It's no longer a matter of dispute that Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Quantitative evidence of that includes the countless exhibitions of his work that continue to draw crowds globally and the record auction prices he generates.
More difficult to pin down is the breadth of Warhol's influence on other artists, a task the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City tackled for its fall exhibition, "Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years."
That show is now at The Andy Warhol Museum, its only other venue, reconfigured and supplemented by director Eric Shiner. It's a large exhibition -- approximately 150 works, one-third of them by Warhol -- that wanders through five of the museum's seven floors, settling into some galleries as comfortably as a visiting in-law.
For "Super Mario Clouds," artist Cory Arcangel hacked into a Nintendo "Super Mario" game cartridge, removing all images except a blue sky filled with white clouds -- a natural to project in the "Silver Clouds" room that is a museum fixture. "Triple Elvis," on loan from the Gagosian Gallery, is displayed across from The Warhol's magnificent permanently installed "Elvis 11 Times."
Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Untitled (Head)" is more markedly mortal hung across from two of Warhol's massive "Skull" paintings, and gains implicit power next to Cady Noland's "Bluewald," a life-sized cutout of the image widely circulated in the media of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. Bruce Nauman's neon "Eat/Death," wherein glowing letters that spell out "DEATH" are fronted by a contrastingly colored "EAT," gains prophetic gravity near Warhol's works.
The size and breadth of the exhibition suggests the enormity of the Met's subject. The Warhol influence derives from aesthetics but also from persona, more than with most artists, due to the cyclical relationship between his nature and product, but also due to the period and place within which he worked.
After graduating from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Warhol moved in 1949 to New York for what became a successful advertising career. By the time he began to focus his energies on fine arts in the early 1960s, a cultural revolution had begun, and he was in one of the national hubs. He was both beneficiary of and contributor to the shifting attitudes that would push boundaries between categories such as high and low art, uptown and downtown and art and activism.
Warhol's crisply delineated depictions of banal subjects, many gleaned from media, were the antithesis of au courant Abstract Expressionism; his image appropriation and repetition, and silkscreen medium were challenges to the importance of the artist's hand. He was also unguardedly gay at a time when most were still in the closet.
Guest curator Mark Rosenthal and Metropolitan curator Marla Prather organized the exhibition around five themes that reflect Warhol's reach. Within them his works are juxtaposed with those of artists whose relationship to Warhol varies from evident to subtle. The themes are portraiture and the cult of celebrity, media and popular culture subjects, collaborations from film to spectacle, sexual identity and gender, and artistic practices including appropriation, abstraction and seriality (repetition).
Readers will recognize many of the included artists from past Carnegie Internationals and exhibitions at other local venues like The Warhol (the excellent recent Deborah Kass show), Wood Street Galleries (Nam June Paik) and The Frick Art Museum (Vik Muniz). In this way, the exhibition is a mini-review of a large portion of the contemporary artistic practice of the past several decades.
Other artists of note include Matthew Barney, John Baldessari, Gilbert & George, Robert Gober, the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Alex Katz, the late Robert Mapplethorpe and Edward Ruscha. It's a bit of an old boy's club, although there are also Polly Apfelbaum, Nan Goldin and Catherine Opie.
Fans of Jeff Koons will be disappointed that one of his most extravagantly sardonic sculptures, "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," was available only to the Met. But several other of his pieces are shown here. At the opposite end of the critical spectrum are Hans Haacke works like "Helmsboro Country," an oversized pack of cigarettes that are tumbling onto the floor. Each bears the admonition that Philip Morris funds then tobacco industry advocate the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.
It's refreshing to see one of Cindy Sherman's early (1978) film stills, the series that catapulted her to art stardom (more recent work is also shown). Several fine pieces by Gerhard Richter include a romanticized "Helga Matura," a large oil that more resembles a pictorial photograph. "Warhol's Medicine Cabinet," a photograph taken by David Gamble after the artist's death, is both voyeuristic and poignant. The meticulously arranged objects make an intimate connection, through Warhol's private habits and that he is said to have peeked into the medicine cabinets of people he visited.
David Hockney's softly erotic "Boy About to Take a Shower" is among explorations of sexuality that include Warhol's almost two-hour 1968 film "Lonesome Cowboys," a spoof of Hollywood Westerns.
Among other Warhol works are two large "Self-Portraits," the artist pensive and in shadow, that hang at the exhibition entry. The paintings' colors are enriched by the gold painted wall behind them, a presentation that brings to mind the images of saints upon a gilded background of the iconostasis in the Byzantine Catholic Church Warhol attended as a youth.
Archival materials expand upon the understanding of Warhol's catholic interests, such as a lifelong passion for flowers and formal flower arrangements exemplified by issues of the magazine Ikebana Sogetsu, which he subscribed to. In 1984, a hybrid orchid was registered bearing the name Miltoniopsis 'Andy Warhol.'
Not every work is the artists' most impressive, but they are more than placeholders. The Met could be faulted for trying to be too inclusive. But that is also a recognition of the vastness of the material and an invitation to curators and art historians to expand upon this fascinating groundwork.
Touchstone show artist call
Artists high school age or older are invited to submit work to the sixth annual Uniontown Art Club Regional Juried Fine Art and Craft Exhibition and Sale to be held at Touchstone Center for Crafts near Farmington, Fayette County. The show runs May 25 to June 2. Cash prizes and Touchstone youth scholarships will be awarded. The juror is fiber artist and writer Loretta Radeschi, who will teach basketry at the center this summer. Entry deadline is April 30. Information: www.uniontownartclub.weebly.com or 724-550-7119.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.