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Andy Warhol: A Lot More than Soup Cans

A month ago, I watched a television program that covered, briefly, the art of pop icon Andy Warhol, he of all the Campbell’s Soup cans. The narrator said that Warhol had passed into history and that young people today probably had no idea who he was.

I was startled. Young people did not know who the thin man with the white hair was, the man who hung out with Liz Taylor, Liza Minelli, dress designer Halston and the Jaggers? The man who painted the famous Mao portrait? Truman Capote’s buddy?

I’m a professor, so the next day I asked my classes, 25 students in each, if they knew who Andy Warhol was. I didn’t say artist or painter Andy Warhol, just Andy Warhol.

The hands shot into the air. About 95% of them knew who he was.

Andy Warhol will never pass from the scene. That is proven, conclusively, in the largest exhibit of his work in generations at the Whitney Museum, in New York, Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again. It is a marvelous and exciting tribute to his work and is attracting huge crowds.

The crowds are not art aficionados from the 1960s, either, but young women with baby carriages, high school student groups, young couples and foreign tourists. Warhol was an international celebrity and a celebrity superstar in addition to being a memorable artist, and, these crowds indicate, always will be remembered.

“Modern art history is full of trailblazers whose impact dims over time,” said Curator Scott Rothkopf. “But Warhol is that extremely rare case of an artist whose legacy grows only more potent and lasting. His inescapable example continues to inspire, awe and even vex new generations of artists and audiences with each passing year.”

Another curator, Donna De Salvo, said the originally Avant Garde Warhol has become part of mainstream art. “Warhol produced images that are now so familiar that it’s easy to forget how just how unsettling and even shocking they were when they debuted,” she said.

Warhol really became famous not so much because of his new age art, but because of his celebrity. He was friends with many of the biggest entertainment stars in the world, was a fixture at legendary New York nightclub Studio 54 in the 1980s, paled around with fashion designer Halston, drank wine with Liza Minelli and lunched with Liz Taylor. He was almost murdered in 1968 when an irate actress from his film studio, the Factory, shot him several times. The shooting made front page news all over the world. He was a central character in the movie Factory Girl, about Edie Sedgwick, one of his Factory actresses.

Everybody recognized him instantly since he wore those thick glasses and had that mop top of dyed white hair. That fame was why people paid so much attention to his often-bizarre work. Some said that the quiet boy from Pittsburgh, who fell in love with Shirley Temple as a kid created a unique persona of himself that worked well.

The Warhol exhibit, a real achievement in cultural history, occupies all of the fifth floor at the Whitney plus additional galleries on the first and third floors. The best way to start is on the first floor and the gallery of his oversized portraits. They are mounted in log rows across the walls of the room and they introduce you to Andy the celebrity and Andy the artist at the same time. The portraits also tell you a lot about show business and art history in the 1960s and ‘70s. There are lots of famous people on the walls here, like Liza Minelli, Dennis Hopper, soccer star Pele, socialite Jane Holzer and Halston, but lots of people you never heard of, too. 

The third-floor houses wall after wall of his famous “Cow Wallpaper,” adorned with hundreds of similar heads of a brown cow. It is eye-opening and hilarious. 

Another room has a stack of his popular blue and white Brillo pad boxes and a wall full of S & H Green Stamps (remember them?)

There are his paintings of magazine covers and lots of newspaper front pagers (an eerie one about a 1962 Air France plane crash).

You learn a lot about his personal life. As an example, as a young man he became a fan of Truman Capote, who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and called him every single day. 

There are drawings of celebrity’s shoes to show how they represented their personalities. Christine Jorgensen was one of the first modern openly transgender women, so she has shoes that don’t match each other.

Unknown to most, he loved to do paintings of paintings of comic strip characters. Two in the exhibit, of Superman and Dick Tracy, in blazing bright colors, were displayed in a New York City department store window. 

What makes the exhibit so enjoyable at the Whitney Museum, recently opened on Gansevoort Street near the Hudson River, is the way the curators use its space. Unlike most museum exhibits, where everything is scrunched together, the curators used the large, high ceilinged rooms wisely, putting the 350 Warhol pieces, especially the very large ones (some are thirty feet wide) alone on the pristine white walls so they jump off the wall at you. You go around one corner and there is Elvis Presley as a gunslinger in four separate portraits firing one of his six-guns. Next to him is Marlon Brando in a leather jacket and on his motorcycle.

There are weird walls of photos such as most wanted criminals he drew from photos in a New York State Booklet, “13 Most Wanted Men.’ There is a series of his copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and then his copy of his copy.

He did inspirational photos and silkscreens. A woman named Ethel Sculls CHEC arrived at his studio one day for what she thought would be a traditional portrait. Instead, Warhol took her to Times Square and had her sit for dozens of photos in the cheapie photo booths there, where all the going-steady high school kids went. The result – a sensational wall of photos of her in different giddy and seductive poses. Brilliant.

There are photos of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. One set is of her smiling on the morning before her husband’s murder and then, in the next strip, is her, somber, at the President’s funeral.  There is a wall full of his famous photo of Marilyn Monroe. There is a world famous, mammoth, and I mean mammoth, portrait of China’s Chairman Mao. One wall is filled with his fabled Campbell’s soup can paintings and another with his Coca Cola works.

Sprinkled among all of these paintings are real life photos and videos of Warhol at work.

There is a large television set on the third floor in which you see a truly bizarre video of Warhol simply eating a cheeseburger for lunch (he’s doing to get sick eating so fast!)

Warhol was also a well-known Avant Garde filmmaker and the museum is presenting dozens of his 16mm movies in a film festival in its third-floor theater. Some of these star the famous Ed Sedgwick, who appeared in many of his films and died tragically of a drug overdose.

Andy Warhol, who died at the age of 58 during a minor operation, led a simple middle-class existence until he arrived in New York. He was born in 1928 in Pittsburgh, was graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University there and then went to New York where he became well-known. He began his career as a commercial artist, earning money for drawings for magazine ads (dozens of them are in the show).

He became famous for his portraits of Campbell’s Soup cans. He painted them because as a kid his family was so poor that he and his brothers had Campbells Soup for lunch every day. Warhol said he had Campbell’s soup for lunch every day for 20 years. He also saw the soup can as a window into America. He was right.

The exhibit is a large open window on American history and culture in the 1960s and ‘70s and how the outlandish Warhol starred in it and, with his genius, changed it.

Andy Warhol not remembered? Hardly.

The exhibit runs through March 31.