Andy Warhol’s “From A to B and Back Again” exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art is the first major retrospective of his work in nearly 30 years curated by a United States museum. The Whitney’s collection ranges from his first lesser-known pieces of work from the 1950’s when he was a commercial illustrator to his final work until his death in 1987. Over 350 works of art are on display, giving a complete timeline in progression of his career as an artist. 

The first room of the exhibition focuses on the foundation of his art career, while he working as a commercial illustrator primarily in the fashion industry when he first moved to New York City from Pittsburgh. At this time, he also started making his own personal art aside from his job.
In the early 1960’s Warhol began experimenting with subjects involving post-war America through his art, which is a movement that went on to be known as pop art. He would use images that were in the media, cartoon characters, or advertisements and use symbolism and irony to comment on what was going on in the country at the time. “I was never embarrassed about asking someone, literally, "what should I paint?" because Pop comes from the outside, and how is asking someone for ideas any different from looking for them in a magazine?” said Warhol.

He found inspiration in recognizable everyday objects, others wouldn’t typically perceive as art – such as a Campbell’s soup can or a bottle of Coca-Cola, both of which are on display. He used the silkscreen device as a way to create repetition, with slight variance in shape and color to create the desired effect. This was a major breakthrough for the development of his recognizable style of art.  His series called 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans was on display, which is seen as a transition piece of art in his career. He went from hand-painting and drawing to using his new silkscreen technique. With the Campbell’s Soup series, he discovered the impact of serial imagery and the visual effect it would have on the viewer. “I should have just done the Campbell’s Soups and kept on doing them…because everybody only does one painting anyway.” said Warhol when reflecting on his favorite pieces of his career. 

Warhol had a fascination with celebrities in popular culture. The subjects of his art that are included in The Whitney’s curation include; Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor, to name a few.

Marilyn Diptych is also on display, which is seen as one of his most notable portraits of actress Marilyn Monroe and is also one of my favorites. He made it soon after her death in August of 1962, which immortalized her as a cultural icon. It repeats the image 50 times, 25 of them being brightly colored with vibrant pink, yellow, and blue, the other 25 are black and white with a smudgy and fading effect. The contrast of the color to the black and white is a representation of the two lives Marilyn lived; one side being a Hollywood starlet, to the other side representing her damaged life and fading mortality.  

His art greatly matured in 1963, after the assassination of President Kennedy. This event was a media spectacle and inspired a lot of Warhol’s art during this time. One of the most emotion-evoking and interesting pieces of his career, in my opinion, is his series on JFK’s wife Jackie Kennedy. Warhol focused on 3 photos of her that documented the sequence of events on the day of her husband’s assassination. Warhol pulled from various newspaper and Life Magazine articles and cropped them so the focus was just of her face. Two of the photos are of Jackie smiling while arriving to Dallas with her husband. Another of her emotionless look shortly after JFK's death while Lyndon B Jonson was being sworn in. The last one depicts her as a widow, sadden at her husband’s funeral with a black veil over her face. 

“I’d been thrilled about having Kennedy as president; he was handsome, young, smart – but it didn’t bother me that much that he was dead,” Warhol once said, “What bothered me was the way television and radio were programming everybody to feel so sad. It seemed like no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get away from the thing.” The use of repetition in these images represents the way the media works - the more we hear about something in the news, the more we are programmed to feel a certain way about it.

His 1964 series titled Flowers, was the most immersive and interactive out of the exhibit. From the floor to ceiling the viewer is surrounded by different variations of the silkscreen print of the four hibiscuses. The flowers were made up of a seemingly endless array of colors and canvas sizes. Unlike the rest of the gallery with the artwork placed on plain white walls, this room was covered in wallpaper made up of the yellow and hot pink screen print from his cow series. 

In 1972, when President Richard Nixon made his visit to China, Warhol became inspired by Communist leader Mao Zedong. He created hundreds of different silkscreens of Mao using a portrait of him from his book called “The Little Red Book”. The print of Mao that was on display at The Whitney was the focal point of that particular room, with the canvas being approximately fifteen feet tall. Warhol used strong brush strokes and vibrant paints to bring more life to the image. He even added bright colorful shades to his eyelids, lips, and cheeks to give the illusion of makeup; which is reminiscent of his portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and other celebrities. This aspect brings together his fascination with the political media, particularly at this time being the Communist Party, as well as the current fashion trends and celebrity pop culture.

Continuing with the experimental and transitional period of his career, in 1975 and 1976, he started using still-life abstract images, instead of his primary subjects being photographs of popular and recognizable figures. Among the most famous being his Skull series, 4 of which were on display at The Whitney. Unlike his other brightly colored flat images, the skulls were much darker with dramatic shadows cast

Several of his self-portraits were included throughout the gallery, but the most interesting one was his last series. While the earlier portraits of him were printed onto brightly colored canvases – his 1986 series is atop of a dramatic black canvas, with an image of a much older and worn-out version of who he once was. Attention is brought to his hair and his emotionless facial expression. He only made about five or six silkscreen versions of this portrait, a green version of it being on display at The Whitney’s exhibition. Like the skull series, there is dramatic contrast between the subject and the dark backdrop.

Andy Warhol is one of my favorite artists and in my opinion, this exhibit really did his work justice. I went to the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh last summer and felt that while the collection was extensive, it was missing a lot of his key pieces of work. I noticed they focused a lot on his photography and on his celebrity portraits rather than a complete comprehension of his decades-long career. The Whitney Museum’s curation perfectly displayed the evolution of his work and what he did to build the legacy as one of the most influential modern artists. If you're in the New York area and you're a fan of Andy Warhol, I highly recommend checking this exhibit out! 

Andy Warhol: From A To B & Back Again is on display at The Whitney Museum of Modern Art until March 31, 2019 - for more info click here

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-Melissa ♡


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