virtual illegibility. Conversely, his oxidation and camouflage paintings elevate random and utilitarian patterning to the level of abstract art. This kind of irony is classic Warhol, and there’s plenty of it here.

To get a fuller picture of Warhol’s achievements, however, you need to look elsewhere. Apart from a sampling of his Screen Tests and a group of Interview magazine covers, there’s little evidence of his wide-ranging enterprises, from film, video and television (he even had his own cable TV shows) to music, theater, product endorsements and the commissioned portraits that comprise the bulk of his oeuvre. The moving images and prints are on the museum’s third floor, and a large group of the portraits is in an easy-to-miss side gallery off the main lobby. I confess that I skipped the films. Having sat through several of them when they came out, I have no desire to revisit them. The portraits are even more slick and shallow than his Jackie and Marilyn and Liz, which themselves were not take seriously by the art-world cognoscenti when they first appeared in the 1960s.

I still find it astonishing that an artist who celebrated superficiality and constantly downplayed any serious consideration of his motives—one whose philosophy ran the gamut, as he put it, from A to B and back again—has risen to such a level of international renown. His avowed ambition was not to make great art but to be rich and famous, and by golly he succeeded on both counts. The exhibition tries to attribute deeper meanings, but I’m not convinced.

 

For Hilma af Klint, the Future is Now

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Until very recently, if you were to ask an American to name a famous Swedish artist, the likely answer would have been August Strindberg or maybe Claes Oldenburg. The name Hilma af Klint would not have been on the tip of anyone’s tongue. That changed last fall with the opening of the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” on view through April 23. The show brings out of obscurity one of the most innovative artists of the twentieth century, but one who deliberately sequestered her work, believing that the world was not ready to appreciate it.

Hilma af Klint, Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, 1915. Oil and metal leaf on canvas?, 93 ½ x 70 ¼ in. The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm.
© Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk

The Guggenheim is the ideal venue for this, the first af Klint retrospective in the United States, since its founding collection celebrated painters such as Mondrian, Léger, Moholy-Nagy and especially Kandinsky, considered the pioneers of non-objectivity. In fact af Klint, who shared Kandinsky’s interest in Theosophy, was creating spiritually inspired non-objective paintings as early as 1906, five years before Kandinsky’s book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, spread the gospel of abstraction devoid of representational content. Unfortunately for posterity, she rarely exhibited anything from that body of work during her lifetime, and stipulated that it was not to be shown publicly until twenty years after her death, which occurred in 1944, the same year as Kandinsky’s.

It was not, however, until 1986 that af Klint made her international début in the exhibition, “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Paintings 1890 – 1985,” held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Three years later, a solo show was organized at P.S. 1 by the artist R.H. Quaytman, whose new series, + ×, Chapter 34, inspired by af Klint’s notebooks, is on display at the Guggenheim concurrently with “Paintings for the Future.”

Born in 1862 in Stockholm, af Klint began her career as a traditional painter and illustrator. In 1904, she joined four other female artists to hold séances in the hope of channeling guides to lead them toward art that expressed a reality beyond the observable world. Known as De Fem (The Five), the group created automatic drawings, a common practice among spiritualists at the time. But in af Klint’s case, they became her primary artistic inspiration. As she later explained, one of the guides commissioned her to undertake a monumental nine-year project she called “The Paintings for the Temple.” When it was completed in 1915, the series comprised nearly two hundred paintings and works on paper.

Installation view of seven paintings from The Ten Largest series, 1907. Tempera on paper mounted on canvas, each approx. 124 x 92 in. The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm.

The show opens with “Group IV,” a suite of ten mural-size paintings from that series, completed in 1907. The imagery, derived from folk art and her own visionary introspection, symbolically depicts the human life cycle. She intended them to be wall decorations for the temple, which she imagined as a structure with multiple levels connected by a spiraling path. By coincidence, that could describe the museum itself, conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright as “a temple of spirit.” Given af Klint’s focus on transcendent imagery, it’s not inconceivable that if Solomon R. Guggenheim and his curator, Hilla von Rebay, had known of her work, they would have snapped it up for the collection when it started in the 1930s.

Filled with arcane shapes, annotated charts and references to primordial life, af Klint’s oils and watercolors illustrate a rich interior life of formal invention, an effort to picture unseen forces that are no less real for being invisible. The search for wisdom and meaning in a rapidly changing world, at a time when science and technology were challenging old norms and beliefs, led af Klint to explore concepts beyond conscious perception. Considered alongside the introduction of electric lighting, the telephone, X-rays and other innovations, her art is an attempt on her part to make sense of a universe in which such inexplicable phenomena occur.

At times her imagery lapses into mysticism bordering on superstition, but frankly it isn’t necessary to decode all the occult philosophizing. Even skeptics and materialists can enjoy the sensuousness of her colorful Eros series, and the complex symmetrical variations in the Evolution and Tree of Knowledge groups and Altarpieces. Her explorations of formal and chromatic relationships prefigure Albers and Klee. However, the fact that af Klint refused to share her work with the wider world meant that no one outside her small circle was aware of her accomplishments. Her belief that a future audience would be receptive to her vision prevented her from receiving timely recognition. Finally, 75 years after her death, the Guggenheim has become, at least temporarily, the spiritual temple she envisioned.