The large retrospective of Andy Warhol's art, which began in Berlin and then moved to London, has finally come to L.A. in a blaze of unprecedented publicity worthy of the blockbuster King Tut show. Billboards and hundreds of banners around the city bear images of Marilyn and Liz.
Andy would have liked it. If not the best American artist since WWII, Warhol is unquestionably the most influential. People who have never seen or heard of works by Johns, Lichtenstein or Rauschenberg, would recognize Warhol's name and his images, which are inseparable from American popular culture dominating the globe. And Andy Warhol is partially responsible for that.
Raised in Pittsburgh in modest circumstances of a working class -migr- family, his knowledge of the world was shaped by movie magazines and tabloids. Later becoming a big star himself, Warhol remained star struck to the end of his life. Could this dichotomy be one of the secrets of his art's mass appeal?
The exhibition starts with a big bang - a humongous portrait of Mao Tse-tung. Many other large canvasses in this show overwhelm the visitor with size. But this one has an internal logic and almost inhuman confidence that makes its composition, colors and texture so full of pleasure, so satisfactory it is almost embarrassing.
Other high points of my first visit to the show were not the numerous versions of Jackie, Liz or Marilyn, as I expected, but the artist's self-portraits. Especially the one with half of his face hidden in shadow. While so much of Warhol's art has the unmistakable look of hasty factory mass production, which he turned into a virtue, this self-portrait conveys a level of intimacy and introspection few other works achieved.
This exhibition, which was put together by a German curator, is heavily dependent on museum and private collections both in Germany and Switzerland. It is amazing to see how many of Warhol's best works were acquired by astute European collectors so early in the artist's career.
Encrusted with diamond dust, a dark, brooding portrait of Joseph Beuys is yet another masterpiece proudly owned by a German museum. I cannot think of any of Lichenstein's or John's works from the 60s and 70s which could look so effortlessly fresh and cool, 40 years after its conception.
To do justice to this huge show, with its almost 250 works, one will be well-advised to see it more than once. I definitely plan to visit it several times. To look again at his earlier drawings, not very good, but interesting nevertheless. He was trying to find his way through the clutter of demands on the commercial artist working in advertising. I want to see again the huge paintings of flowers, images he found in a cheap garden catalogue. Silkscreened on canvas and painted over in an intentionally crude way, these flower paintings struck me with their timeless, iconic authority.
And finally I want to see this show again to decide if the sad decline of Warhol's talent at the last stage of his career was terminal, or only temporary, which he could recover from.
The disastrous consequence of a routine gall bladder operation killed the artist, but effectively launched the legend of Andy, which gets bigger with every passing year.
To see images, and find more information about this exhibition, log on to the web at kcrw.com, keyword Art Talk.
For more information:
Museum of Contemporary Art
250 South Grand Ave
Los Angeles CA 90012